Durangoans find that small change can add up to big returns

“I travel around a lot. Usually when I come back into town, I’m kind of broke,” said Neil Cheesewright, shown here emptying change into a Coinstar machine Tuesday afternoon at south City Market. Cheesewright is among a number of Durangoans who use the change jar for a financial backstop when wallet gets thin. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“I travel around a lot. Usually when I come back into town, I’m kind of broke,” said Neil Cheesewright, shown here emptying change into a Coinstar machine Tuesday afternoon at south City Market. Cheesewright is among a number of Durangoans who use the change jar for a financial backstop when wallet gets thin.

It begins at the cash register with a simple transaction: A sales clerk tells you how much you owe, you give her crisp bills and she returns exact change in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters – coins that weigh you down for the rest of the day.

Some people immediately unload this deadweight into the nearest tip jar. Others sort through the pieces, in search of exact change, holding up the next in line. Many wait until they get home and deposit the coins into a savings jar.

Durango has no shortage of people who save their loose change, said local bank employees; customers routinely come in with heaps of change looking to cash in.

Some have big plans for spending the loot – a guitar, wedding ring or season pass at Durango Mountain Resort. Others have no plans at all and simply want to add numbers to their account.

City drivers busted for expired parking meters have been known to pay off their debt using 900 pennies. It happens about twice a week, said Julie Brown, finance director for the city.

“It doesn’t matter to us,” she said. “Money is money.”

Durango resident Samantha Krouse would like to see the money she and her boyfriend have saved in a 5-gallon glass jug go toward an engagement ring for her.

“I don’t know if that’s what he seriously envisions it for, but I do,” she said.

Will Pasternack, of Durango, said he considered buying a guitar with his change. But his girlfriend, Hannah Clark, admitted last week that she skims quarters from his collection to do her laundry.

“Every once in awhile, I’ll put some back – just not usually,” she said laughing. “He’ll never get the guitar.”

Pasternack, 24, said he’s been saving coins since he was a child.

“My mom would help me clean my room, and if she found any loose change on the floor, it would become hers,” he said.

He keeps the coins in a large plastic container. After he collects a substantial amount, he cashes in. The most he’s ever saved was about $250, he said.

“Usually, I’ll treat myself to something,” he said. “I kind of look at it as disposable income at that point.”

Kalyn Green, a banker at Community Banks of Colorado in Durango, said customers come almost on a daily basis looking to convert loose change into cool cash. They’re often pleasantly surprised by how much they have saved, she said.

“They’re really excited when they think they have $10 in change and you give them $50,” Green said.

She enjoys seeing the different containers customers use to collect their coins, which have included a beer stein, a Crown Royal bag and a coconut.

“We’ve seen a lot more (people cashing in coins) in the last month than we did last summer,” she said. “I think with the economy the way it is, it’s extra spending money for Christmas or just to get by.”

Customers have brought in as little as $5 in change and as much as $700, said Natalie Marsters, a loan assistant at Bank of the San Juans in Durango.

It is common to find foreign currency sprinkled in with coins, she said. She once found a fake fingernail in a customer’s coin collection.

Residents said their coin collections have slowed in recent years as they rely more on debit and credit cards to make purchases.

In the 1970s, Rose Ornella said she saved $90 in quarters to buy a pair of ski boots. Now she tries to purchase everything on credit cards in order to earn frequent-flier miles. But she still has a 5-gallon plastic jug for pennies, 9 inches deep after 10 years of collecting.

“Originally, I envisioned filling that thing with pennies,” she said, “but it has tapered off.”

Not everyone shares Ornella’s affection for the penny.

Some argue the coin has lost its usefulness and ends up sitting in jars or being thrown away.

In 2002 and 2006, a congressman from Arizona tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the copper-colored coin as a unit of currency in the United States.

But Stacy Archuleta, who works at Southwest Sound on Main Avenue, said she wouldn’t support nixing the penny, which features Abraham Lincoln’s mug.

“If you have enough of them, it adds up to something,” she said.

Archuleta said she keeps her change in a Mr. Peanut container. It fills up about once a year with $200, she said – money she spends on music.

Loose change can be a good teaching tool for young children, said Stephanie Milner, a teacher at Durango Early Learning Center.

The day care has about 75 students ages 2 to 5 who decorate Mason jars to take home for their parents to fill with coins, she said. The kids can bring back the jars several times a year and dump the coins into a large plastic container that the kids walk past every day.

At the end of the year, the money is used to buy something for the kids. Last year, the school raised more than $800 to buy new playground toys, Milner said. This year, it plans to buy a new climbing structure for the playground.

Milner took some kids to Bank of the San Juans last year so they could watch the money being sorted and counted.

“Since it’s the kids doing the fundraising, we try to get something that they directly use themselves so they understand they bring the money in for something, and then they see the results,” Milner said.

Mary Kay Aigner, who rang the Salvation Army bell this week at south City Market, said she enjoys parents who give their children money to put in the red Kettle.

“A little boy just said, ‘I’m going to bring back all my change from home,’” she said.

shane@durangoherald.com

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