Making Change Count

Photo: Sam UL

I brought a bag filled with quarters to pay for my meal at an Italian restaurant recently. I’ve been taking an informal survey of merchants to see who welcomes my coins. Having received a cool reception from the cashier at a gas/convenience store, I modified my coin-paying technique; now I carry quarters in a plastic bag separate from dimes, nickels, and pennies to accelerate sales transactions. When I showed my bag to the restaurant cashier (also the hostess, waitress, and owner’s wife), I was amused and surprised at her gesture.

She reached down and produced a stash of her own, all quarters in a plastic bag, just like mine. Apparently, her husband brings coins home but never, ever uses them. She described her attempts to corral them in one jar but loose change seemed to be wherever he emptied his pockets. Like me, she realized that most of the worth of the coins was in the quarters and they are easily counted and distributed, so they were bagged and stored for use in the very near future. I commiserated with her and then paid with my quarters.

Someone might say that a restaurant or store has to take coins but that’s not true: a merchant can set the guidelines for methods of payment (it is helpful, though, if these guidelines are equally applied to all patrons).

Here are the best places that I’ve found to use coins:

  • Restaurants with heavy lunch business (they are often thrilled to replenish their quarter supply)
  • Vending machines, especially for snacks and stamps
  • Guest fees at pools and fitness centers
  • Bus fare
  • Parking fees 
  • Tip jars (or add-ons to currency tips)
  • Take a penny, give a penny containers
  • Automated car washes
  • Yard sales, bake sales, and children’s clothing consignment sales
  • Self-service cashier stations at some grocery stores and home improvement stores (pay with coins first and then you can pay the balance with currency or a credit/debit card; if you go to the store at non-peak hours, then you won’t back up the line)

What about the bank or Coinstar? Many banks want you to roll your own (coins), make a deposit, and then let you know if their count equaled yours, at which time your account will be credited. Coinstar gives immediate feedback on the value of your coins but charges a fee unless you convert your money to a gift card or eCertificate. I learned yesterday, however, that my savings and loan does not charge its customers for coin counting. I’ll be hauling my stash via Tupperware or some other container there soon.

Do you have any great ideas for dealing with coins? Share them here. 

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Guest's picture

Every time i visit my college-age kids (Boston, Savannah, etc) i bring along my cache of quarters -- SO convenient. i don't carry them on an everyday basis in my purse because they are so darn heavy!
Here in the midatlantic states we have free coin-counting machines ("Penny Arcades") at Commerce banks -- feels so good to walk in with your big heavy jar of coins and walk out with folding money!

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

When the post office used to have stamp vending machines that take pennies I used to buy stamps with pennies.  Now all those vending machines are gone :(

Guest's picture

While I'm glad you found someone who thought paying an entire meal in cash was cute, I would highly discourage doing that on a frequent basis. I waitressed at three restaurants during my server career, all requiring I carry my own till. While I didn't mind if people paid $5 or less in change (it kept my change purse full), I had some diners who would pay their entire meals in change. I can't tell you how aggravating trying to round up a $61 tab spread across a table can be or how painful it is to carry that much change around during an eight hour shift.

But if you have to go pay at a till, by all means, dump the change.

Guest's picture

Commerce Bank (a northeastern US bank) offers a free "Penny Arcade" counting system. You don't even need to be a bank customer (which I am not).

You just dump your coins in the machine and it counts them for you. You take your receipt to the tellers, and they give you cash. Awesome!

Guest's picture

I rarely have more than two dollars worth of changes because I use it. I pay with exact change or closest over the cost whenever possible. That way I never have to deal with pounds of coins.

Guest's picture

Salem Five bank in northeastern mass has free counting machines for its customers at their square one mall office

Julie Rains's picture

I wish I could spend the change as fast as it comes into the house!

I don't want to make my change someone else's problem, which is why I recommended (or tried to anyway), asking if change is acceptable, using change for smaller items (my restaurant meal was about $6), and not holding up lines while you count change and/or pour pennies at the self-service cashier.

And there are times that change is still needed: now that parking meters and college students are mentioned, I think of toll roads and laundromats. Thanks for the comments and ideas!

Guest's picture

I have no problem using up all my quarters for laundry (and often need to request extra rolls from the supermarket); but the dimes, nickels, and especially pennies always seem to pile up! People seem to really mind if you count these little guys out for them -- even if you have exact change ready and you're just counting it for their benefit. If they look really perturbed, I politely ask them, "Would you like me to just give it to you?" That seems to do the trick b/c they usually get over it at that point. ; )

Guest's picture

If you're the clerk, it can be a little confusing/distracting to watch someone else count change, so I always preferred people hand it to me, sorted.

