More and more I’m seeing nickels, dimes and even an occasional quarter in those “take a penny/leave a penny” dishes next to cash registers. That shouldn’t surprise me – I pick up dropped change all year long – but it does. Apparently some people forget that dollars are made up of coins.
Maybe you’re like me and regularly empty your wallet of loose change, depositing the specie into a piggy bank or an old mayonnaise jar on your dresser. (Try an empty mouthwash bottle – smells much better when you eventually dump it out.)
Once the bottle is full, what to do with those minty-fresh coins? That depends on whom you ask.
If you’re broke, the cash can get you through a minor emergency. If you’re fairly solvent it might pay for a small luxury. And if you’re forward-thinking, it can make your future a little brighter.
Here are 33 ways to make your loose change amount to something useful or meaningful.
Small change, large goals
1. Pay down debt. Merissa Alink, who blogs at Little House Living, attacks consumer debt one dime at a time. She and her husband dump all coins into a piggy bank, and it adds up — as much as $450 a year, which becomes extra payments against their auto and mortgage loans.
2. The money pit. Working to make your fixer-upper into a dream house, or simply looking to replace a wonky toilet? Cash in at one of those Coinstar machines for Lowe’s or Home Depot scrip (you’re not charged a counting fee if you get gift cards). Even if you have to hire a plumber, at least the materials will be covered.
3. Retire on it. Not entirely, of course, but if you can save a few hundred a year this way, then why not dump it into a Roth IRA or an investment account?
4. Create an emergency fund. Great oaks from tiny acorns grow. So can your EF, a few coins at a time. To keep yourself motivated, trade coins for bills from time to time and put them back into the jar. Once you get to $20 or $25 in paper money, deposit it. (Write the running total on a piece of paper and leave it in the jar, to remind yourself of your progress.)
Note: If your bank charges a fee to count coins, try trading in a few bucks at a time at a store. A small neighborhood place might actually appreciate the change.
For the penniless present
Sometimes every cent really does count. As a broke single mom I sometimes borrowed from the baby’s piggy bank to buy milk the day before payday. And even if you’re more penny-prudent than flat broke, make your coins work for you.
5. Shop with change. Coins are legal tender, after all. Use them to pay for a loaf of bread, a can of tomatoes, or any other small item. Counting out enough dimes and pennies to pay for a bunch of bananas means you’ll keep the greenbacks in your wallet.
6. Bus fares. You need exact change anyway, right? (Tip: Always carry a decent amount of change in case another rider needs it. In return you’ll get dollar bills, which can go into your EF jar.)
7. Highway/bridge tolls. Regular commuters tend to use electronic passes. But if a cash-flow problem means you can’t renew the pass on time, the change comes in handy.
8. Parking. More and more meters are also going electronic, but why pay for an hour if you need only 20 minutes to do your errand? Plug in a couple of quarters.
9. Give thanks. When times are tough it hurts to take cash from your wallet, even on a Sunday. Raid the change jar instead. If you’re embarrassed to send a cascade of coins into the collection plate, put them in a sandwich bag or in plastic wrap.
Treat yourself! (Or someone else)
10. Hit the snack bar. Andrea Deckard’s three sons are in youth sports, and it can cost as much as $24 just to get the family in to watch the game. The spare-change jar pays for concessions, and the kids know “once their [change] is gone at the game, they can’t get any more from us,” says Deckard, of Savings Lifestyle.
11. Vacation funds. When my mom remarried she and her new husband paid for their honeymoon with quarters they’d been saving throughout their multiyear engagement. Not everyone wants to wait that long to go somewhere, but start saving now toward your next trip. Best-case scenario: You’ll get enough to pay for a plane ticket. If not, you’ll at least be able to pay for some meals and/or souvenirs.
12. A day at the fair. So you can’t afford to take your whole family to Europe, or even the Jersey shore. Maybe you can spend a day at a Renaissance faire, a music festival or even just the county carnival. Cash in your coins and you might not have to pay another dime out-of-pocket.
13. Coffee or tea for thee. Coinstar offers a Starbucks option. Cash in and get yourself a latte or a chai or whatever it is you like to sip.
14. Date night. How often have you had to put the “fun” category dead last on your budget? Good for you for being responsible – but drop coins into a container for an eventual grown-up night out, advises Lauren Greutmann of I Am That Lady. Even just a bottle of wine can be a delightful treat – and you don’t have to leave the house to enjoy it, which means no baby sitter, parking fees, etc.
