Dear Matthew Alice: How much money does the federal government spend to make a penny? It doesn't make much sense to spend five cents to make a one-cent coin. — Rosemary F., San Diego
You and Congress seem to be thinking along the same lines (not necessarily a good sign, Rosemary). By law, the U.S. Mint is required to spend less than a penny to produce a penny. Each coin costs in the neighborhood of 66/100 of a cent to produce. This is part of what prompted the switch from all-copper pennies to copper-coated zinc pennies in 1981. Price volatility of the ore threatened to make the copper in a penny worth more than the coin itself, encouraging the enterprising among us to melt them down and sell the metal at a profit. The Mint buys penny blanks for around 44/100 of a cent each; the design-striking process adds the remaining 22/100 to the cost. The seemingly worthless penny is still one of the most widely circulated coins, despite ongoing efforts to end production. They’re in constant demand (unlike the nickel, the coin we seem to use least), perhaps because, by the Mint’s own guesstimate, 25 percent of all pennies released into circulation have actually fallen into cracks between our nation’s couch pillows, are lost in our shag rugs, or are being accumulated in jars on our dresser-tops, waiting for the time when we’re bored enough to count them, wrap them, and cash them in.