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Adventures With The Pound And The Euro

by Mike Thorne

british currency

My wife and I took a trip. We spent a week in England and another week on the continent. As usual, one of my carry-on bags contained coins left over from the trip. Getting rid of paper money is never a problem, as I swapped my pound notes for euros before leaving England and my euros for dollars before leaving Paris. The moneychangers won’t take coins, however, so I was stuck with them. I’ve been similarly stuck on previous trips and have a large stash of mostly low-denomination foreign coins. Of course, as a long-time coin collector, having all these foreign coins doesn’t particularly bother me. I just hope that when I die, my heirs won’t think that I kept them because the coins have great value.

One opportunity that foreign travel provides me is the chance to handle the money of other countries. It also enables me to compare our money, paper and coins, with that of other countries. I invariably come away with the thought that the U.S. should make some major changes.

One beneficial change to our currency would be to print it on polymer material. As a form of plastic, polymer banknotes have the advantage of increased durability, cleanliness, and safety, as they permit the incorporation of enhanced security features. One of these features is a clear window, which obviously cannot be mimicked on even the best copiers.

Polymer bills are used by a variety of countries, including Great Britain (on 5- and 10-pound notes; 20-pound polymer notes will be introduced in 2020). With Australia being the first country to adopt this material, other countries that use it include: Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Scotland, and Malaysia. One of the first things you’ll notice about circulating pound and euro banknotes is that they are multicolored and that the different denominations have different dimensions. Appropriately, the bills become larger with increases in their denominations.

In England, there are only four different circulating denominations: 5, 10, 20, and 50 pounds. I didn’t see or spend any 50-pound notes, as I had told my bank when ordering about $500 worth of pounds that I didn’t want any large-denomination bills. They’re often hard to spend, because most vendors will not have enough change if you’ve made a small purchase. Note that there are no bills with less than a 5-pound value. This is also true of the euro. Smaller pound and euro amounts are supplied by 1-pound and 2-pound (1-euro and 2-euro) coins. These coins are incredibly useful for small purchases and tips.

I acquired a 1-pound coin in a memorable way. Our coach (bus) stopped for a bathroom break at a large roadside business. This one was unusual in that it charged for using the bathrooms. Rather than having an attendant stationed to collect the fee as I’ve found in many different cities of the world, this one had a turnstile into which you inserted the correct amount to free a rotating bar. The fee was 70c euro, which allowed you to use the facilities. In addition, you received a printed receipt that you could use as credit toward anything you bought in the establishment.This ingenious European system forces you to pay for restroom privileges but then allows you to deduct the amount from a purchase.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any change in euros, as we had just entered Europe after our time in England. Seeing my problem, our tour director said she had change for a 5-euro note, and she gave me five 1-euro pieces. When I dropped my coin down the slot, it fell on through. No change and no entry. Can you guess the problem?

What happened is that my benefactor had given me four 1-euro coins and one British pound. Fortunately, I was able to use one of the 1-euro pieces to go to the bathroom, but I was stuck with the pound coin. Not that I minded.

Altogether, I wound up with 51 foreign coins, 15 for use in the EU, 36 for use in England.

The eight different euro coins come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and metals. The 1- and 2-euro coins are bimetallic, with the former having a silver-colored center and a gold-colored surround. The 2-euro coin reverses this combination. The same is true for the 1-pound and 2-pound British pieces.

In addition to differences in size, lower-denomination EU coins vary in color (1c, 2c, and 5c coins have a bronze color; 10c, 20c, and 50c pieces have a golden hue). There are also differences in edge treatment, with some coins milled, some plain, and others with periodic depressions.

British coins display the same sort of variability. Although most are round, both the 20 pence and 50 pence pieces have a heptagonal shape. Size differences, color differences, and edge treatments also differ.

So what conclusions can I draw from my two weeks with the pound and the euro? In my opinion, the U.S. should be working toward changing the composition of our bills from paper to polymer because of the advantages cited above. Incidentally, worn-out polymer bills can be recycled into other plastic products. Also, is it absolutely necessary for our bills to be so stodgy in appearance? For example, why are they all the same size? Surely, size differences aid in identification by persons with visual impairment. Although recent changes have added a little more color to our currency, our banknotes are still relatively monochromatic compared to foreign bills.

Second, one dollar and two dollar coins would work well in the U.S., if they didn’t have to compete with paper money of the same denominations. And I feel sure we could make them bimetallic. Think of the bimetallic $10 2000 Library of Congress commemorative. Of course, the two metals would have to be base metals, not the gold and platinum of the commemorative coin.

And why do we, as well as the EU and England, still have a 1c coin? I doubt that Canada misses theirs. What do you do with the cents you get in change? When was the last time you spent one? Mine currently fill two large jars, and I think one of these days I should feed them to a CoinStar machine.

Will our coins and currency become relics of the past, the province only of collectors like ourselves? Only time will tell.