Say you’re walking down the street and see money lying on a sidewalk. What’s the smallest denomination you would bother to pick up? Penny? Quarter? Dollar? What if it was raining–does that change your answer? What if the money was in a puddle, or maybe some mud? How about dog poop? Seriously, would it be worth $5 to wipe some Fido filth off a fin? $10 to wash schnauzer schmutz off a sawbuck? What’s your price?
This question came to mind recently when I was writing a post about a 1944 issue of Collier’s magazine. The cover price was 5¢, and I was going to make a comment about all the stories (including WWII reportage by Ernest Hemingway!) you could get for the price of…
…and I couldn’t think of anything. I could not conjure up a single item that can be had these days for a nickel. I think even penny candy costs more than that now. In fact, with all its buying power, the only thing the U.S. government can get for five cents is a pair of pennies, since it costs 2.41 cents to produce the one cent coin. But at least they get change from their nickel.
I’ve written before about the stupidity of continuing the circulation of pennies, and even offered a common sense (and thus impossible) way for the government to dramatically lower the deficit by eliminating the nickel and making the penny worth three cents. But now I got to thinking of this from the consumer’s point of view. What is our money really worth to us?
Going back to the question with which I opened this post, I figured some institution must have done a study to see under what circumstances Americans would pick up–or not pick up–money. I mean, researchers are getting grants for just about anything these days, including one important study which determined that Oscar® winners live longer and another in which scientists seeking a major breakthrough discovered that skiing makes a certain segment of the population very happy. The segment was people who like to ski. (I’m not making this stuff up.)
However, I could only find one study about picking up coins. It’s called “What Influences People to Pick Up Coins?” and the lead researcher–actually, the only researcher–was a young sociologist named Will J. Shadley. According to the resulting paper, the methodology was as follows:
For my project, I used 10 pennies, 10 nickels, 10 dimes, 10 quarters, 40 permission slips, a clipboard, a notebook, and a stopwatch (phone). To begin my experiment, I grabbed a coin from the bag, placed it on the ground when no one was looking, started the stopwatch, waited for a subject to pick up the coin, approached the subject, had them sign the permission slip, recorded the data, and repeated the process 39 more times. I made sure to avoid bias by not using any data that may be inaccurate if the subject had seen me place the coin. I also started the stopwatch as soon as the coin was placed on the ground to get the most accurate information for my study.
The paper goes on to credit Mr. Shadley’s assistants: his father, who “sat with me at the pier while I conducted research,” and his mother, who “helped me glue and cut materials for the display board.”
Yes, that’s right: the only research I could find about picking up coins was done by an 8th grader at Village Christian School, Sun Valley, California for the 2014 State Science Fair.* Thank goodness the entries were posted online, or I never would have learned about this ground-breaking study.
Remarkably, (especially considering that the study was done with a grant of only $4.10) Mr. Shadley’s research revealed something much more counterintuitive than happily skiing skiers: it seems that many more people will stop to pick up a nickel than a dime, leading Shadley to conclude, perhaps not for the last time in his life, that size does matter.
Good work, Will!
So what is our money worth to us? Perhaps we should look at the cost-benefit analysis of picking up that money.
The Huffington Post looked into that:
The average wage was right around $22 an hour in 2012, meaning that we make much more than one cent in the time it takes us to stop, reach down, pick up a penny and put it in our pocket so we can go do whatever it is that people do with pennies.
It doesn’t say how much time they’re thinking it takes to “stop, reach down, pick up a penny and put it in our pocket,” so I timed myself doing it using an actual stopwatch, not a smartphone stopwatch such as the ones used by real scientists like Will J. Shadley. I accomplished the feat in about four seconds, and that was with a clean lift (not fumbling around to get the coin off the ground). If I made $22 an hour, that four seconds would be worth 2.44 cents of my time, which would mean even the government can get a penny for less than I could.**
To be honest, I make more than $22 an hour. But even if I didn’t, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t stop for a dime or a nickel either, even though picking those up might be profitable enterprises.
A quarter? Yeah, maybe, if I wasn’t in a hurry and it wasn’t dirty. A dollar? Sure, unless there’s a dog poop factor. I’m just not the kind of person who would sink that low for a buck. Or even $5.
But $10? Or $50? Would I pick that up, poo and all?
Well, we’ve already established what kind of person I am. We’re just haggling over the price.
See you soon.
*Will J. Shadley got “Honorable Mention,” losing to such projects as “How to Detect the Undetectable: An Empirical Study of a New Microexpression Training for Adolescents” by fellow 8th Grader and show-off Pelin Ensari, and “People, Numbers, and Gender Bias,” by 7th Grade feminist Catherine N. Herberg. And, by the way, should middle schoolers really be encouraged to use middle initials? Are we creating Generation Snob?
**It should be noted, as the Huff Post did, that, by this logic, it would not pay for someone like Bill Gates to pick up a $100 bill, so you might want to consider following Mr. Gates around.