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Stop to pick up a penny

When is the last time you spotted a penny on the sidewalk or on the ground and stopped to pick it up? I found one just the other day, picked it up and threw it into my pile of pennies at home. A day or two later, Raquel took my pennies to the bank and came home with $12.

The interesting thing about those 1200 pennies is that they contained $20.40 worth of metal. That's right, it costs the U.S. Mint 1.7¢ to make every penny. Before 1982, each penny minted contained 95 percent copper. But copper became more and more valuable. At today's prices, each of those pre-1982 pennies would contain 2.5 cents worth of copper. Today, pennies are 97.5 percent zinc, a less valuable commodity, but also soaring in value.

It is true that the penny no longer has much economic utility. What can you get for one cent anyway? As a result, some people propose we get rid of pennies all together. After all, we stopped making the half-cent in 1857 when a half-cent would probably buy what a dime would get you today. But if we eliminated pennies, who would get the short end of the change if you bought a $2.00 hamburger and the tax was 12¢? Would you have to pay $2.15? And if there were no pennies, we'd be using nickels, which now cost almost ten cents to coin. It doesn't get better without pennies, it gets worse.

By the way, if you break stride and pick up somebody's lost penny and spend more than 6.15 seconds doing it, you are gaining less than the federal minimum wage. But that is a worthless statistic because you are more likely to find a penny during your free time (when you are earning nothing at all) then during your wage earning hours.

Beyond that, at a time when our economy is almost in the tank (and headed for the toilet) and folks are scrambling to make house payments, habits of thrift ought to rise while the stock market and just about everything else goes down.

Yes, thrift is not cool, it's old fashioned. Thrift sounds like something Benjamin Franklin (and nobody since) would advise. It's something your great-grandmother practiced. She made dresses out of flour sacks, patched pants, mended socks and thinned the soup. For heaven's sakes, don't let anybody know you're practicing thrift -- they'll think you're a reincarnation of Martha Washington. Not cool at all.

And yet -- we have people sleeping in cardboard boxes and eating (when they eat at all) at soup kitchens. People are losing their jobs and homes left and right. Thrift and second hand stores appear to be more numerous and popular than ever before. So if a penny has no value to you, pick it up anyway, take it home, throw it in a pile and keep adding to it until the holiday season then dump your $12 or $20 collection into a Salvation Army pot or some other benefit pot -- there are plenty around. There are still people who know how to put pennies together to make them count and they will appreciate yours. There is an old English proverb that says "He that will not stoop for a pin (penny) will never be worth a pound."

Thrifty is not the same as cheap. Thriftiness can include sharing and generosity. Cheap is stingy. If you read this column on the Internet to avoid buying the paper, you're thrifty. If you're pinching the pennies for yourself, you're cheap. Take your pick.