I'd add that it's probably not a good idea to pay in change when the store is really busy or about to close. Just because it's time consuming to count out the change. I save mine for parking meters and laundry.

Guest's picture

My sons and I have made a game out of finding and collecting coins. My two boys 7 and 3, look for change in our normal everyday task. We collect it and then blog about where we found it and any products around us. The adds generated byt the blog content accumulate in Google Adsense. We compete against google adsense to see who can come up with the most change. All of our change goes to a charity. I would love readers to spread the word and think about doing it with their kids. It taches them to give and to save.

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

Our kids our too young to receive dollar bills for their allowance, at least we think so. So quarters go a long way as a compensation system. Plus they are good for teaching them fractions and adding.

Great ideas and a great subject to touch on. Who in this world doesn't have loads of change lying around. We've done both the quarter rolling, which can be fun with the kids, and Coinstar.

Guest's picture

A friend of mine LOVED quarters and she would use m&m mini tubes. I forgot how many quarters it would hold but I think it was a little more than a roll. As I am writing this I am not sure if they still sell them in tubes. Last time I saw they they had "mega" tubes. Anyhow, just a thought. :)

Guest's picture

These are seriously great as they tend to fit just about anywhere and it makes it easy to grab one quarter (also, I've this aversion to sticking my hand into bags of coins). When I was in college I kept a tube in my laundry bag that was always full, which covered 4 loads of laundry. Now I keep one in the car for parking meters and one in my purse for getting rid of the excess.

Guest's picture

The same is true in the UK, coins are only legal tender up to a specified maximum. My wife bought me a coin-sorter which is great for storing spare change, but all the smaller coins go straight to my four-year old who eagerly stores them in her piggy bank (she does not know that my wife then empties it and takes it to the bank...). I collect subs from a football team every week and pay for the pitch hire with the coins that I collect, but I know that they usually appreciate the change (or they are just too polite to say).

Guest's picture

Most of the newer snack machines will return larger change. If you deposit nickels and press the coin return you should get back a quarter.

By changing up your change you can get rid of it easily.

I have posted a coin return table for vending machines on my website.

Guest's picture

Change can make for some original gifts - where the coins are always welcome!

If you know a high school graduate or someone who is moving to an apartment where they'll need to pay to do laundry, wrap up $10 or $20 in quarters and gift it with laundry supplies.

For little kids, buy an inexpensive piggy bank and fill it with pennies and nickels. They'll have fun counting their loot and you'll get them started on the fun of saving.

If you have a friend or colleague who is starting a new job or moving to a city where they'll have to pay for parking, give them a 'parking meter fund' made up of quarters, dimes, and nickels.

These are inexpensive and original gifts that the recipients will thank you for - and remember you for - everytime they use the change.

Guest's picture

Bank Atlantic also lets you take your change into a branch and a machine sorter will count and print out a receipt you take to a teller to get it in bills. You do not have to be a customer for this service. I believe it is still free.

Guest's picture

We hoard our quarters for laundry! Otherwise, I collect my husband's pocket change - The dimes & nickels are good for parking meters. And I find that I can dig out a few dollars in change as emergency funds when the coffers run low. I also find the pennies good for pesky sales tax - Usually small retail establishments are happy to be paid in change, as they are always in need of it! (I am talking $5-8 dollars, though - not more.) I save the other pennies to take to a Coinstar when I have to - any free exchanges in Los Angeles, do you know?

Guest's picture

The day my bank stops accepting my change, is the day I change banks. If you don't like the money I give you, then I will find someone who does.

Guest's picture

I live in San Diego, so far I have not found a bank that will take coins; rolled or loose or whether you have an account or not. Washingtom Mutual will take the change but charge you 15-20%. Be thankful for your banks that take it!

Guest's picture

Does anyone know what Coinstar is charging now? Last time I used one was right after they got to our area and it was 5.5% I think. Not bad, but not great either. Then came the Amazon promotion where they didn't charge a fee if you took an Amazon giftcard. Fortunately for me, my local bank has started adding the change counting machines to their lobby and they don't charge a fee for account holders. I normally just save the coins (minus carwash & vending machine money) until I've got a few jars full and then cash them in. The money is split between extra debt payments and a splurge date (dinner or a movie) for the wife and I.

Julie Rains's picture

Now that you mention it Nicky, I know people who will give change to friends who have family members in the hospital. The change comes in handy to pay for parking charges, esp. at a time when money and time to get change are in shorter (than usual) supply.

Guest's picture

Coinstar+Amazon Giftcard= empty pockets.

