We truly live in a world of extremes. One hand millions are made or lost in a nano second thanks to commodities, foreign exchange or equity trading done by a banker over a supercomputer. One the other hand one still need to be tied down to heavy bits of nickel/brass/copper alloys to be able to pay for a service or a product. Take a quick look at an average wallet or purse, there is a large compartment that is still dedicated to carrying coins. Coins? … The most ancient form of physical monetary exchange, still being dragged around and used in 2011.
When most of the money today exists in bits & bytes in our bank accounts, its astonishing how often these round bits of metal stop you in your tracks. Think of how many times you have stood in front of a parking meter, fumbling for that exact and almost always elusive combination of coins that will satisfy the metallic beast with an insatiable appetite of coins. Or at a kiosk trying to pay for that bar of chocolate where the amount is magic number which is too small to be paid by a credit card, but large enough to exhaust all the coins in your wallet but still leave you 5 cents short, and in effect without that bar of chocolate. This magic number which one is almost invariably short in exact change, is also called the Higgs Boson number (cousin of the elusive particle by the same name that scientists are lusting after).
The most infuriating experience being, when you land in a foreign country and receive a handful of coins back as change after you pay for coffee or a small item. Serendipity will invariably ensure that every possible denomination of coins is represented in that handful. Each one will be a different shape and the number written in a different illegible font hidden among flowery designs. And if this happens to be a coin from an arabic country, you might as well forget trying to decipher the value of that coin – as happened to me in the recent trip to Turkey. There is no way of knowing if that handful is enough to pay for your taxi ride or half a cup of turkish tea from a roadside vendor.
No sane person today can offer a credible explanation as to why coins are still needed. Everything can be paid for electronically, virtually or if you were to ask some Indian politicians – in mind.
The super efficient swiss realized the uselessness of coins long back and introduced a Cash card, which you can load up from an ATM and use it as a replacement of coins for small payments. But in their perennial quest for perfection, they forgot to ask the retailers if they would be willing to accept payment via these cash cards. So now most people carry a cash card in their pocket, which they cannot use for payments. The banks have now realized this foll and are moving away from this Cash chip/card. But as irony would have it, they forgot to inform their customers … thus the cycle continues and coins continue to thrive.
I predict that within the next 15 – 20 years, coins will be eradicated as a form of monetary payment. People wallets will be thinner and lighter, with no ugly bulges from the back of suit trousers and jeans, thanks to wallets loaded with coins. They will purely be of novelty value for collectors, means of historical education aids for kids or for political memorial purposes. I for that matter am willing to go a step further and propose bio-metric recognition like retina or fingerprint scans as the only means of payment, thus eliminating the need for even carrying credit cards and banknotes completely. This will effectively eliminate many of frauds but perhaps will inspire new schemes of identity or body snatchers. But as they say vice always follows virtue.