The American Penny: How It’s Stuck Around All These Years

Almost as old as the penny itself is the debate over whether the coin should be eliminated.

Close up image of pennies.
By + More

For some Americans, the penny has overstayed its welcome. You could say it keeps turning up like a bad—well, you know.

The recent news from our neighbors to the north that, as of February 4, the Canadian government had stopped producing and distributing their penny naturally stirred up a lot of questions and debate in the United States about the American counterpart, and whether it would eventually depart our nation's cash registers. (It should be noted that the Canadian penny can still be spent in Canada—the coins simply won't be made anymore.)

It doesn't seem likely that the one-cent coin will be going away anytime soon; there hasn't exactly been a groundswell of action in Congress or the media to get rid of it. But given that in 2012, the U.S. mint produced and distributed 4.9 billion pennies, costing $118 million to create $49 billion worth of pennies, now seems as good a time as any to take a look at why the American penny has managed to stick around so long.

Fear of rounding. Many people worry that getting rid of the one-cent penny, which is produced and distributed at a cost of 2.4 cents per penny, will lead to retailers rounding purchases upward. In other words, consumers fear that a $13.97 purchase would become $14, instead of $13.95. A 1990 study commissioned by Americans for Common Cents (AAC), a pro-penny lobbying organization, concluded that rounding up on purchases could cost Americans $1.5 billion (in 1990 dollars) over a five-year period. That study is still frequently trotted out in the media today.

[Read: What No Saturday Mail Means for Your Wallet.]

But not everyone fears the rounding theory. In 2006, Robert Whaples, a professor of economics at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., conducted a study of almost 200,000 convenience-store transactions on the East Coast and found that, presuming the rounding was done properly—to the nearest nickel and not always rounded up—the American consumer would break even.

"Actually, if anything, I found that more likely, it would be slightly rounded down in the consumer's favor," Whaples says.

The Royal Canadian Mint has encouraged businesses to round cash transactions to the nearest five-cent number in a "fair and transparent manner." The expectation right now is that if a purchase costs $3.98, someone paying with a debit or credit card would pay $3.98 while the cash customer would pay $4; likewise, if the item in question cost $3.97, the person paying cash would pay $3.95 while the person with the debit card would spend $3.97. Presumably if the American penny is ever retired, U.S. businesses and consumers would do something similar.

The slippery of slope of "what's next?" It costs 10.09 cents to produce a nickel, which has decreased from a year ago when it cost 11.18 cents, according to CoinUpdate.com, a daily coin news website. Some economists fear that if the penny disappears, consumers will use even more nickels, which will cost the country even more to produce. Besides, if we scrap the penny, critics wonder, how long will it be before nickels and dimes are urged to be relegated to memory lane? Even though dimes are still a relative bargain, costing 4.99 cents to produce and distribute, Whaples says it would make the most economic sense to have the quarter as our lowest coin.

Lobbying. If the penny is ever going to be abolished, it will be up to Congress, and you can't discount the influence of all the lobbying groups in Washington, from the AAC to the zinc lobby (pennies are copper-plated and 97.5 percent zinc) to the vending industry. That includes the company CoinStar, which has made a business of collecting Americans' spare change and giving them back bills and the highest number of coins possible, minus a fee, of course.

Nostalgia. That's really the main reason we still have the penny, according to Chip Manning, director of the Babson Center at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. "It doesn't take much of an economic argument to get people to say, 'Stop making it,'" says Manning. "But when I have explored the issue or talked to people, it seems the sentimental argument of keeping it is what most people revert to."