Personal Finance Geekdom: The Economics of Picking Up Pennies

I don’t know about you, but I delight in seeing loose change on the pavement or outside somewhere. Like a gold miner, I get this thrill of excitement from picking up a penny from the ground.

Okay, maybe I don’t get that excited.  Perhaps I’m overstating a bit there.  That reaction would be more like the lady I discussed in Squirreling Gone Wild #12, who went wild over picking up a coin in a puddle of water. However, I do still get a very tiny, extra bit of happiness from picking up a coin. I think it’s a remnant emotion from childhood, where many of us got excited over finding a coin on the ground.  It can be good to have a youthful spirit, right?

Well, I shared my own experiences picking up loose change in Squirreling Gone Wild #22. Here, it was a little more calculated on my part. You can read more about it in the link above, but essentially what I did was pick up loose change from under the payment window when getting coffee at the drive-thru. Not just once, mind you, but multiple times.  I found that I managed to find something most every time, thus effectively giving me a little discount each time through.

I shared this story with someone recently who questioned if it’s worth the trouble of picking up loose change in the way I did at the drive-thru. Her thought was that it’s just a waste of effort to go through all that for a prize of a few cents, or even a nickel or dime.

My initial reaction to that statement was simple: she’s not being logical. After all, why would anyone just turn away free money that’s sitting around? For sake of argument here, let’s sidestep the issue of self-respect by opening a car door to pick up loose change :)

However, after thinking about it some more, maybe there is some logic there. Maybe it’s not exactly free money?

Let’s have some fun with this and illustrate (warning: personal finance geekdom ahead):

Pretend you’re a Squirreler. Let’s say you’re at the drive-thru, picking up coffee (or some junk food you probably shouldn’t be getting). After you order, as you turn toward the window, you spot a penny sitting underneath that same window where they take your money.

What do you do next? Well, first you open the car door and lunge for the penny (estimated time: 5 seconds). Next, you get back up and shut the door (estimated time: 3 seconds). Then, you look at the coin you just pick up, admiring your find (estimated time: 3 seconds). Then you regroup, put the coin away somewhere in your car, and move forward (estimated time: 4 seconds). 

Total time: 15 seconds.

Thus, you’re earning 1 penny for 15 seconds of your time.

That’s $0.04 per minute, which comes out to a $2.40 hourly rate.

Does that seem worth it to you? Is your time worth more than that? Well, maybe it is. Maybe, just maybe, the person who I had this discussion with had a point!

Now, one could say that if you see a dime it would be worth 10 times as much. We’re talking a $24.00 hourly rate.

How about a quarter? Well, in this case we’re talking about an effective $60.00 per hour rate. That’s more like it!

Maybe, just maybe, if you speed up the whole process and cut your time down in half, you could double your hourly rate?

Alright, before you start to get worried – I’m not being too serious here. :)

By the way, I’m still going to pick up a penny if I see one:)  How about you?


  1. says

    I totally pick up pennies. I walk to work and usually I come across one or two coins every day. I’d estimate that since I don’t go out of my way at all the time it takes me to pick up the penny and put it in my pocket is about two seconds. The penny then gets put in a coin jar when I empty my pockets out at night which might cost me an extra two seconds. So my hourly rate is something like $9/hr. But really picking up the penny is just cheap entertainment and a quick little thrill to me. Even if I average $.05 per day (which seems high) I’d only be making $18 a year. So I do it because it makes me happy not because it’ll make me rich.

    • Squirrelers says

      No Debt MBA – that seems like a pretty good deal for you: cheap entertainment and you get paid for it as well!

  2. says

    I love “Economics of” posts. Pretty much “Logic of…” Anyway…

    It may not be worth the time, but I’ll pick up change here and there. I won’t turn around to go get one I passed up, but if I just happen to see it then I’m going to pick it up. That said, in walking around campus (pretty much the only time I walk…bad, I know) there doesn’t seem to be much loose change floating around. On college campuses, a nickel is more than just a nickel, it’s a beer at the bar on nickel night. 😀 Can’t pass up a free brew!

      • Squirrelers says

        Little House – I know you’re asking JT, but I can tell you that way, way back in the day my school had a dime beer night….so I’m guessing that there might be places today that still have similar deals (quarter beer?). Of course, these places are probably near big college campuses…

        • says

          It’s a once a week thing as a promotional event. Of course, the nickel beer is PBR, but whatever. No cover with a college ID. 😀

          I’m sure it’s still vastly profitable. Give away cheap beer to bring in a lot of college kids then make your money on the cover charges for the creepy old guys going after chicks young enough to be their daughter. LOL

    • Squirrelers says

      JT – nickel beer (or cheap beer) has been a part of college days for years…so yes, a few cents can go a long way near campus!

  3. says

    I discriminate, it has to be heads up! Bad luck if it tails up. Seriously, I try to pick up pennies figuratively! I hunt for the savings that can be had if you try. I don’t think I would find too much laying on the floor or ground anyway.

    • Squirrelers says

      Invest It Wisely – you mean you won’t pick up a penny, which is 1/100 of that strong Canadian dollar you guys have? :)

  4. says

    Cold calculations aren’t just the end of it. There are the small intangibles such the exercise you get when opening the car door and bending down. Plus, why pass up the free luck in picking up a lucky penny? It just might make your day.

    • Squirrelers says

      101 Centavos – good point, I forgot that strenous excercise from lunging for loose change :)

  5. Holly says

    @ #1:
    Yes, that would be me…open the car door right onto that striped pole or bend down to hit my head on the counter edge on the way back up! LOL Truly not worth it!

    But, when I was a POOR college student, I would check under and around the vending machines daily and would always find a couple of coins that would allow me to buy a snickers bar or a Mcd’s cheeseburger. Maybe not a healthy meal but when you’re broke, you’re broke.

  6. says

    I pick up all coins on the ground, unless they look incredibly disgusting.

    It is funny because my youngest likes to take the metal detector out and look around. You would think we hit gold if we ever find a quarter (as opposed to an old bottle cap).

    • Squirrelers says

      Everyday Tips – I’m with you on avoiding the disgusting ones. That’s where it’s not worth picking up coins….well, unless it’s a quarter:)

  7. says

    My husband and I make a game out of who can find the most loose change on the sidewalk and in the gutters of our walks. I do pick up loose change as long as it’s easy to get to (ie. my hands aren’t full and I’ll drop something getting to it or I’ll won’t get run over by a car,etc.). Every penny counts in my book and I add it to my growing mason jar full of coins.

    • Squirrelers says

      Little House – sounds like a fun bonding experience:) Except be careful as you say, picking up coins in the middle of the road isn’t worth getting run over (penny wise, dollar foolish). Really though, I do agree with you that every coin counts. Just one might not seem like much, but when you add them up you might have something worthwhile there!

  8. says

    I was at Costplus last week and my bill was $xx.14. I looked into the penny dish and there are probably 15-20 cents in there. I really was thinking about counting out 14 cents, but that seems excessive… :)
    I paid with my $20 bill.

    • Squirrelers says

      retirebyforty – good call paying with the $20 and not hitting the change tray. Take a penny is one thing, but taking $0.14 is quite another and excessive, I agree:)

  9. Squirrelers says

    optionsdude – yes, we have to be careful at the drive-thru. Not worth it to be penny wise and dollar foolish!

    • Squirrelers says

      Miss T – you sure are right about it being amazing how things can add up over time. By the way, I totally agree with returning coins to the owner if it’s obvious who that person is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *