A single-handed effort to keep the memory of $2 bills alive

As I noted when I told the story of the computer programmer who dabbled in making change that my colleague had a lot of money-related quirks.

For some reason my colleague felt the $2 bill deserved more attention. Every so often, he would go to the bank and buy $100 in $2 bills, then reintroduce the bills into circulation and enjoy people's reactions to them. (Most cashiers looked at it and recognized that it was legal tender, but couldn't find a good place to put it in the till. It usually got tossed under the drawer with all the checks.)

It was a regular occurrence that the bank didn't have that many $2 bills on hand, but they managed to find them and let him know when he could come pick them up.

One time, the bank called him back. "Hi, we asked all our branches in the entire county, but all together we can't find enough $2 bills. If you want, we can place an order with the Federal Reserve. The catch is, though, that the minimum order is $2000."

"Sure, go ahead and place the order."

Some time later, he went in to pick up his huge stack of $2 bills.

My colleague now found himself in a situation where something fun turned into an ordeal, like a smoker who is forced to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes at one sitting. Or in this case, more like 1000 cigarettes.

At the end of group meals at a restaurant, after everybody had calculated their share and put their money in the bill holder (this being the days when people actually paid cash for things), he would raid the bill holder for change, taking out all the notes greater than $2 and replacing them with the appropriate number of $2 bills. As a result, when the servers came to collect the bill holders, they found them stuffed with $1 and $2 bills (mostly $2).

Too bad he didn't make a pad out of them.

Bonus reading: $1 billion that nobody wants. Follow-up.

Comments (43)
  1. lister says:

    As a Canadian with a $2 bill (now coin for a number of years) I've always been perplexed at the American reluctance of the $2 currency. Trips down to the US that resulted in a fist full of $1 bills was annoying. At one point I had 19 $1 bills on one trip. For the cab ride back to the airport I paid the cabbie with them to get rid of them. So for the Americans out there, what the heck is your problem with a $2 currency?!

    I'm also annoyed at your reluctance to $1 coins. We've had $1 (loonie) and $2 (toonie) coins for a number of years and I much prefer them to bills. The wallet doesn't get as fat as before. Getting a pocket full of change doesn't happen all that often.

  2. bdcrazy says:

    Most vending machines don't take $2 bills, nor $1 coins.

  3. Sven Groot says:

    I also find it strange that the americans still refuse to accept $1 coins. Back in the Netherlands, before the Euro, we had 1, 2.50 and 5 guilder coins (and smaller ones). The Euro has €1 and €2. And in Japan (where I live now), we have ¥100 and ¥500 coins. The latter is worth $6.50 at the current exchange rate!

    An annoyance in Japan though is that they have no really large denominations in banknotes. The largest banknote is ¥10,000 (roughly $130). That seems fine, but every six months I have to pay my universtiy tuition, and thanks to the ridiculously archaic bank system they don't accept transfers from my bank. So I have to go to an ATM from my bank, withdraw ¥260,000, go to another bank, and make a "cash transfer" to the university's account. That ends up being a ridiculous pile of 26 bills, because there's nothing larger. Although I suppose it's nothing compared to the 500 $2 bills your colleague had. :)

  4. No One says:

    Ones aren't that annoying if you're used to them — they don't collect to ridiculous amounts unless you're not using them but are using a lot of cash in general.  It becomes a little ridiculous when you have ten or so people out to eat and the bill splits to $13 each and one wants to pay on his card and just collect the cash.  But in that case coins would be even worse!

    I guess Americans just don't like coins at all, really.  At least, I don't.  So removing the $1 bill and transitioning solely to $1 coins would just make me want to use cash even less than my already abysmal usage rate.

  5. sRc says:

    $1 coins are somewhat regular in my area of the US. I usually get $1 coins from change machines, and all the vending machines I use take them.

  6. Rick C says:

    In South Carolina, there used to be a strip club that handed out $2 bills instead of $1 bills in change, to make customers pay more.  I had an opportunity to talk to the owner once, as I ran into him at a store, and he mentioned that he got something like $20,000 in $2 bills every week (month?  I don't remember, as it was about 6 years ago) from the local bank.  That's probably part of the reason they're so scarce elsewhere. :)

    It had the amusing side effect that people tended to think of a $2 as meaning you'd been to the strip club.  A co-worker told me her son gave her some to use to pay for a restaurant bill and only after getting a weird look from the server for using them as tips did he tell her the significance.

  7. Tim says:

    I don't think the $1 coin will take off here until we get rid of the $1 bill (while we're at it, let's get rid of the penny…and nickel).

  8. Cashiers will generally accept non-canonical tender ($2 bills, dollar coins, etc.) but not give them out as change, hence sticking the $2 with the checks. (There's usually an extra coin bin for non-canonical coins, too.)


  9. Evan says:

    @No One: "I guess Americans just don't like coins at all, really.  At least, I don't."

