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Do You Know What Metals Are Used in U.S. Coins?

Is your piggy bank filled with gold or silver? Find out!

Everyone knows the coins in a pirate’s hidden treasure are gold coins, but what about the quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies you and I use today? Are they made of precious metals like silver and gold? The answer is: they used to be!

Way back in 1792, when America was only 16 years old, Congress passed the Coinage Act. This Act said what kinds of coins the U.S. Mint was going to print as official money and the value of each coin in gold, silver, or copper. Originally, there were 10 different coins: eagles (worth $10), half eagles ($5), quarter eagles ($2.50), dollars ($1), half dollars ($.50), quarters ($.25), dimes ($.10), nickels ($.05), pennies ($.01), and half pennies ($.005).girl saving money in a jar

They needed all these types of coins because they were not printing paper money yet. Imagine carrying around all of those heavy coins in your pocket!

The metals used to make coins were chosen not only because they are valuable, but also because they are very durable, resist wear-and-tear, and have anti-corrosion properties. The oils from our skin and the water that gets on the coins shouldn’t make them rust or tarnish (change color).

Because gold and silver are precious metals—meaning they are rare and lots of people want them—pretty soon the value of the metal inside the coins grew to more than the face value of the coins (the value printed on the coin, like $.25 for a quarter). For example, if the silver inside a one-dollar coin was worth $5, then the government would lose money making the coin and people would want to melt the coin down for the metal and not spend it in stores to buy things. This is why the value of the metal inside a coin should never be more than the value stamped on the coin’s face.

Gold coins were removed from circulation in 1933, but silver coins continued to circulate. Eventually, just like the gold coins, the silver metal inside silver coins was worth more than their face value. So, silver was removed from all coins in 1964.

What’s inside our coins now?

Metals such as copper, nickel, and zinc are used to make everyday coins now. The coins that still look like they’re made from silver—half dollars, quarters, dims, and nickels—are actually made from a copper-nickel combination, called Cupro-Nickel, and steel. These metals were chosen because they are durable, inexpensive to get, and recyclable. Pennies are made primarily from copper-plated zinc.

Your piggy bank may not glow like a Leprechaun’s pot of gold coins, but all of your quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies still add up! Keep saving them and you can take them to your credit union and exchange them for dollar bills or put them into a savings account to spend later.

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