Guest's picture

There is no bank with a free or not coin counting machine in Charlotte County Florida - I've checked. Instead, I get free coin wrappers from my bank, Wachovia, count & roll myself and turn them in for paper money.

I swap rolled quarters for paper money with my son - he needs laundry & bus money. One of my local stores loves to get rolled coins - they often post 'wanted' signs. I, too, keep about $2 in assorted coins in my purse and spend it.

I just can't fiqure out why people think using coins to pay for something is so hard or time consuming. Is it because so many have succumbed to being part of the cashless society that just uses credit/debt cards? I stick to cash except for car gas - don't like to keep that much cash with me.

Guest's picture

I used to have a special savings account for my change. Every morning at work I emptied my change into a change counter. When I had a full tube, I roll them up and when it was worth the trip, I'd walk to the bank and deposit it. The banker laughed when I told her I wanted it to save my change. After paying for 3 trips to Florida in 6 years, she didn't laugh anymore.

Now I take my rolled change when it hits $25 and take it to the bank and get $50 savings bonds for my grandsons. When they're ready for school, it'll be ready for them.

Guest's picture

I have a plastic up in a the cup holder of the door in my car, and whenever I get change, or clean out my purse, the couch, my husband's side of the room, etc...I put it in there.
(I usually give the pennies to my Daughter for her piggy bank)

Whenever me and the kids are out, and hungry, we hit McDonald's and order everything from the dollar menu, and I start counting out the change.

By the time I'm to the pay window, I'm ready to pay.
The kids are happy, and I don't feel like I've paid anything.

It's my "emergency fun fund"

I also use it for quick yard sale stops, when the kids need a new "treasure".

I LOVE change. The more I have, the free-er I feel.
And it keeps my Husband off my back, for spending!!!

Guest's picture

I'm not sure how far Commerce Bank goes around the US, but around here, (suburbs of Philadelphia) Commerce Bank has a machine just like CoinStar, only it's FREE to use.
You dump the change in, and a ticket with the total comes out.
Take it to the teller, and they give you the cash.
Easy as that.
And you do NOT have do have an account or anything with Commerce, either.
I do it all the time. It's great. And it's free!!

Guest's picture

I had the same problem with change accumulating in my car door pocket. Everytime I have change, I throw it in there and then it got so full, I emptied it out and dumped in my desk caddy and that got full eventually too.

One day I bought a coin sorter on sale and just dumped the change in there and got $60 worth of quarters, not including dimes, nickels and pennies. I'm doing that on a regular basis now and I'm easily back up to $60+ again within a few months but now it's getting longer to save that much change since I shop with credit cards more.

I used it to buy my office staff (I have 11 staffers) lunch. They appreciated it, I used up my change that was just taking up space. The best part is I made my assistant call and order the food and pay for it so she dealt with the delivery boy with the $60 of quarters and not me! Teehee!

One of my staffers says she saves her change with her husband and they use the money towards their yearly vacations.

Guest's picture

Being a fairly recent college student (I just graduated) there were times that I would run out of money, cash or in the bank, and was forced to pay for things with the quarters that I raided from my piggy bank. I got lots of nasty looks and lots of laughs for carrying around my $30 worth of change in a plastic baggie, but change spends the same as cash and I wasn't willing to pay the Coinstar fee to change it into cash.

Guest's picture

Others have commented on how they don't like the fee for coinstar and don't want the giftcard to Amazon etc. This past year I saved my change all year and then got an Amazon gift card at the beginning of December and used it for a decent percentage of my Christmas shopping. I realize I'm not getting interest on that money, but it is an easy way to save. It also saved me money buying from Amazon as I live over an hour from a major city, so shipping is usually cheaper than gas, especially when I qualify for free shipping.

Julie Rains's picture

Great idea Luke -- anything to somehow use the change and avoid tapping into other funds! Not all coinstars have the giftcard feature but you can check online to find one.

Guest's picture

that banks charge to count change? Is this a phenomenon of the coasts? I live in Iowa, and can take my change just about anywhere. Have you tried Credit Unions?

Guest's picture

I was surprised to learn that retailers don't have to accept my change... not that we ever have much, mind you, my husband is a FANATIC about giving exact change.

One note, I've found that rolling coins and then using the whole roll at a time is frequently a fast way to get coins off your hands (from before I was married!) by giving them to retailers who can easily process them.


Guest's picture

Several decades ago I brought $243 in coins to a bank for deposit to my checking account. I was politely informed that I would have to place the coins in rolls before they would be considered for deposit. The quarters were easy, the dimes and nickels a bit tedious, but the pennies - I could only roll about $10 per hour in pennies. I decided then to make a point of spending my change first and keeping only paper currency on hand.