Robb Mitchell was delighted with his apartment in Lowertown St. Paul when he moved in at the first of the year. But in recent months, he’s found a flaw in his living situation.

“Trying to do my laundry in the machines down the hall has turned into a real nuisance,” said Mitchell, 63, a freelance photographer.

The washer and dryer are coin-operated, requiring eight quarters for every load of wash and another four to dry it. When Mitchell went to his bank to request coins to feed the machines, he got a surprise.

“I asked for two rolls of quarters, but they would only give me one,” he said. “I was shocked. Is this like wartime, rationing money? What’s going on? Is it the economy? COVID? I don’t know.”

Money isn’t being rationed, but there is indeed a coin shortage in Minnesota and across the country.

In an era when even parking meters and vending machines accept bills or credit/debit cards, not having a pocketful of change may feel like a minor hassle. But the shortage is prompting businesses to refuse cash because they can’t make exact change. It also threatens to become a serious problem for people who rely on real money — folding and jingling money — to pay their bills.

The pandemic and subsequent lockdown disrupted normal circulation patterns for coins. Starting in mid-March, stores, restaurants, banks and credit unions abruptly closed their doors. When those businesses came to a halt, so did their cash and coin transactions.

At the same time, safety restrictions adopted by the U.S. Mint led to a reduction in its coin manufacture and production. While a statement from the Federal Reserve, which distributes coins, assures Americans that there is an adequate number of coins in the economy, it adds that “the slowed pace of circulation has reduced available inventories in some areas of the country.”

The Fed is asking consumers to “return spare change to circulation,” which means they want you to cash in your coin jar or break your piggy bank.

Making change

Coinstar, which owns and operates a network of self-service coin-redemption kiosks, saw the volume of incoming change dwindle dramatically during the lockdown as shopping trips were curtailed.

There are 125 Coinstar locations in the Twin Cities, most of them in grocery and discount stores. The machines play a role in recirculating money through the economy.

“At the height [of the lockdown], we saw a 50 percent decline in the frequency of trips to the grocery and it’s still down by 20 percent,” said Coinstar CEO Jim Gaherity. “That meant less coin flowing through our system. There’s $48 billion in coin in the U.S., but it’s not in the right place. We never imagined a shortage like this.”

When a consumer turns their loose change into folding bills at a Coinstar kiosk, the company takes an 11.9% fee from the tally. (It does not take a cut when consumers convert their coins into digital gift cards or donate their change to charity.)

“The machines are smart. They tell us when they’re full, which is when there’s 140,000 pieces of coin in a machine,” said Gaherity. “Right now we’re picking it up when it’s half full and taking it to our banking partners to try to move more coin back into circulation and ease this situation.”

Like many convenience stores, Kwik Trip shops have long kept a “Take a penny, leave a penny” dish next to its cash registers to smooth customer transactions.

Now it’s the stores themselves that need the change.

“We were alerted by our bank that there might be a coin shortage, so we posted signs to tell our guests that if they were able to pay with debit or credit cards or exact change we would appreciate it,” said John McHugh, a spokesman for Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip, which operates some 800 Midwestern gas station convenience stores, including 185 in Minnesota.

Kwik Trip offers car washes at many of its outlets and McHugh said that operators have been “more proactive” about raiding the vacuum machines for quarters to get them back in the cash drawer.

“We have a loyalty card program so we have e-mails of our guests. We sent messages to tell them that if they bring in their coins, we would buy them,” he added. “We had customers and co-workers coming in with bags and jars and small suitcases. Our CEO brought in about $70 in spare change.”

Problems for cash-dependent

McHugh said that 40% of all transactions at KwikTrip stores are consistently made by customers using cash. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, some 52 million cash transactions occur at U.S. quick markets every day.

That underscores that cash is still king for a large slice of the population.

The Federal Reserve estimates that 22% of U.S. households are what it calls “unbanked or underbanked.” That means about 55 million Americans lack access to credit and banking services.

“It’s a problem that’s invisible to people of privilege,” said Cassaundra Adler, a Minnesota financial educator. “A lot of these unbanked folk live on the poverty hamster wheel.

“They are unbanked in part because in certain parts of town there are no bank branches. Financial institutions have paid huge fines for discriminating against communities of color, and some Black and brown people just don’t trust them,” she said. “Or they might come from countries where banks were raided when there was political change and they don’t know that accounts here are protected.”

Adler has worked with people who had a bank account, but bounced a check or made other imprudent moves that caused fees and service charges to pile up, forcing their accounts to be closed. That often makes them ineligible to open another account.

Adler is concerned that the coin shortage will accelerate the pace to a cashless society, which will be a blow to the unbanked.

“It limits their options,” she said. “Being financially savvy comes from lived experience. If no one in their family had a bank account and showed them how to set it up, they don’t have that basic knowledge and then the access to building a credit history. You do what you know.”

More than loose change

The Mint is back working at full capacity and the Federal Reserve has set up a task force to analyze the coin situation and set up measures to prevent future shortages.

But Gaherity frets that the fear of the virus and another possible partial shutdown will once again keep people — and their money — in their homes.

“When states are open, there are more transactions at the point of sale and more coin is flowing, but the reverse is also true,” he said.

According to Coinstar’s research, almost every American has a jar, jug or piggy bank where they accumulate coins, with the average consumer squirreling away $90. Gaherity suspects that as the economic pinch becomes more painful for families, that money will be regarded as more than loose change.

“As unemployment benefits are reduced, people will look for the coins they have piled up, like they did in the recession of 2008,” he said. “They’re going to need to lay their hands on any and all of the cash they can find.”


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.