See a Penny? Leave It for Me

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Ever heard the term "found money"? No one finds it quite like I do. Ever heard the term "dirty money"? To me, there's no such thing.

The most-read piece I ever wrote for the Smart Spending blog was an essay called “See a Penny? Pick It Up!” Before MSN Money switched blog platforms, the article had received more than 1.6 million hits.

The comments were also numerous and about evenly split: people who also happily gleaned change, and people who thought the idea was unbelievably disgusting. Pick up dirty, germy, dog-peed-upon coins? Eeeeewwww.

I’m fully aware that found money isn’t clean. But it’s not as though I carry it home in my mouth.

Besides, I hate to break it to those folks, but the bills and specie they get from banks and stores are probably just as revolting. The shopper ahead of you could have neglected to wash his hands after using the john. (So could the teller or the cashier.) Maybe the waitress who brings your change is coming down with the flu.

And I’ve personally seen people pull money out of shoes, socks, and bras.

And what if somebody just bought a pack of gum with coins he found on the street, which means that your change might have come from the gutter?

Check the ball crawl

Maybe half the money I find is outdoors. The rest is on floors at stores, libraries, and malls. Here are some of the places that Smart Spending readers and I have gleaned cash…

Vending machines, amusement parks, near parking meters and bus stops, in the reject bin of coin-counting machines, under fast-food drive-through windows, playgrounds, parking lots (especially bar parking lots), the area around the self-service vacuum at gas stations and car washes, and at the bottom of the ball crawl at Chuck E. Cheese.

Here’s my favorite, though: a city-dweller who, when he walks past discarded sofas or easy chairs, will check under the cushions for coins. (I did this myself one day – and yep, I found change.)

One reader says that her daily walks net her not just spare change, but extra My Coke Rewards points on discarded bottle caps. “Regardless of where it’s found [money] can still be spent or saved, right?” she notes.

Another writes that she’s finding less and less. In the past, trips to Safeway or Walgreens were good for 3 to 5 cents in pennies. No longer: “I’m wondering if because of the economy people are being more careful with their change, or perhaps more people are picking up the change.”

Someone can use it

I suspect it’s a little of both. Then again, a reader who owns a couple of rental properties says that departing tenants routinely leave small coins scattered in the apartments – and some of those tenants are being evicted.

“One would think if times were tough and you can’t pay the rent you would ‘pinch pennies,’ not throw them on the floor,” muses the landlord. (He uses the change to help pay for new paint.)

My own “found money” gets saved all year long. Each December, I donate it to a local food bank. This is a good way to stretch my giving dollars.

And it’s why I’ll continue to pick up coins: because someone needs them. Food banks can get an awful lot of bang out of a buck.

A nation of germophobes?

There’s an antidote to dirt, viruses, and germs. It’s called soap and water. When I’m away from home and have no access to a sink, I can use the little bottle of hand sanitizer in my backpack.

Of course, the effect is negated as soon as I touch a store’s door handle, push a shopping cart, or hold the handrail on the bus ride home.

I can’t help thinking that we’re a little too germophobic in this country. Yes, money is dirty. So is just about everything else we encounter on a daily basis.

Wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your mouth or your eyes, and don’t pick up pennies if it grosses you out. It’ll just leave more for those of us who aren’t embarrassed to stoop down, and who remember to carry hand sanitizer.

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Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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