Start Your Travel Fund With The Change In Your Pocket (But Good Luck Finding A Bank To Count Your Coins)

Six gallon-size jugs of coins once bought me a one-way ticket to Cairo. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I’ve long had a curious little ritual before leaving the country that I’m very fond of. I’m a coin accumulator. You know those people who take several minutes to scrounge around for pennies while you are waiting impatiently behind them in line? That’s not me. If my bill comes to $1.01, I give the cashier $2, even if I have the penny in my pocket.

Why? Almost twenty years ago, I read about this change accumulation tactic and decided it would be an effortless way to start a travel fund. It’s hard to save money but it’s easy to accumulate coins. At the time I started my first coin collection, I was stuck in an office job in Chicago that I loathed. It felt good to accumulate coins and then dump them in big jugs in my room when I got home.

It made me feel a bit like a prisoner trying to gradually chip his way out of Alcatraz through some loose molding. I was plotting my escape and the growing coin collection was a measure of my progress.

After about two years of saving, I was ready to quit my job and take off for a four-month overland trip from Cairo to Shanghai. I had about $8,000 in savings in the six aforementioned jugs of coins. When I lugged all the coins to a local bank their coin counting machine made these loud, gurgling noises that were music to my ears. I was astonished when the clerk told me I was due $436. It was thirty bucks more than I needed to book a one-way ticket to Cairo.

Since that epic trip, I’ve continued to accumulate coins, though at a much slower rate of late because I like to use my credit cards to accumulate frequent flyer miles. Still, I relish going out to trade in my coins right before an international trip. I bring the cash I get back with me and it feels like extra money that I can blow on whatever I want.

But over the years, it’s become harder and harder to find coin counting machines that don’t charge a commission. And the tellers greet you and your coins about as warmly as Mullah Omar might be received at a Ground Zero commemoration event.You can use the machine at your grocery store, but you’ll lose 9 percent — not a very good way to start a trip. Five years ago, prior to a trip to Newfoundland, I spent more than an hour lugging two huge, heavy jars of coins around downtown Washington, D.C., looking for a bank that would count my coins.

At least half dozen banks insisted that I roll the coins into paper sleeves — a task that would have taken hours — until I finally found a place that had a no-commission machine. But the most embarrassing part was walking through a park that was filled with homeless people begging. What do you say to a guy who asks for spare change when you’re carrying about $200 worth of it? Ummm, sorry, you see, I’m going to Newfoundland, and….

I gave away a bit but still felt cheap. But not as cheap as I felt today, as I was bounced around nearly every bank in my town and found none that would count my coins without a commission. I’m about to leave for Europe on Tuesday and I had a modest coin collection that I needed to dissolve — but how?

There are seven banks I pass on the way from my children’s preschool to my home. Burke & Herbert, BB & T, Sun Trust and Wells Fargo all had no machine.

“You should roll your coins,” said one annoying teller.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll take that suggestion under consideration” (perhaps when I’m retired or incapacitated).

Then I went into a second, larger BB & T branch and thought I’d hit pay dirt when I saw a coin machine in the corner. But alas, they have a 6% commission unless you open an account. I considered paying the commission but remembered that there were still two more banks I’d pass on my way home.

I struck out at Bank of America, where the teller looked at me and my bag of coins as though we were contagious, but then I saw something promising outside a bank I’d never heard of before across from a bakery with the preposterous name “Panaderia de Paris.”

T.D. Bank’s sign said, “America’s Most Convenient Bank.”

Surely the most convenient bank in the land of the free and the home of the brave would offer a commission-free coin counting machine, right?

“It’s 6% commission unless you open an account,” said the over-officious teller.

A sympathetic man in dreadlocks shook his head and chimed in.

“Man, that ain’t right!” he said. “Why does it cost money to count money?”

I was delighted to have found a like-minded soul and I immediately wanted to invite him to Europe. But instead I inquired about opening an account with an initial deposit of $1.

“You can open an account,” the teller said suspiciously. “But if it falls below the minimum balance of $100, then you’ll be assessed fees.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “You can take them out of my $1 and when it gets to zero you can just dissolve the account.”

“But you’ll be sent to a collection agent,” she said.

That didn’t sound very convenient, so I grudgingly shuffled over to the machine and hit the start button on the touch screen.

An animated image of a cute freckled little girl in bib overalls and pigtails appeared on my screen.

“My name is Penny Arcade!” she chirped. “I’m here to count your coins, are you ready?”

I dumped my coins down Penny’s machine and then the charming lass popped back up on the screen again.

“Do you want to guess how much money you’ve inserted?” she asked. “If you guess within $1.99 of the correct amount you’ll win a prize!”

I asked the teller if there was a fee for guessing.

“Oh no, that’s free,” she said, reassuringly.

I mostly use credit cards these days, and my coin collection is only about a year old, so I guessed $46. A slot-machine-like image popped up on the screen showing six digits with the numbers scrolling very fast, giving one the impression that, who knows, maybe you might win a jackpot. Now this was entertainment clearly worth at least a few bucks.

My depressing total was a paltry $32.44. Less the commission it came to $30.50 — perhaps enough for a meal in an inexpensive trattoria or perhaps a seat on Ryan Air. In an age of plastic and frequent flyer miles, clearly my best coin accumulating days are behind me. How sad.

After handing me the receipt the teller had one last pitch.

“Are you sure you don’t want to open an account?” she asked.

[Photos via Mukumbura, Mapless in Seattle and Jason Rogers on Flickr.]