smart spending

Loose change: Trading coins for cash

Do you sometimes wonder if that small change you dump on your dresser each evening is secretly reproducing while you're sleeping? All those coins have to come from someplace.

And if you start throwing all your change into a jar, it gets worse. That's where it starts to breed in earnest.

So now you've got a small mountain of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters and you don't know what to do with them. Just try filling your SUV and then offering the guy $21.76 in small change. Better have the engine running first.

The fact is that turning that coinage into paper currency can be a hassle if you have to sort, count and roll the coins. And the fees to have it sorted and counted for you can add up to a pretty penny. But keeping the money in a jar isn't a particularly good option, either.

There aren't any really good answers, but some are less annoying than others. The best place to start is your bank or credit union. You're in luck if they have a coin machine so you don't have to sort and roll; and if the service is free.

We didn't call every bank in the book, but what a bank asks you to do with your coins often depends on whether they have self-service coin machines that don't take up a teller's time.

Some financial institutions that have machines don't accept rolled coins. It takes time to count the rolls and if a roll were short, the bank would have to eat the mistake or deduct it from the customer's account. That could look petty and annoy the customer, or the customer might challenge it.

On the other hand, some banks that accept rolls give them to other customers who need coins. If that customer comes back and says the roll was short, many banks will take the customer's word and make up the difference.

Wells Fargo has coin machines in some branches. Customers can dump their change and get cash; no fee is charged. If the branch doesn't have a coin machine, you'll have to sort and roll the dough -- but they'll give you the wrappers for free.

If you're a Bank of America or Wachovia customer, plan on sorting and rolling your coins.

None of those banks charge for processing, but others do. For instance, Alpine Bank in Colorado charges customers 2 percent, or a $2 minimum for processing loose coins, while noncustomers are charged 5 percent or a $5 minimum.

Generally, banks don't swap coins for cash for folks who aren't customers. But there is one exception: kids. It's a hard-hearted banker, not to mention one short on public relations skills, who will turn down a tyke with a pocket full of pennies.

Credit unions seem more likely to have coin machines, but they usually put a limit on how much you can convert without paying a fee.

Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union in Tampa, Fla., charges members 5 percent of any amount over $100.

"Our reason for charging a fee is just sheer volume. It's incredible," says Cindy Curtis, senior vice president of service operations. "The cost to process the coins and then get them bagged and shipped out to the Fed was out of control.

"So we implemented a coin-processing fee and made it self-service in the lobby. The fee discourages commercial businesses -- laundromats, vending machines. Most members don't have more than $100."

Arizona Federal Credit Union doesn't charge a fee until you haul in more than $50 in unrolled coins. The fee is based on the total dollar amount of the coins, but is waived for Prime Investor and Superior Checking members.

An alternative to using a financial institution is to tote your jug-o-coins to a supermarket that has a Coinstar machine. Coinstar charges a hefty 8.9 percent to sort and count all those coins you saved, but apparently a lot of people think it's worth it.

"If you have $30 worth of coins, 8.9 percent is $2.67. By the time you sort, roll and write your name and account number on the wrappers, it's worth the $2.67 to most people," says Coinstar spokeswoman Marci Kenny.

Coinstar started putting machines in supermarkets in 1992. The company says it has machines in more than 10,000 supermarkets, and has turned nearly $7 billion in coins into cash.

Speaking of writing your name and account number on coin wrappers, many financial institutions don't require that, but some do. Be sure the bank destroys the wrappers afterward and doesn't distribute them to other customers who need to roll coins. You could be leaving yourself open to fraud by revealing your name and account number.

 
   

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