    I'm in that basket too. I like to use cash for smaller purchases, but I don't like coins. They clank around and feel weird in my pocket. I've got a cupholder in my office, a little plastic container at home, and the typical change holder in my car, and pretty much as soon as I get to one of those places I empty the change out of my pockets.

  10. Paul says:

    I do the exact same thing as your friend, but I mainly use them for payment at the drive-thru.

  11. GWO says:

    @Maurits: You're lucky then, that the US coin selection is "perfect" for making change. The greedy algorithm (pay the largest value coin less than the running total) will always result in getting the right amount with the fewest coins.

    This is not always the case with the rest of the world. For particularly for pathological coin values (1 Galleons = 17 Sickles = 493 Knuts being the best known) you can end up having to do backtracking / alternate strategies just to make "optimal" change. I believe its NP hard, in general…

  12. JM says:

    @GWO: it's NP-complete, even — it's the subset sum problem. For small values, though (which are common in real instances of this problem) it's not so bad.

  13. PlexMan says:

    My wife wanted to go on a weekend gambling trip with here sisters.  I gave her $300 in $2 bills.  Kind of a joke.  Slot machines wouldn't accept the bills.  When she went to the teller cage to redeem for other denomination the reaction of the teller was priceless.  She ranted and raved that they were bad luck in the casino.

    My take, it's bad luck to be superstitious.

  14. Greg D says:

    I am like your friend, but with presidential $1 coins.  (The Sacajawea coins are too common to be fun.)  I regularly get $250 in $1 coins from the mint to add to distribution.  Some of my more regular petty cash stops recognize me and have commented that I must go to the post office quite often, as that's their only experience with receiving the coins.

  15. Mason Wheeler says:

    I lived in Argentina for a few years.  Their currency system is similar in scale to ours, with pesos (basic denomination) and centavos (1/100 of a peso).  Coins went from 5 centavos up to 1 peso, and 1 peso coins were as common as any other.  (And obviously-counterfeit 1 peso coins were incredibly common, but no one seemed to care and everyone accepted them. Go figure.)  And bills went from 2 pesos to 100 pesos.  A 1 peso bill does not exist as far as I know.  A few 1 centavo coins exist, but they're mostly novelty items and no one uses them to buy stuff with.

  16. GregM says:

    I would use the coins if I actually received them.  I can count on one hand the number of times I have received a $1 coin without explicitly going to the bank to get a roll of them.  My daughter has a few because the tooth fairy gives them out.

    When they first introduced them around here, they were available at banks and WalMart, and that's about it.  I don't pay cash at WalMart, and the only cash I get at banks is $20 bills, so there was generally no opportunity to receive them.  If the banks would give them out to business customers instead of $1 bills, then they might actually make it into circulation.

  17. Boris says:

    This post prompted me to check the coin pocket of my wallet: 1 quarter, 2 dimes, 2 nickels, and 9 pennies. The truth is, I don't use cash much, coins even less often. My current pattern of bus use makes it possible to buy tickets by credit card (There are no ticket machines where I live, but plenty where I use buses, so on rare occasion when I do need to use a bus where I live, I'll have tickets). Most cash I use is to pay or give gifts to family and keeping my wallet stuffed with mostly 20s works out well for that. On rare occasion I need to pay cash, the cashier will likely give change.

    This was not always the case. I used to have a lot of $1 coins from change machines at the subway or laundromat, but nowadays not so much. Even vending machines often take credit cards now.

  18. Greg D says:

    I really believe in the $1 coins.  The real value of the denomination is much more akin to what I think a coin should be (vs a bill), and they're far more convenient to count out than dollar bills are.  They're more durable, they don't inflate my wallet like a wad of $1 bills, and they always work on the first try in a vending machine.  No smoothing required.  Thinking about it, I'd even be OK with $5 coins and making the new base denomination for bills $10.

  19. RichardDeeming says:

    @Sven Groot: "… the 500 $2 bills your colleague had …"

    I hope you're not taking maths at university! :)

    ($2000 / $2 != 500)

  20. DysgraphicProgrammer says:

    We have a vending machine at work that accepts bills up to $20s, and gives back dollar coins as change. Mostly the dollar coins go into our desks, and then back into the vending machine.

  21. Skyborne says:

    My mom collects the coins.  I found this out when I was complaining I didn't know what to do with them, after getting some 13 $1 coins in change at a post office vending machine.

    The vending machines at university accepted them, but they also had card readers.  Then there was the night a friend and I used a paperclip to dig out about $3 of change someone had jammed into the coin slot.  NOT ACCEPTING CHANGE: ADD MOAR!

  22. High Rolla says:

    No cash on hand? I thought in America you can't make the scene if you don't have the green. (Would explain why coins aren't popular either.)

  23. Gabe says:

    I think that when I first heard of the idea of making pads of $2 bills, it was Steve Wozniak doing that.

