Why the Copper Penny Is Worth More Than One Cent

Close-up of penny
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The prices of most commodities have risen substantially since the turn of the century, and some of the coins you have in your pocket or piggy bank are worth more today than in the past.

Pennies used to be made from 95% copper, at least until 1982. Since 2000, the price of copper has risen dramatically, making the meltdown value of these pennies more than the face value of the coin. Commodity prices continue to rise and fall with market changes, which affect the current metal value of the penny.

It's currently illegal to melt down U.S. coins. Investors hoping to gain from the future worth of the copper in their old pennies are counting on the penny eventually being discontinued as legal tender and the government allowing the copper coins to be sold for the value of their metal.

The Copper and Zinc in a Penny

A pre-1982 penny consists of 95% copper and 5% zinc. It contains about 2.95 grams of copper, and there are 453.59 grams in a pound. The price of copper on September 16, 2019, was $2.64 a pound, which meant the copper in each penny was worth about 1.7 cents. Thus, the meltdown value of a pre-1982 penny was about 70% more than the face value.

Beginning in 1982, pennies began to be manufactured out of zinc, amounting to 97.5% of the mass of the coin, with a thin copper coating that amounted to 2.5% of the penny's mass. Some pennies dated 1982 are of the almost-all-copper type, and some are the mostly zinc kind. You can tell them apart by weighing them if you have a sensitive scale: The majority-copper ones weigh 3.11 grams, and the majority-zinc ones weigh 2.5 grams.

The price of zinc has also increased since 2000, though it's down from a peak of $2.06 a pound in November 2006. As of September 16, 2019, zinc was valued at $1.08 a pound. The 2.43 grams of zinc in a post-1982 penny was then worth six-tenths of a cent.

Calculating the Penny's Meltdown Price

The meltdown value of pre-1982 pennies is calculated using the following formula that's also given with the unchanging values filled in:

(price of copper per pound x weight of penny x percentage of penny that's copper) / number of grams in a pound = value of copper in a penny

(price of copper per pound x 3.11 grams x 0.95) / 453.59 grams = value of copper in a penny

The meltdown values of other coins, including the mostly zinc penny, are calculated in the same way, substituting copper's values with those of the majority metal.

Buying Pennies

You can go to a bank or anywhere else that has large quantities of pennies and buy them at face value, however it can be time-consuming to sort through and isolate the mostly copper ones. Some companies sell bulk pennies that have already been sorted, but they will charge you a premium.

A Warning About Legality

Because of the increasing value of copper and other metals, in 2006, the U.S. government imposed a penalty for melting pennies or nickels: a fine of up to a $10,000 or up to five years in prison, or both. For that reason, if you're thinking of buying up lots of copper pennies, you would have to consider it to be a long-term investment.

The U.S. Mint has entertained the thought of stopping penny production because of the high price of minting the coin but has yet to officially do so. Many other countries have already done away with their version of the penny. If and when the U.S. penny is abandoned, it is likely to become legal to melt the coins down for their copper content.

Collecting and Storing Pennies

Investors and collectors have already begun hoarding pennies. It will likely become more difficult to find pre-1982 pennies in the years to come, especially if the price of copper continues to move higher.

One thousand dollars worth of pennies consists of 100,000 coins, and $10,000 is equal to 1 million pennies. If you decided to get your hands on such a large number of pennies, you might run into a storage issue.

On a smaller scale, there's nothing's wrong with sorting through spare change every week and putting the copper pennies in a container to save for the day when they could be worth a good deal more.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance, or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.