15. Date night, Part 2. Hit the Coinstar machine for gift cards for happy hour, lunch or dinner at places like Chili’s or Applebee’s. (The first two are cheaper than dinner.) Just don’t tip in pennies and nickels.
Unexpected and/or irritating expenses
16. Pay the Stupid Tax. Laura Harders, who blogs at Beltway Bargain Mom, cops to missing an occasional library book deadline. “Having spare change to pay [the fine] makes it less painful,” she says. Harders also uses hoarded coins to cover the cost of dry cleaning, another expense she hates.
17. Baby stuff. If you’re expecting, you will likely face expenses you never expected. (Had you ever even heard of “breast shields” before you got pregnant?) Start saving coins right now. Here’s a success story to inspire you: Brittany Ramos, who blogs at The Prudent Patron, squirreled away enough spare change “to buy our baby’s diapers for the first year.” Nice.
18. Field trips. Maybe the school covers the cost of the trip to the zoo or the planetarium, but somehow those places always exit through the gift shop. Cash in $5 worth of coins to give Junior a little walking-around money.
19. Office coffee. If you want to play, you’ve got to pay – so pay with coins.
20. Positive reinforcement. That’s a polite way of saying “bribe.” Kristie Sawicki gives her teenage son spare change for a trip to the arcade “when he’s done something to deserve it.” A mother of two who blogs at Saving Dollars and Sense, she also suggests spare change gumball machine treats for kids who behave themselves in the grocery store. (Note: The child-free can positively reinforce themselves with a craft beer or a graphic novel after doing particularly grotty chores.)
21. Tip jars. Don’t stiff the barista! Fill an empty prescription bottle with hoarded quarters and dimes and keep it in your bag or pocket.
22. Vending machines. Sometimes that midafternoon Diet Coke is the only thing that keeps head from meeting desk. Keep a handful of those “free” coins around for just such an emergency. (Remember, though, that 12-packs go on sale regularly.)
23. Halloween treats. Drop coins instead of candy into a little goblin’s bag. It may not be as cost-effective as buying a big bag of chocolate, but you won’t be contributing to dental caries. Bonus: If you get only a few trick-or-treaters you won’t be haunted by leftover sweets.
24. Easter surprise. Put coins into some of the plastic eggs next Easter. Again: Fewer sweets means less guilt.
25. Baby shower gift. Forget the cute onesies or darling little bonnets. They’ll get worn once, tops. Instead, get a piggy bank from the dollar store and put in as many coins as you have/can afford to give. Extra points for painting “529 plan” on the side of the bank.
26. Allowance fund. How are your kids ever going to learn about money if they don’t have some of their own? Give them their funds in coins, the better to divide them among save/spend/donate jars.
27. Yard sale dreams. Planning a nice big sell-off this spring? Save coins for making change.
28. Buy stamps. Yes, email rules and all that, but every now and then you need a stamp. Use some of your hoarded change to buy at least one book of Forever stamps. It could last you all year, or more than a year – but it’s really irritating to need a stamp and not have one.
Pay it forward
29. Charitable donations. Maybe it’s been a tight year and you haven’t been able to give as much as you’d like. Put a handful of coins into the Salvation Army kettle, the “fill the boot” firefighters drive, or the donation box at the soup kitchen, animal shelter or any other cause you support.
30. Give it away. Keep coins in a pocket or bag to hand out to those in need. (Tip: An empty prescription bottle with the label removed works great for this.) Jen Dotson and Sia Hill, who blog at Thrifty Northwest Mom, include a few dollars’ worth of quarters in bags of toiletries and other essentials that they hand out to the homeless.
31. Provide necessities. Not comfortable giving cash to panhandlers? Ask if you can buy a snack (or a meal) or some other necessity, and pay for it with those coins.
32. Designate it. Each year Melissa King’s family chooses a local charity to receive the change they’ve collected all year long. Her son has begun urging his friends to donate to charity, too, because “he realizes how lucky he is,” says King, who blogs at This Mommy Saves Money.
33. Cover the caffeine. At a coffee shop, pay for the person behind you in line; it helps to listen to the order so you can give the cashier the correct amount – and, yes, to feed that doggoned tip jar. Again.
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