Sunday, 26 February 2017

Getting rid of my unwanted change

I really don't know why the Royal Mint continues to produce coins of negligible value. I mean the 'bronze' 1p and 2p coins, and the 'silver' 5p coin. None of them will buy anything, except in combination. But nobody wants to be paid with a collection of small-value coins. If I buy something costing 75p, and offer a medley of 1p, 2p, and 5p coins to the retailer I am likely to get a very sour look. Certainly not a 'Thank you very much, madam'.

Even the 10p coin is only barely worth having. I suppose it needs to be retained so that it remains possible to buy things that cost only 10p, 30p, 70p, or 90p. (You can use one or more 20p coins to buy things costing 20p, 40p, or 80p. And there is the 50p coin. And for slightly costlier things, you'd offer a £1 or £2 coin and get change).

Personally I think the 10p coin is a nuisance. It certainly doesn't pass the Bad Back test, which postulates a painful back that you will only bend, twist or stretch if something on the ground is worth reaching down for. I'd risk a little pain for a £1 coin. But I wouldn't for anything less, and certainly not for 10p.

Very old people clearly remember the extraordinary value that small coins once had, and the wide range of things you could buy with just a few pennies. I was too young to remember when the farthing (one quarter of an old penny) was last used for anything, but I do recall its 1959 demise. I missed it because on one side was a wren, a lovely little bird, and I mourned the disappearance of such a pretty thing. Nearly all of the old pre-1971 coinage was similarly distinctive, and was of a size and weight that suggested it had real value. Even a couple of old pennies (say the equivalent of the modern 1p) were sufficient for a postage stamp; and four of them (say 2p) were enough for a short phone call.

The smallest coin that can now be used on its own to purchase something is the 20p coin, which will still buy you an hour's parking in those few places where the local council hasn't decided to fleece the visitor who comes in by car. But precious little else.

20p used to be the equivalent of the pre-decimalisation four shillings (4/-), which would once, in the 1950s, have bought a week's assorted groceries. Even in 1979 and 1980 - I've just fetched my Expenditure Records for those years down from the attic - 20p would be enough for a cup of tea (8p), a short bus ride (10p), a cup of coffee (13p), a Bounty chocolate bar (13p), a library book fine (14p), a pint of milk (15p), the Seven Bridge Toll (20p), and almost enough for a small loaf of bread (21p). Ah, those were the days!

The National Psychology is such that a great many people hold that abolishing the smallest-value coins would instantly lead to a huge increase in the cost of living, every retailer automatically marking up their goods. In other words, prices would only be rounded up, never down. But even if this happened, would it actually make much of a difference? I for one would be quite happy to be rid of silly prices such as 99p, when charging £1 would be easier all round.

Meanwhile we are stuck with the entire range of decimal coins, only the half-penny having bitten the dust so far. Most have grown physically smaller, but that hasn't done much to diminish the irritation of having a purseful of metal that nobody really wants to be paid with. Nor the irritation of carrying them around. For a long time I have been emptying my purse every few days, and discarding all coins with a value under 20p. I put them in a special zip-up purse. I let the unwanted coins accumulate in this purse until it's time to donate them. Here is the purse, just after the latest donation, with a single 5p coin in it. It will soon fill up again.

This purse came with a dark-blue cotton top from a French designer that I bought in September 2009 from a boutique in Weymouth. I still have the top, but to this day I haven't been able to make sense of the phrase 'Mais il est où le soleil?'

In the past it was my invariable habit to donate my unwanted change to the Clare Project in Brighton. But my visits became rare. I last made a point of calling by towards the end of 2016, to give them about £3 worth of unwanted change, made up of 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p coins. But - as on previous occasions - there were mutterings that all these little coins were heavy and awkward to carry. Couldn't I exchange them at a bank first, for (say) three £1 coins, and a minimum of small change?

Well, no, I couldn't. That seemed unreasonable. It was a donation: why should I jump through hoops in order to give it? Besides, it wasn't all in 1p coins. There was in fact distinctly more silver than bronze.

I didn't want any of these coins, and thought that the Clare Project (as a deserving charity) should have them. You know, every little bit helps. I didn't see why I should queue in a bank, nor go to any special trouble.

It was hard not to feel somewhat miffed, my donation being only grudgingly accepted. And after calling by especially, at that. I strove not to take umbrage. But I decided that, for the future, I would look for another place to offload this cash. It still had to be some body or organisation who would make good use of it - another charity perhaps - but in any event, a place where I wouldn't get cavils in response.

I was in Burgess Hill two afternoons ago, and had that orange purse with me, fat with small coins. I'd brought it with me, certain that Waitrose would have a Charity Box in their store. I couldn't see it though. I asked. Oh no, Waitrose didn't accept cash donations. Hmph.

What about one of the charity shops then? But I'd left it too late: it was just past 4.00pm, and all the charity shops were shutting their doors.

Thwarted! But on reflection, it might all have been a good thing. None of the charities - although all of them 'worthy' - had any big appeal for me personally. I'd have a problem deciding which to donate to first. And I didn't want to get involved in any Big Conversation. I simply wanted to walk in, hand over the money, and leave. But what if I were asked for contact details, or pressed to discuss putting future donations on a more formal footing? I didn't want the embarrassment of being firm, to the point of rudeness if need be, where my anonymity was concerned.

Then I saw the Library. Aha! Surely they would have a donation box inside, for some local Good Cause. And I wouldn't have to explain or identify myself. In I went.

Yes, I had guessed rightly. I fed my coins in. Nobody paid any attention. Then I quietly left. Easy and simple.

I was sure my donation - another £3 worth - would be spread around whatever underfunded activities the Donation Box helped to keep going in these days of Council cut-backs. It would of course be a mere drop in the proverbial ocean. But even if all it did was pay for the tea bags used in one week by volunteer childminders, then that seemed good enough.

A pity about the Clare Project, but they made too much of a fuss. I still think they are a Good Thing for the people they serve, but my unwanted cash will now be going to Burgess Hill Library instead.


  1. "But where is the sun?" as my French niece would translate... On one of her younger visits she spotted a wren on a coin on a market stall and asked me what it was, I asked her to guess how many would be needed to make up a pound, when I told her 960 she looked at me as if I was mad. Wanting to get her to practice her English and be confident, I persuaded her to ask the stall holder, the look on her face when he told her was priceless...

    I just remember still using the coins to buy sweets, getting four for a penny made sense, what I could not figure out was how the shopkeeper could make a profit when selling five for a penny... such innocent times.

    I used to save small coins in a jar near the front door for when someone came round selling poppies, they never complained about the weight, now they never come round the doors so I mostly discard it into the boxes which seem to be on every shop counter.

  2. I too thought it might mean 'But where is the sun?' - but only if 'il est ou' were replaced by 'ou est'. Perhaps I just don't know the correct idioms.


  3. French does not seem to be like they tried to teach us at school. So many questions are asked with just a tone of voice!

  4. Perhaps you had better hang on to all that loose change in order to pay for car insurance premiums which are set to soar. (BBC headline)

  5. I remember pleading with mum to buy a small loaf from the baker who came to our home as there would always be a farthing in the change. I never found a way of spending that farthing, but I did keep at least one and I still have it.


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