Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Useless Money

When it's not busy being the root of all evil, money is actually kind of useful.

But there's one kind of money that is no good at all, and that's the kind I find when I'm scrabbling around in the botttom of my bag for quarters to feed the parking meter, in the change jar for emergency bus fare and in the line at Starbucks for the few extra cents that will save me breaking a big note: Foreign coins.

As any regular traveler can attest, foreign currency has a way of turning up just when you don't need it. And while it can occasionally stand in as a substitute for legal tender -- DC parking meters are apparently filled with the stuff -- it is mostly pretty useless.

So why do we hold onto it? Something about discarding cash just goes against the grain, but sometimes more complex reasons come into play:
  • It signals a plan to return. We hold onto the currency of a country we love because we plan (or hope) to go back soon. Having coins from a particular place in my wallet allows me to believe it will not be long before I will be there again. It's a form of connection and a way of coping with the grief of departure.
  • It will someday be useful. I have a handful of outdated English coins that have not been in circulation since the late 80s. They were given to me by someone at work who had saved them "just in case" they ever came in handy. Although they are no longer legal tender, and the window to trade them in for such has long since expired, I haven't thrown them away either and I'm not sure why not. They still occupy the bottom of my drawer at work. Maybe one day a museum will want them... but certainly not in my lifetime...
  • It has conversation/collector value. While some people collect coins, others just like to pull them out from time to time, study them and muse about them (who is pictured on the coin? what is the motto? how much is it worth? what memories surface?). It's like having a miniature portrait gallery in your pockets.
At a recent wedding, my brother put his hand in his suit pocket and pulled out a Mexican coin; gold in the center with silver edges. In my bag I found two coins of similar coloring from Turkey and Israel. We compared them, talked about our travels and then put them back where we found them.

Why? Regular money can't buy you love, but this kind of currency can't buy you anything. Though it's just a form of metal clutter, why do we resist throwing useless money away?

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