Spare Change? Here’s Why Coins Are So Scarce Right Now

Coins are in short supply at the moment.
Coins are in short supply at the moment. / Nathaniel_U, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve paid with cash at a local merchant over the past few months, you've probably noticed a sign advising that cashiers might not be able to return exact change. There may have also been a request to make a cashless payment, like a credit card or Venmo. That’s because America is in the middle of a coin shortage, yet another consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, USA Today reports. Here’s how it happened.

When business shutdowns began in the spring of 2020, owing to concerns over the spread of COVID-19, the primary method for circulating coins was disrupted. That shutdown also affected the operations of the U.S. Mint, which saw reduced production as a result of fewer employees. When the economy began to bounce back in the summer months, coin distribution had fallen behind.

It’s not an issue of overall quantity. Despite the Mint slowing down production, there is roughly $47.8 billion worth of coins within the United States—which is approximately $400 million more than in 2019. It’s simply that the existing coins aren’t being passed along at the same rate they once were.

Retailers may have contributed in some measure to the reduced distribution. Upon reopening, many requested customers use contactless forms of payment in an effort to slow the spread of germs, though the risk of contracting COVID-19 this way is likely lower than inhaling respiratory droplets—providing you wash your hands after handling money and before touching your face.

The government is trying to encourage people to get the unused coins back in circulation. The U.S. Coin Task Force, set up by the Federal Reserve to address the issue, is raising awareness via social media by asking people to gather up all the coins they can from home, whether from coin banks or seat cushions, and start using them. Spending them, depositing them at banks, or using coin-counting kiosks like Coinstar are all ways to get coins back in circulation. Considering that the average adult has about $113 in coins hiding all around their house, it's certainly worth the time to dig them out and start using them.

[h/t USA Today]