Last week, the penny dropped. When my Loblaws purchase (consisting mostly of chocolate, if I’m being honest) totalled $15.26, the cashier coolly refused the penny I offered to her, and rounded my purchase down to $15.25.
This is the new Canadian reality, ever since the feds officially stopped circulating our penny on Feb. 4. It may seem strange that there’s been a large amount of media attention devoted to such a diminutive coin. We’re certainly not the first developed nation to nix the one-cent piece—Australia and New Zealand decided to kill the penny last century. But its departure has real consequences—both financial and emotional—for Canadians.
Naturally, that includes the government. Citing production and handling costs as reasons for terminating the copper-ish coin (it’s actually 94 per cent steel), Parliament announced plans last year to phase out the penny. Prior to that, the Royal Canadian Mint had been spending 1.6 cents to manufacture each one-cent piece, and the extra $11 million it cost to produce each year seems like a lot to fund such a minuscule slice of Canadiana. Of course, it will take years for the piece to completely leave circulation, since pennies are still considered legal tender and businesses will be allowed to accept them if they choose.
The penny’s demise also signifies a shift in the way retail pricing and transactions are conducted. About two-thirds of all payments are made using credit or debit and only 19 per cent with hard cash—but that doesn’t mean cash-carriers won’t notice changes at the checkout. Using a process known as “symmetrical rounding,” payments will now be rounded to the nearest nickel, up or down depending on the bill’s final amount. Totals ending in 1, 2, 6, or 7 will be rounded down (for example, $13.07 becomes $13.05 at the till) and those ending in 3, 4, 8, or 9 will be rounded up ($13.04 becomes $13.05). Sure, the difference seems negligible, but the change has consequences for how businesses will price their goods in the future.
This move isn’t just a boon for coin collectors, either: As much as the penny occupies (or rather, occupied) the role of red-headed stepchild in our roster of Canadian currency, citizens seem to look upon it as a signifier of national identity, much as we do with The Hockey Sweater and the double-double. In the midst of the media-wide reporting on its withdrawal, many affectionate remembrances of the coin popped up. On the day the penny officially stopped circulating, the first “o” of Google’s doodle was a spinning Canadian penny; The Huffington Post compiled a commemorative playlist, including songs like crooner Dean Martin’s “Pennies From Heaven,” but weirdly omitting The Beatles’ standby “Penny Lane.” The coin even scored its own Twitter account (dubbed @CDN_Penny), spewing 140-character one-liners like, “Carly Rae Jepsen apparently trades me for a kiss. I did not agree to this.”
Someone who is intimately aware of the penny’s importance is Miss Suzette (that’s actually her real name), a Toronto-based humour coach and journalist who runs a volunteer group called “The Penny Project” out of community outreach centre 6 St. Joseph House in the Church-Wellesley village. The group gathers every Friday night for four hours to shine and sort pennies, adorning everything from jewellery to art to office supplies with their supply of coins. “People never think of it. It’s like, ‘Big deal! A penny,’” says Suzette, who is, fittingly, also known as Miss Pretty Penny among her participants. “People are saying, ‘Good riddance,’ and, ‘They’re heavy to carry around!’ but since starting the project, I’ve gone from stepping on them to making something out of them.”
Financial and retail implications notwithstanding, Suzette is a proponent of the penny’s nostalgic value. “Kids were taught to count with the penny; there’s an old tradition of cultural phrases related to it, like, ‘Find a penny, pick it up.’ Sure, it’ll be nice not to have all of that in your pocket anymore, but you’ll find them in your couch or in jars or shoes—they’re everywhere. And they’re good luck, always.”
As the penny goes the way of the one- and two-dollar bill, it’s easy to underestimate the significance of Canada’s smallest monetary denomination. (Not to sound callous, but I’ve knowingly vacuumed them up more than once while cleaning.) Ceasing to distribute the penny reflects our move towards a cashless society, more preoccupied with convenience than preserving the culture of our tiniest coin. It remains to be seen whether we’ll copy Sudbury and erect a giant copper coin beside the Gardiner made from the 82 million kilograms of pennies still floating around, but the coin’s removal will be felt, even if it seems like a small change right now.