“I was like, ‘I’ll take them!’ ” Johnson said. “It was about 10 hours round trip. I went and bought all of his quarters and wrote him a check.”
Americans don’t have to look far to see the damage wrought by the pandemic and recession. Car cup holders, sofa cushions, piggy banks and maybe even wallets laden with pocket change are fueling the nation’s great coin debacle.
In yet another 2020 plot twist, coins aren’t making their way through the economy, with the repercussions rippling from the upper echelons of the federal government down to ice cream shops and bank teller windows. With more people staying home, buying less and shifting their spending online, the natural flow of pocket change through banks, restaurants and retail stores has dried up.
Coin issues can be a big deal. In the early 1960s, a shortage of silver helped usher in the passage of the Coinage Act of 1965, which removed silver from circulating coins. (Although, for those keeping score, the U.S. Mint says this is not a coin shortage or supply problem. The mint says it’s a circulation bottleneck that can only be cleared up with the public’s help.)
Whatever it’s called, this lack of coinage seems to be a challenge that ever-divided government, businesses and Americans can unite behind. There’s a new coin task force, complete with its own hashtag: #getcoinmoving. Businesses heavy in coins are helping businesses without. A Chick-fil-A in a South Carolina mall is inviting people to bring in their rolled coins in exchange for cash and a free sandwich. Casinos are trying to tempt would-be gamblers to empty jingling pockets in exchange for free slot play.
For its part, the U.S. Mint is actually on track to produce more coins this year than it has in almost two decades, having ramped up production to fill the void. Like everything else about this pandemic, the coin shortfall is unprecedented, at least for modern times.
“There is no comparison to previous events,” said Michael White, spokesman for the U.S. Mint.
Simply making more coins won’t completely solve the problem — hence the U.S. Coin Task Force, established in July to pinpoint how to kick the supply chain back into gear.
At the table are exactly whom you’d expect: the mint, the Fed, bank and retail industry groups, plus representatives for the big armored carriers that drive the money around, coin aggregators and federal credit unions. Among the group’s preliminary recommendations: financial institutions could give out free coin-rolling kits, and parents could use this weird time in history as a “teachable moment” for young ones learning about money.
But when it comes to getting coins flowing through the economy once again, the solution will depend on swaying Americans to change new habits developed during the pandemic.
For some businesses, getting enough coins in circulation is key to staying alive. Brian Wallace, president and chief executive of the Coin Laundry Association, said 56 percent of laundromats take quarters as their only form of payment. Back in June, Wallace said his association was getting calls from members saying they were limited in how many quarters they could get from banks and wondering if other businesses were in a similar spot.
“At the front end of the pandemic, we were deemed to be an essential business because we’re providing a basic public health service,” Wallace said. “And this was sort of a curveball. In some instances, it made it more challenging to deliver on that service. If we can’t make change, we can’t make money.”
In August, the U.S. Mint put out a public service announcement, with the head of the mint asking Americans to use exact change when making purchases and to turn coins in for cash at coin recycling kiosks. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin tweeted out a call for people to “help get coins moving!” by spending any extra change they have at home or depositing coins at a bank.
In a hearing on Capitol Hill this summer, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said the central bank was quick to realize that the flow of coins had more or less come to a stop. At the time, Powell said the expectation was that as the economy started to reopen, coins would be back on the move.
“It’s a significant issue. We’ve got a lot of resources on it,” Powell said at a July news conference.
Earlier in the pandemic, the mint scaled back the number of employees working shifts to allow for social distancing, White said. By mid-June, the mint had ramped back up to full production.
“This is not a coin supply problem,” White said. “It’s a circulation problem, and we need the public’s help to solve this. … Every little bit helps.”
The Fed, for its part, is allocating coins to depository institutions — such as credit unions, commercial banks and community banks — to ensure a fair distribution of lower-than-normal inventories. The Fed has been able to increase allotments of coins at different points this summer. But overall, Fed coin deposits are still much lower than their normal levels, according to the Federal Reserve.
Earlier this summer, officials at First Citizens Bank in Iowa were initially worried they wouldn’t be able to get their full coin orders, said Tara Kruckenberg, vice president of teller management.
That didn’t turn out to be much of an issue, but Kruckenberg said the bank still sought out anyone who could bring in idle coins to help the bank and its customers, such as restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores and laundromats, that rely on coins for daily business.
“Internally, we asked co-workers if they had change,” Kruckenberg said. “It was also just word of mouth. For me, personally, we’ve had gatherings or we’re at ballgames this summer, and people would say, ‘What’s with this coin shortage?’ And we just say that we need coins and to bring it in.”
At Sundaes Restaurant and Tasty Freeze in Grand Gorge, N.Y., owner Andy Mumbulo hasn’t had issues getting the coins he needs from his bank. But he is taking precautions, just in case. The restaurant posted a sign asking customers to use exact change, if possible, and offering cash in exchange for coins.
Mumbulo is thinking about tweaking the prices on his menu so that after taxes, his items would come out to whole dollar amounts. For example, he might raise the cost of a $2.50 soda (including free refills) to $2.78, so that the final bill is an even $3.
So far, the coin issues haven’t forced Mumbulo to alter his prices. So much depends on how long the pandemic lasts and whether the economic dominoes continue to fall.
“You have to go figure out, what if they want cheese or extra bacon?” he asked.
On the other end of the saga, this crisis is creating some coin heroes, too. When Johnson went on his 10-hour coin expedition, he met Peter Mayberry in Nebraska, who exchanged thousands of dollars in quarters he didn’t need.
Mayberry’s chain of Omaha-based laundromats runs on dollar coins. He’s put calls out in Facebook groups so people can set up their own swaps. And he recently dropped off $5,000 in quarters at his bank.
“Anybody that wants to buy quarters, I’ll sell them quarters,” Mayberry said. “I feel like some people are afraid to ask. Don’t be!”