For many Americans, a penny saved is a waste of time.
“Apparently people either throw money out the window, or drop it and don't bother to pick it up,” banker Jay Hannah said of the coins — mostly pennies — he and his wife regularly collect during their daily walks.
“I'm amazed at how much money we find laying in the street,” Hannah said. “I'm from Adair County, and I'd probably pick up a half-chewed piece of gum if it looked like it still had some flavor in it.”
A 2003 survey found that half of all people between the ages of 18 and 34 had thrown away a penny.
Last year, Canada stopped making one-cent coins, choosing to round transactions to the nearest five cents. There have been efforts to do the same in the United States, although none of the proposed legislation has emerged from Congress.
President Barack Obama even noted that the debate keeps returning like, well, a bad penny.
“We have been trying to eliminate the penny for quite some time — it always comes back,” Obama said during a 2008 campaign appearance. “I need to find out who is lobbying to keep the penny.”
Oklahoma City restaurateur Bud Elder said many of his patrons at Custino's appear to have little love for coins of any kind, regularly dumping all their metal change into a tip jar stationed next to the cash register.
“They think it's a nuisance,” Elder said, noting that some local restaurants have sworn off pennies altogether. “I don't think pennies are in the way. If I see pennies on the sidewalk, I pick them up and save them.”
Last year, Elder's collection of spare change paid about half of the cost of his OU football tickets.
Greg Mankiw, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, called for the country to get rid of the penny in 2006.
“The purpose of the monetary system is to facilitate exchange, but I have to acknowledge that the penny no longer serves that purpose,” Mankiw said. “When people start leaving a monetary unit at the cash register for the next customer, the unit is too small to be useful.”
Rising zinc prices have made production of the penny a money-losing proposition for the U.S. Mint, one of the few government endeavors that regularly turn a profit. Each penny produced last year cost about 2.4 cents. Nickels also cost twice as much to produce as they're worth.
From 2006 to 2011, production of the cent and nickel generated losses of $359.80 million. Penny supporters point out that eliminating the coin would require increased production of nickels, which could cost the government even more.
In fact, a Texas-based hedge fund manager bought $1 million worth of nickels — 20 million of them — because the coins' scrap value slightly exceeds their actual value, according to the book “Boomerang,” by Michael Lewis. However, a law that prohibits melting down U.S. coins makes that excess value impossible to legally extract from the coins.
The U.S. Mint made the no-melting rule permanent in 2007 after acknowledging that the value of copper, nickel and zinc in pennies and nickels exceeds their face value. There was concern that speculators could remove pennies and nickels from circulation and sell them as scrap for profit.