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Got any change? Here's the scoop on the national coin shortage

It might be time to start digging under couch cushions.

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The shortage isn't about fewer coins in circulation but a decrease in coin usage by consumers.

Angela Lang/CNET

Since the start of the pandemic, we've been shifting how we socialize, how we sanitize and how we spend money. Over the last year and a half, as stores and restaurants shuttered across the country (and we've wanted to touch fewer things), we've increasingly resorted to buying items online, using plastic.

And as we pay for things more with debit and credit cards and less with bills and change, coins are sitting in jars at home instead of in cash register drawers. So even though metal currency is still being produced, it's not passing through the economy at the rate it used to. The situation isn't as bad as it was a number of months ago, but it's still causing problems for businesses and others. 

Here's what's up with the national coin shortage, why the exchange of coins matters and what you can do about it.

Is there really a national coin shortage?

First -- as the Federal Reserve wants you to know -- the problem is not a lack of coins. The Fed said it's producing enough of them, minting 14.8 billion pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, 50-cent pieces and dollar coins in 2020, a 24% increase from the 11.9 billion coins produced in 2019.

Instead, the Fed says, the problem is that businesses and banks around the country are having a hard time getting that metal currency. Due to the pandemic the coins are collecting dust when they should be continually circulating through the economy. 

In nonpandemic years, transactions at retail stores, vending machines, payment kiosks and banks would be enough to keep coins flowing. The US Mint said in 2019 retail and other financial transactions accounted for 83% of the flow of coins in circulation; just the remaining 17% came from newly minted coins.

When the country shut down last year, the share of credit card payments for the first time eclipsed cash payments, the Fed said, as we held onto to bills and coins instead of spending them.

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Through the pandemic, we've used paper money and coins much less than before.

Angela Lang/CNET

What's wrong with having fewer coins in circulation?

The concern with the growing stockpiles of coins -- beyond that you can't snap shut your bulging coin purse -- is that businesses will be unable to complete cash transactions if they lack coins to make change. 

And a coin shortage can disproportionately hit lower-income families that don't have debit or credit cards and that rely on cash payments. According to a survey conducted prior to the pandemic, 29% of lower-income Americans (making less than $30,000 per year) said they make all or almost all of their purchases using cash -- versus 7% for individuals making $75,000 or more per year.

How can we get more coins to circulate?

The Federal Reserve is concerned enough about the coin supply problem that it's convened a U.S. Coin Task Force to look for ways to get coins moving. To start, the task force encourages individuals to start spending their coins, pay with exact change, deposit spare coins at a financial institution and redeem coins at a coin kiosk or recycler. 

To make the case, the Mint has made its own public service announcement, asking for the public's help in getting coins back into the system. 

For more on your money, here's what's happening with the monthly child credit payments -- including how the payments this year could affect your taxes next year -- and how to see if you can claim money your state is holding for you.