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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin’s Cousin—the Two Dollar Bill (March 3, 2009)

Oftentimes I write about the random, every day things I notice. Today’s topic won’t change your life but it’s something to think about: two-dollar bills. The last time I thought about a 2-dollar bill may have been more than twenty years ago, when my dad gave my sister one of them. I hadn’t even known they existed. Today I had an unexpected reunion with the 2-dollar bill, and the questions added up: Why were they created? Why were there so few printed? Had they been discontinued?

My curiosity about this rare bird began at the recycling center near my house. A few months ago I brought what I thought was a lot of glass, plastic and aluminum cans to the recycling center. Fifteen minutes later I emerged with $5 and change, not the killing I’d imagined. Still, recycling takes almost no effort to do, and I decided to see how much money I could earn taking it in myself for a year.

Today’s recycling earnings totaled $6.29. To my surprise, the woman dispensing my fortune handed me three two-dollar bills. All three were perfectly crisp, without a single crease. They had the words “2003 series” on them, making them 6 years old, yet seemingly brand-new. I had a 2004 series 1-dollar bill in my wallet that had been folded, crumpled, and traded enough times to render it velvety soft. Had these 2-dollar bills been sitting somewhere safe for six years, away from people, air, traffic, and contamination of any kind? Had Bernie Madoff had them in an airtight vault in his Manhatten apartment? Did they line the shelves of cabinets he never used? Why were the ones I received today so fresh and unlined, so… UNused?

The contrast of the scene fascinated me: receiving pristine, new bills at a recycling center, where the air smells of old beer, where aged, used, sticky bottles and cans fill cavernous dumpsters. I liked the incongruence of getting a very rare bill at a place where you trade in something very common. Recycling places are where old bottles and cans are traded for money, both of which will circulate again and again. Recycled items and money have unknown histories and will have many lives, whereas these unused two-dollar bills seemed to have no past.

I went online in hopes of answering this question: how rare is a 2-dollar bill compared to the ubiquitous 1-dollar bill? I need money, I spend it almost every day, but I know very little about the whys and hows of its printing. Here are a few facts many of us probably did not know:

US currency bills are printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), which prints more than 16 million one-dollar bills each day. Most of these are used to replace worn, older bills, which are shredded. According to the US Treasury, there are billions of one-dollar bills in circulation.

On average, a dollar bill has a life span of 18-22 months, whereas coins have an average life span of 25 years. No wonder the Treasury keeps pushing to popularize the one-dollar coin.

Two-dollar bills were printed in 1976 and again in 2003, when 121,600,000 were printed. As of April 30, 2007 there were more than $1.5 billion worth of $2 bills in circulation worldwide. Most stores do not carry them because their cash registers don’t have a spot for them, but you can request them at your bank.

Although 2-dollar bills are relatively rare, they are still worth only $2.

Now I know a bit more about this unusual bill. Does this information change my life? No. But my brain is always working on something, always curious, and I like discovery. At a nondescript recycling center I brought old cans and formed new questions in my mind. It was fun for me to answer my own questions, and it’s another example that learning opportunities are everywhere, tucked into the most unlikely places.

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