A fistful of cents ... good for the piggy bank but not much else

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 October, 2010, 12:00am

The smallest things in life are always the most overlooked. While we're ignoring them, we don't realise how much they're costing us. The face value of our 10- and 20-cent coins is less than what it takes to produce them. Even more puzzling, we don't have much need for them.

I found that out recently while emptying the piggy bank. It's a plump pink plastic pig that sits on a shelf. Every coin a dollar or less that crosses the threshold at the end of each day ends up in it. When it's full, a trip to the bank is in order.

That's been a relatively painless exercise until this year. A bag full of coins, a bank account, a teller and 10-or-so minutes while the sorting and counting machine does its work have been all that was needed. This time, though, I got nothing but apologies, scowls and frustration. It's left me wondering why we bother with anything less than a dollar anyway.

Emptying the pig was the easy part. I made my way to the bank, where I was handed plastic bags marked with the numbers 50, 100, 200 and 500. The teller apologised, saying that I would have to sort the coins myself, putting the quantity of each denomination into the appropriate bag. More than 500 coins per account each day would attract a fee.

I've only got so much time and patience. Bank accounts aren't something I collect. I found that banks appeared to have collaborated. Two hours later, I had a dozen bags containing 1,820 coins.

Having only three accounts, I ended up with a spare 320 10-cent coins. With a day off work, I decided to find a way to spend them. I started at the MTR, but found its ticket machines, while giving 10- and 20-cent coins as change, don't accept less than 50-cent pieces. So began a day of trawling for change-appreciative souls.

There were many bad-tempered responses. Even supermarkets, ever so eager to make offers in non-rounded numbers, were unappreciative. The only willing partners to my study were convenience stores, and buses and trams. The latter were especially useful; drivers tended not to even look when the change was being poured into the payment box.

Of course, such excesses shouldn't be necessary. Hong Kong's legal tender should be accepted for every payment. Banks shouldn't turn up their nose at any of it. We shouldn't feel ashamed at having a pile of coins.

I'm not the only one with a coin problem. None of us like having our wallets and purses weighed down with them. A charity donation box or beggar is not always on hand. And there's an even more important matter - apart from the HK$10, HK$5 and HK$2, there's not a lot we can do with them anyway.

Governments the world over have had the same problem. Australia phased out its one- and two-cent coins in 1992 and is talking about getting rid of its five-cent pieces next. New Zealand did that in 2006. Some European countries have already scrapped the smallest euro coins; Britain, Canada and the US are having the same public discussion about their coinage.

Like it or not, the moneyless society is fast approaching. Octopus cards have taken us a long way there, although the possibility of theft prevents us from taking the next step. The Japanese approach - where the Octopus-equivalent, bank and credit cards and identity documents can all be inserted into a card on a mobile phone that can be topped up with electronic transfers - conveniently gets rid of wallets stuffed with banknotes, cards and coins. It's not far-fetched to envisage a micro-chip inserted under the skin of a fingertip that eliminates wallets altogether.

As much as I long for that day, it's going to be some time off while I live in Hong Kong, I sense. Laws move so slowly here that even after a legislator raises getting rid of coins that are more annoying than useful, a decade is likely to pass before they are confined to history. In the meantime, then, I will be reduced to counting coins into plastic bags and carrying fistfuls of them to bus stops and 7-Elevens.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post