Saturday, December 6, 2008

Are Pennies for Real (Tender)?

Funny the things we learn as we travel this planet. Today, I learned that pennies may be legal tender, but no one has to take them. No...seriously! There's no law requiring businesses or other money-grubbing agencies (or even me or you) to take ANY coin, note or other "cash" as provided by the U.S. monetary system.

Illogical? I concur.

Here's the penny story of the day:

The girls and I enjoyed a nice midday tea time in SLO where we parked in the structure for ease (no meters), price (cheaper than meters) and location (very close to library). I knew we'd have to pay 75 cents when we left, but the change drawer in the van was stocked so I thought I was prepared.

Before we pulled up to the tollbooth I counted out the change. DOH! The "silver" added up to only 55 cents. No worries, though, right? I had a load of pennies. I counted out 20 of them, put them with the other coins and handed it over.

The attendant was not amused. He put the change down on his counter then said, "I can't take this."

I thought he was kidding.

"I'm not allowed to take more than 10 pennies from any one person. More than 10 pennies isn't legal tender."

He could, however, take a check (does anyone carry a checkbook anymore?) or make me out a nice little bill that I could take home and MAIL back with payment enclosed (in the form of a check, of course). THAT would have saved staff time?

Turns out there have been several recent public arguments about this issue:
- A Santa Cruz man recently tried to pay his parking fines in pennies (and a video here). City only takes checks and credit cards. But what do the credit card companies accept as payment? Do they have to accept U.S. currency, or will jelly beans do?

- New Jersey kids tried a peaceful protest of shortened lunch hour by paying for their meals in pennies. They were given detention. (Aren't schools also famous for their "penny drive" fundraisers? If schools won't take them, why should anyone take them from schools?)

- Another man attempted to pay $1,000 in fines with pennies, argued the case, and ended up paying not only an additional fee for the recipient to deal with the pennies, but also additional court costs as he argued his own case of having paid with what HE believed to be "legal tender."

I understand counting pennies can be a hassle, and paying a large fine in the form of pennies is going to cost SOMEONE some time. But really, would a dime have saved that much time for the poor little ol' tollbooth worker in SLO? And if I don't have it, are my 10 pennies really going to be a burden? At the end of the day when he counts out his drawer he'll have a shitload of pennies. He won't remember who they came from - and it really doesn't matter.

In all fairness, I figured I'd include this follow up. After my e-mail to the city, I received a phone call from Bill Humphrey, the incredibly responsive, positive parking coordinator for the city of SLO. He had already talked to the employee involved, and it turns out the city has no POLICY against pennies (or any other coin), but leaves it up to employee discretion. If there is, say, a very long line and someone's counting out 300 pennies, then the employee MAY not want to hold up traffic. Mr. Humphrey was apologetic for the incident. Given the situation (I had my coins counted out, and there were only 20 pennies involved while no one was behind me at the kiosk), he said he thought the employee should have used "better judgement."

Mr. Humphrey followed up with a personal letter including the following, "I promise not to complicate your parking experience by another complicated or rather bizarre financial transaction.

"I want to thank you again for our conversation the other day. Without it, we would not be able to improve on what we do. I like to think positive of our mistakes because we can always learn valuable lessons from them"

Thanks to YOU, Mr. Humphrey.


  1. Now, see; I always thought that ALL money was legal tender, including pennies (It is, of course) and that if someone didn't like they WAY you paid (all pennies) and decided not to take long as your attempt to pay was with legal coin, their refusal constituted forgiveness of the debt. Ah, bummer...another urban myth debunked.

  2. PS: Do you have coinstar down there? LOVE those!

  3. For the record, "shitload" is never quantified. It's a relative thing, as in the "shitload of dimes" necessary for horses to pass the desert tollbooth (Blazing Saddles).

    And, yes, we have coinstar down here. I wonder how much they charge to count coins...and how many "disappear." ;)

  4. I'm not sure how many disappear, but I do know that there are "free" choices, by way of gift card selections for various merchants. (i.e. they pay your charges in exchange for you spending all your newfound wealth with them) Might count out a few coins and do a couple test runs to see if it counts the same as you!


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