"Before we set our hearts too much upon anything, let us examine how happy those are who already possess it." - Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Is It Worth My Time to Pick Up a Penny?

By , March 19th, 2008 | 18 Comments »

penny sculpture

“If Bill Gates saw $100 lying on the ground, it wouldn’t be worth his time to pick it up,” a friend told me once. She reasoned that he would make more during that time by doing something else. At an estimated salary of $4,000 per minute, every minute of the week, Gates would indeed be making more than $100 — about $133 — in the two seconds it would take to pick up that $100 bill (though he’d be earning only $66.67 if he used just a second to pick up the money).

“But what if he’s off the clock when he sees the $100?” I asked my friend. “Then it would be worth his time.” I realize that people like Bill Gates are never really off the clock, and in fact, that $133 per minute includes even the minutes he’s sleeping, but my point was that he could just as easily spot the cash when he’s on the beach as when he’s doing business. Then he’s making money in his leisure time, not when he’s earning his salary.

Even if the $100 flew in his office window while he was working, I added, he could easily continue certain types of work — thinking of new ideas or talking to an assistant, for example — while he bends down to pick up the cash. Then, during those two seconds, he would have made $233 instead of $133. Even minimum-wage workers are allowed a few seconds to stretch, so no one is cheating his or her employer by picking up a penny on the clock.

Odds are, you’re not Bill Gates, you don’t make $4,000 per minute, and you never see $100 bills lying on the ground. You probably see quite a few pennies, though. Is it worth your time to pick them up? If you could make a living picking up pennies, one after the other, forty hours a week, you would make $37,440 a year, assuming two seconds to pick up each penny. Some people, like my friend, would say that picking up a penny is not worth your time if you make more than $37,400 annually. I say that, even if I made $500,000, picking up that penny would be worthwhile because I would then have made $500,000.01.

The amount of money you make is irrelevant to whether it is worth your time to pick up a penny. However, other factors may lead you to choose to let the penny remain there. By picking up a penny on a busy sidewalk, you risk being trampled and having to pay much higher medical bills. By picking up a penny whose previous owner you can identify, you may be stealing (at least ethically, if not legally). By picking up a penny on a first date, your date might think you’re cheap, and you’ll miss out on a second date. (Though, if he’s a keeper, he will be thrifty himself and may beat you to the penny.) You may be too tired to pick up the penny; your back may hurt; a child may appreciate finding it more than you would. Any of these circumstances could provide a legitimate reason to let a penny on the ground. “I make too much” is not a good excuse. If you had picked up the penny, you would have made more.

Image courtesy of wallyg

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  • Teri says:

    Oh geez. I am not a big fan of wasting time making pennies because I make a good wage. I also work with a lot of doctors and the penny-wise pound-foolish ones lose out in the end. It is amazing to see how much time and effort they waste sometimes chasing pennies and not getting anywhere, whereas the ones who just work and make the $500/hour are FAR better off.

    BUT, I have to say if I saw a penny I would pick it up. Because it would take no effort or time from my day. I mean, come on.

    I actually make around a penny a second at my job. If I stopped to pick up a penny I’d double my wage for that second. Not bad! 😀

  • Mr. John D. Rockefeller spent his time chasing down pennies, by attempting to find all the cost cutting methods he could in his business life. I’d be willing to bet old John D. would bend down and pick one up.

    This article made me want to go take and scatter a $1.00’s worth of pennies to the local playground to make some kiddies day! And likely I would if I didn’t think some guy w/his little trinket hunting machine (what do you call that thing???) wouldn’t be out this weekend on the playground scavenger hunting for what those kiddies had already dropped!

    I will bend to pick up change, but I don’t make a habit to survey the local playgrounds. 😀

  • Monty says:

    I never, ever pick up coins when I see them. Just not worth it, not worth the effort, especially for pennies. In fact, I throw them away on a regular basis. At the end of the day, when I empty my jeans, I just toss them in the trash. Not worth the time or the space to keep them. The maids in the hotels must really love that. I consider it their tip.

  • Jodi says:

    Monty-I work for tips at one of my 3 jobs. Hope you don’t visit my area any time soon!

  • A Marino says:

    Monty: For every penny you throw away, you’ll never see it again.

    There are people who actually waste more time and money (gas) trying to get the best deal when in fact, they lost because of the gas they lost. That’s what I consider penny wise and pound foolish.

    To pick up a penny isn’t costing you anything and it’s not taxable. When my kids were small, I collected pennies and bought savings bonds with them. Very recently, one was worth a little over $1,000, which my son gave to his brand new daughter. That’s a pretty good start for that little girl for something that just came out of pennies.

  • baselle says:

    Heck, what’s with leaving copper and zinc on the ground … pick up the penny, put it back in circulation. You’re cleaning up the environment, maybe doing a little stretch, and making some spare change all at the same time. In addition, keeping an eye out for pennies means you have an eye out for nickels, dimes and quarters too.

  • I ALWAYS pick up money on the ground.
    I would bet that Bill Gates would as well. The whole premise of this argument is that he would give up doing something more profitable, but if you use that argument, it isn’t worth his time to pick out his clothes, take a shower, chat with a friend, or tie his shoes.

  • lulugal11 says:

    I always pick up money I see lying on the ground regardless of what it is. Yes you might say it is just a penny but since I work indoors the time I see the penny lying on the grass is time I am not doing any work.

    I don’t consider it a source of income but it goes into my little coin jar and when the jar gets full I take it to the bank on my next run.

    I teach elementary school and I can also pass out the pennies I pick up to the six year olds as rewards.

    Plus, someone always needs a couple of pennies to get stamps or something so I am the go to person for change!

  • AJC @ 7million7years says:

    Writing my blog is the equivalent of picking up pennies – which is why I don’t even bother to advertise. Yet, it is a way of giving back. Life isn’t all about money … I guess that’s easy for me to say 😉

  • trex says:

    Do you throw pennies into fountains to make wishes? If you believe that it is worthwhile to pick up pennies because they have value, then how do you justify throwing them away into a fountain or wishing well?

  • Nora says:

    How’s that for synchronicity…I just wrote about a Similar topic here:

    Hawaii is littered with loose change!

  • Slug says:

    Wow, lots of folks interested in this these days. I just wrote about it last month from a different angle.


  • Penny says:

    Every bit of money that you “make” without being employed is worth so much more, because you don’t have to pay income tax, social security, medicaid, and for many tithe.

  • BRB says:

    I still pick up pennies.

    As a bonus, check the date. If the penny is dated 1981 or earlier, it is valued at nearly 3 cents, since it is made of copper, not zinc. Save those, they could be worth a dime in a few years!!

  • A penny?

    No it’s not worth straining my back or breaking my train of thought on something more important.

    I don’t understand people who spend years penny-pinching. At the end of the month, if you don’t make a big salary, you’ll be just a little less broke then you usually are. Pinching dimes and quarters never made a big difference in my life. What has made a big differnce is when I went out and made a massive amount of money, saved some, spent some and invested some. The lasting impact follows me for a long time. Penny pinching rarely does, actually never.


  • kieron says:

    why pick up a penny? it could have so many germs that would then be in your pocket you could get ill then have to pay expensive health bills


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