    I love giving using $2's, but they're hard to find. Sometimes I go into the bank to ask for all they have, and only get a few (if any). My in-laws give me cash presents in the form of $2's if they can get them.

  24. Miff says:

    As for the $1 coin in the US, the lack of popularity of wallets with coin slots in the US means that people have generally stopped caring about coins, or those things you put in your pocket and then they fall out when you sit down.

  25. Tom says:

    @GWO, JM: If you have an unlimited supply of each type of coin, then the problem is polynomial-time.  In fact, it's O(mn), where m = the number of coin denominations, and n = the amount to be paid.

    The making-change problem is identical to the postage-stamp problem, which is often used to illustrate dynamic programming.

  26. Wyatt says:

    To quote Marge Simpson, "It's a Sacagawea dollar, you can take it to the bank and exchange it for a real dollar"

  27. Anonymous Coward says:

    Ordeal? I would consider it a challenge, or a fun game even.

  28. ender says:

    I personally dislike coins – they're heavy, and they rattle in the wallet. Before we switched to Euro, the largest coin we had for a long time was worth roughly €0.025, which meant that I didn't have to bother picking them up at the cashier even as a student with no income. A few years before the Euro transition, they introduced some larger coins, as a preparation to the ridiculous Euro coin denominations.

  29. Crescens2k says:

    On the other hand. We have always had coins up to £1 (notes from £5 and above) and just dealt with it. I guess it is just a case of you get used to what you are raised with.

    Thinking about the $2 bill stories reminded me of what happened when they introduced the £2 coin here a few years ago. People complained, swore they would never use them and even went to the point of refusing to take them as change. But things calmed down and they are actually used quite a bit now.

  30. Pink Duck says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the world just got on with it and introduced electronic payment by mobile phone or card for low-value transactions? Who cares if money flow can be tracked? It would likely reduce fraud and improve the economy.

  31. GWO says:

    @Tom: This paper disagrees with you: arxiv.org/pdf/0809.0400

  32. Jon says:

    @Pink Duck

    I would certainly appreciate the ability to pay by phone becoming popular here. I have a prepaid phone, and go through the balance slowly enough that I always have money left over when the expiration date comes up and I have to reload anyways. My balance keeps slowly growing and there isn't anything to spend it on.

  33. Jon says:

    @Tom, GWO

    The problem is pseudo-polynomial. Using the dynamic programming solution, the time to make $N of change is polynomial in terms of N, but NP-completeness deals with the input length. Each time you add one digit to N, the problem gets 10 times harder to solve, which is where the exponential comes from.

  34. Damien says:

    @Crescens2k – I'm guessing you're somewhere other than the UK then, but use £s, since the pound coin was introduced about a decade after the switch to decimal currency (as the £1 was phased out).

  35. Iain Clarke says:


    As Damien said, it's well within living memory that pound notes were in circulation south of the border.

    I'm not sure if it's still true, but within a few years ago, there were plenty of pound notes in Scotland. I used to make sure to bring them south, just to confuse folk.

    Best confusion I saw, was when a customer of ours from Belfast, tried to spend NI pounds in an Irish Bar in mainland UK…


  36. Nawak says:

    @Jon: I spend my extra phone credits by buying MP3s with premium-rate SMS. My balance is reset each month so there's a great incentive to use it.

    Just an idea…

  37. @Richard Deeming

    I'm pretty sure they don't teach "maths" in Japan.

  38. No One says:

    @MIkeGall: I'm guessing that since there's no "Japanese English" it's hard to say he's /wrong/ for writing "maths" and, even if there were a "Japanese English", it's still not exactly "wrong" to use one dialect of English when writing about things happening in a region where a different dialect is in use, especially since the whole global internet thing.  I mean, really, dialectal spelling differences are quite the nits to pick.

  39. Anonymous Coward says:

    Obviously he should have said 数学. «rolls eyes»

  40. @Damien, Ian

    Nope, I live perfectly well in the southern parts of the UK. But I think I know what the problem is, pound notes aren't in my living memory at all, I'm too young. The pound notes was discontinued in 1984, I was 3. By the time I could actually remember anything and even paid attention to money it was all coins.

    But you are right, while it has always been coins for me , I shouldn't assume that it is the same for everyone. But the same is also true for you two, there are pleanty of younger people who don't even know at one time pound notes existed.

  41. Mark says:

    Crescens2k: you'll probably not remember decimal halfpennies either. Many of my parent's generation still deny that they existed, but I remember playing with them as a kid (they were useless by then):


  42. Anthony Wieser says:

    Fred's sportsman's bar in New Glarus, WI gives them out as change to this day.

    Go in and get a New Glarus beer, and then try out the largest urinal down the street!

    The bills are handy elsewhere, because sometimes you get change for $20!

  43. pplu says:

    Following the posts for "correct change" just made me remeber about Ali-G solving all our change problems during an interview with "chief economics advisor to Ronald Reagan"


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