Finding Free Change in NYC

by Madeline Raynor

I have always been the kind of person who picks up a penny when I see it on the ground. Other people might think that’s cheap, or they might think, “Why is it worth it to pick up a penny that’s been on the sidewalk and is covered in germs and dirt?” I pick it up because money is money, and it’s not very inconvenient to stoop down and pick up.

I started wondering how much money I was actually picking up, so I decided to formally keep track of the money that I pick up on the ground in New York City. I would pick up all money that I saw on the sidewalk, the street, and on the floor of a building. If it was on the ground, it was fair game. Instead of putting the change that I pick up in my wallet and forgetting just how much I found, I would start keeping it in a jar when I got home. I wondered how long it would take to collect enough money to buy something useful, like lunch.

I set my goal at one dollar: enough to buy a slice of pizza at 2 Bros, that hallowed New York institution for cheap eats. I would keep track of my earnings and how long it took me to collect one dollar for my free lunch.

Day One: August 26, 2015

On the first day that I decided to start consciously collecting this money I found way more coins than I had in recent memory. Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon much? Or maybe I was looking harder than I usually do. I found three pennies before I even got on the subway that morning. Just from going up the subway stairs and onto the platform I found three pennies in three different locations. When I got out at Times Square I quickly realized that it’s the best place in New York to pick up money on the ground. Something about the stressfulness of Times Square must mean that nobody gives a crap if they drop a penny, and they are not going to stop for a second to pick it up because it’s crowded and they’re in a rush and just want to get out of disgusting, suffocating Times Square to their destination. I picked up a record number of pennies on the ground. On my way into a Bareburger on 46th Street for lunch I found a penny in the entryway. On my way out I found a dime. At the end of the day I had 20 cents: 10 pennies and a dime that I earned without doing anything — an auspicious start to my experiment.

Things I learned on my first day: pink gum that has been stuck to the sidewalk and blackened by dirt attains a color similar to a penny, which is confusing.

Total: 20 cents

Day Two: August 27, 2015

I didn’t find any money today because I was in the Hamptons to go to the beach and super rich people probably don’t carry any cash, just their solid gold credit cards.

Total: 0

Day Three: August 28, 2015

In the afternoon, I found a penny on the floor of the bathroom of the Chelsea Fairway. It was hiding between the wall and the trash can. This boon came after the joyful realization that the bathroom of the Chelsea Fairway isn’t locked and is right up front. God bless. I found another penny and a few blocks later and then immediately saw a man spit on the street. But this could not deter me from destiny.

Total: 3 cents

Day Four: August 29, 2015

At 2 p.m., I saw a penny on the ground in front of the guard house at Wave Hill but the guard was standing between me and the penny and I felt weird picking it up. On my way out it was gone, taken by someone bolder than me (or possibly the guard?).

Total: 0

Day Five: August 30, 2015

Stayed home sick.

Total: 0

Day Six: August 31, 2015

At 1 p.m., I saw a penny on the ground in the parking lot of the bank, half-buried in the dirt by the curb. The only problem is that I saw it when I was already in the car and on my way out of the parking lot. So I re-parked and grabbed it. I’m still wondering whether I would have gone back for it had I not sworn to pick up every coin I saw on the ground. The jury’s still out on that one. Later, while standing on a street corner waiting for the light to change, I heard the chink of metal falling to the ground and my head turned instinctively like a wild animal stalking its prey. I didn’t see anything on the ground. Was I starting to hear things, going mad in my quest for copper? At 4 p.m., I found a penny on the floor at the Times Square Lot Less while I was buying movie snacks. Later that night at 11:30, I found three pennies on the bus, spread out under the seat I sat in. Walking was becoming more fun now with the new enticement that I might find money on the street. Suddenly having to walk crosstown for the right subway was a treasure hunt.

Total: 5 cents

Day Seven: September 1, 2015

Had an uneventful day.

Total: 0

Day Eight: September 2, 2015

At 1 p.m., I hit the jackpot. I found a quarter under the bench outside my gym where old people wait for their paratransit rides. Does this count as stealing from the elderly?

Total: 25 cents

Day Nine: September 3, 2015

I’m starting to think that all these street coins mostly come from people who keep loose change in their pocket. Then when they take something out of their pocket and the pennies go flying for the millionth time, they’re too stubborn to admit they have a problem, much less stoop in public to pick the pennies back up. “I’ll just leave them — what’s the point?” they think, their lack of resolve to take simple steps to fix the problems in their lives leading to affected callousness. Same with people who have a wallet with no zippered change purse, so they just shove the coins in. The coins slip out whenever they use their wallet and they refuse to admit there’s a problem, ignoring the change that’s now rolling onto the floor at Starbucks. Then there are the many people who have a broken wallet and haven’t gotten around to replacing it. I won’t use a wallet unless there is a zippered change pouch and there are enough folds and snaps that my bills are not going to slip out. While my obsessive compulsiveness makes it hard to shop for wallets, at least I don’t literally shed money every time I leave the house.

Ah, well. Maybe I’m just bitter because I didn’t find any money today.

Total: 0

Day Ten: September 4, 2015

At 3:30 p.m., I found a penny on the floor of the pizza place by the register.

Total: 1 cent

Day Eleven: September 5, 2015

At 5 p.m., today I found three pennies in the tray of the Coinstar machine on my way out of the grocery store. I wasn’t even trying to check the tray for coins: I was just walking by and noticed them. This was weird — when you use a Coinstar, aren’t you committed to turning a huge amount of change into bills? Wouldn’t anyone who’s just dumped several pounds of change into a small slot check the shelf to see if everything went in?

