A penny for your thoughts: what do you do with it?

It has happened to most of us. You pick up something on sale for £4.99 put a £5 note on the till. The shopkeeper then plonks a penny down on the counter, which you then put in your pocket or purse and forget about till you have about a hundred of them in your bag jangling and raising a racket. But what does one do with a penny? As a shopkeeper on Drummond Street told me on my first day in London: “Here’s your 1p change. You can only use it to scratch lottery cards and mobile phone top-up cards.”

According to the Payments Council, which oversees the system of transactions, about half the transactions in the UK in 2015 were in cash. This means there are a lot of pennies being handed out to consumers, but what happens to these coins?

They mostly end up in pants. Sathya, from Hackney, who works in an investment bank, is confounded about what to do with the penny. “I can’t use it to buy anything and I feel guilty for putting just a penny into the charity box. So I collect them and drop in several of them at once,” he says.

For the British psyche, pennies have always brought luck, and for Eleanor, a student, it pretty much stays that way. “I always pick up pennies that I see on the floor. I think it brings me good luck, and the more I pick up, the more likely I am to find some more coins,” she says. In the past, this treasure hunter has picked up pennies, 50ps and even £1 coins. “In the past two months, I've picked up £1.85,” she smiles. Jill, a 60-something Londoner, remembers penny slot machines from the pre-decimal system days. She also recollects an interesting expression from earlier times.

Using the public loo in those days would cost you 1p. So when someone wanted to go to the loo, they would just say, ‘I’m going to go spend a penny’
Jill, a Londoner

In the shopping season, we all come across strange after-discount prices like £13.37. While some of us may not think twice about it, for Miki, another student, pennies come in handy when she finds odd price tags. That’s the time you reach for the bottom of your purse and fish out all the coins. “For instance, if the price tag is something like £4.28 -- it happened today,” she says.

Image: Varun B Krishnan

Ruth, who is doing her Masters degree, says that she waits for the change jar to fill up and then goes to supermarkets to get them changed. “I’ve got as much as £20 when the jar is filled,” she says. But what several people collecting change may not know is that according to the Royal Mint website, payments in pennies are legal tender only up to 20p -- this means shopkeepers have the right to refuse accepting payment in pennies for a product marked £1. But they would rarely do so, because they need change at all times. A shopkeeper at a store in Hackney, where everything is priced at 98p, who didn’t want to be named, says that they have a high volume of change available at all times thanks to the bank nearby and that he has never seen anyone hand in bags of pennies to buy something.

“Every morning or every two days, we get a bag of pennies from the bank next door
Pound store cashier, Hackney

Asked why he doesn’t price the goods at £1 to avoid the change situation, he says that there are several pound stores around, and there are even 99p stores. So his store is about the novelty of pricing something at 98p and being able to say everything costs under a pound.

In late 2016, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney hinted that the penny could be phased out. “At some point it makes sense to get rid of it,” he had told youngsters in an interview telecast by the BBC in September. But that would be a tough transition, because the penny has always held a special place in Britishers’ hearts, probably because they’ve been around for a long time -- from the 8th century -- and they’ve been used as a ‘lucky penny’. In fact, continuing with the tradition of ‘crossing babies’ palms with silver’, the Royal Mint gifted silver pennies to all babies born on the same day as Prince George The English language is also rife with one liners like ‘A penny for your thoughts’.

For Ruth, one of the earliest memories of the penny as a kid was collecting them and then excitedly counting them out with her great aunt. For several others, it’s about buying penny sweets and sucking on them without a care in the world. But even these childhood staples now costs about 5p, or are available only in boxes of hundreds. So it’s no surprise that some people like Jill are ready to move on. “It represents progress – I think the minimum form of coinage should be 10p,” she feels. But that doesn’t mean everyone can let go of the ubiquitous coin so easily.

I would feel bad if the penny was scrapped. I can see why they would get rid of it. But there’s something special about it

Full names of the interviewees have not been disclosed intentionally -- this was meant to be a classroom exercise