Living without pennies

October 14, 2008 

I was making a purchase someplace not long ago and the clerk had run out of pennies.

That should not matter much, but the miser in me made me twitch a bit. I never felt poor when I was a child, but I never felt like I had money to toss around carelessly either.

I still remember grilling my mother when she had the audacity to borrow money from me to go to the grocery store to buy tomatoes. Needless to say, she paid back the loan with interest.

I recently saw a special on a television show that discussed the problem that penny coins were no longer cost effective because the Treasury spends more money making them than the coin is actually worth. After seeing this and thinking about my penny issues, I had to laugh as I remembered how the government trained me when my family and I were stationed overseas.

I've been overseas a couple of times when the Army and Air Force Exchange System (AAFES or the PX) and Commissary would not provide change to the penny. Shipping pennies overseas and handling all of that hard currency just cost too much, I guess. Regardless of the reason, I remember being told of this decision and then having to live with no pennies.

My wife and I could write checks to the penny, but cash exchanges rounded to the nearest nickel. Every purchase became a gamble.

Could we buy something so that the exchange was in our favor? Was this an insidious plot by AAFES or the Army to somehow earn extra money by cheating me?

Eventually we got used to it and didn't worry about pennies. Of course, then we had to come back home and re-learn how to make change. I had felt so modern and then had to revert to the old ways. However, money has caused other issues overseas for soldiers and their families.

Did you ever wonder where all of the $2 bills and Susan B. Anthony silver dollars went? I used to wonder about that myself until being stationed overseas. You see military service personnel and their families make up a captive audience for any bad idea or experiment.

We had lots of $2 bills and silver dollars overseas. My children could not spend the $1 bills my parents sent as gifts.

The first time I saw a Susan B. Anthony silver dollar I wasn't sure what it was. There's no telling how many of those small silver dollars went in a machine designed for a quarter at the hands of a soldier.

When you have no choice, you make do with the resources available. I've often wondered how many dollars I tossed in the wrong slot in those old days myself.

I guess this is not all bad. At least the government got some use out of these less-than-great ideas. The money worked and that was the main point. As long as the PX and Commissary would accept them, their odd characteristics didn't matter. Dumping these undesirable money tokens worked out fine. Nonetheless, I still watch those clerks very carefully.

John M. House is a retired Army colonel who lives in Midland, Ga. His e-mail is

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