Total: 3 cents

Day Twelve: September 6, 2015

I found a penny on the subway platform around 1 p.m. Later that day I found a penny while walking in Fort Greene. This penny was so battered that I was concerned it wouldn’t be legal tender anymore. I wonder who decides if a penny is too fucked up to be considered a penny anymore? What would happen if I tried to buy something with this?

Total: 3 cents

Day Thirteen: September 7, 2015

This afternoon, I found 5 pennies on the curb in Little Italy in the Bronx.

Total: 5 cents

Day Fourteen: September 8, 2015

I got on the subway around 2 p.m. and found two pennies on the way in: one outside the station and one on the platform. This is my regular subway stop that I’ve been getting on for years and suddenly I’m finding at least a penny there every day. Why wasn’t I rich by now? I have to conclude that it’s because I wasn’t looking for them. I found a penny as I was walking up the stairs of the 86th Street 1 train station at 2:30 p.m. Then I found a penny at 4:20 p.m. near the benches outside Birdbath Bakery at 85th and Columbus. Fresh off my find outside Birdbath, I found a dime under a parking meter on Amsterdam between 85th and 86th. After some consideration, I have concluded that there were actually a lot of times in my life that I saw a penny on the ground and didn’t pick it up. Maybe I was with a friend and didn’t want to look like a cheapskate or I was on my way somewhere and didn’t think it was worth my time to stop. That’s why I’m suddenly swimming in pennies: They were there all along, but I just wasn’t searching. I picked up another penny on the sidewalk before getting home. A lucrative day.

Total: 15 cents

Day Fifteen: September 9, 2015

I found a penny at the bus stop at 2:50 p.m. While shopping on 5th Avenue, I found a lot of money. Midtown is a dying beast that hemorrhages pennies.

Total: 16 cents

Day Sixteen: September 10, 2015

Found a very grody penny on the Upper West Side.

Some things that are on the ground that look like coins but aren’t:

  • Broken glass
  • Random metal parts (SO many random metal parts!)

Also, there are pennies that have been run over so many times that they are smushed into the pavement so that they are just one with the street. I saw two pennies smushed into the pavement at 7th Avenue and 26th Street in the east crosswalk. I found a penny, a nickel, and a dime on the bus.

Total: 17 cents

That means… I did it! I collected over a dollar in money I found on the street. It only took me 16 days.

Final total: $1.13

Final breakdown: 43 pennies, 1 nickel, 4 dimes, and 1 quarter

Pizza time!

I was determined to pay for my pizza in the change I picked up, but I didn’t want to plunk down 47 pennies at the counter because although that’s legal, it’s a bit much. So I got a 50 cent penny roll so I could trade the pennies at the bank for two quarters. I had to supplement the roll with seven other pennies because, oddly, I didn’t have enough pennies (weird, because I’d been picking up pennies on the street for weeks). This also solved the problem of getting rid of those three janky pennies that I was unsure whether stores would take: I’d put them in the roll with the rest of their more conventional brethren. Sure enough, the bank took the roll, no questions asked. I’ll let you know if I get a call from the bank saying I owe them three real pennies. I’d pay for the pizza with the two bank quarters plus 50 cents of my loot and still have 20 cents from the combo left over.

September 11, 2015

This experience has led me to reflect about cheapness as a characteristic. Could my commitment to picking up change on the street be considered cheap? It’s possible. The saying that every penny counts is true, but some people eschew it because they don’t want to look like they’re so cheap that they obsess over pennies. But picking up pennies is very harmless. I tried to make sure that I never stopped suddenly on the street without checking behind me, because I am a courteous New Yorker. I think there are levels of cheapness and, say, having a friend who always tells you they can’t go to the movies or a museum with you because they’re broke is more grating that walking with a friend and stopping to pick up a penny. I will definitely keep picking up change on the street because I’ve learned that it adds up, and, what do I have to lose? I haven’t been looked at with disdain when I bend down to pick up a penny and even if I had been, I don’t really care if random strangers think I’m cheap. Maybe from now on I won’t pick up the really grody coins because I don’t want to have to deposit them at the bank in a roll. But how can you argue with a free slice of dollar pizza every few weeks?

September 12, 2015

Today was free dollar pizza day. I kept my $1.20 in a little change purse in my bag so it wouldn’t get mixed up with my other money. When I got in line at the 2 Bros pizza on 6th Avenue and 25th Street at around 3 p.m., I got the change ready in my hand so I wouldn’t have to count coins at the register. The pizza guy didn’t bat an eye when I paid for the pizza in one nickel, two dimes, and three quarters. I stood at one of the tall tables because there were no seats left (typical 2 Bros). I tried to focus on having a rewarding experience. This pizza was essentially free. I got it by picking up coins on the street for about two weeks. I turned nothing into something and now I was reaping the benefits. I deserved this slice of pizza! I’d like to say that because the slice was imbued with special meaning, it was the best slice of pizza I ever had, but actually it was slightly soggy, which is disappointing because 2 Bros pizza is usually great. Still, this was my free lunch. I felt good. This was the successful result of an experiment. Considering how much money I spent this week on eating out, it was rewarding to eat a free lunch. Monthly free dollar pizza will definitely become my new tradition.

Madeline Raynor is a New York City-based writer. She writes for Death and Taxes and has written for Mashable, Indiewire, and Time Out New York. She loves all things Tina Fey. Word to the wise: her first name is pronounced with a long “i,” like the red-haired girl from France. Follow her on Twitter @madelineraynor_.