Saved is a Penny Earned
I came home to dinner and my wife asked me what I had done today. I said,
"As I was walking from Hylan Hall to the Faculty Club I came upon a penny lying in the slush, and so I picked it up. It was covered with dirty snow, full of the salt they put on the walks to keep us from slipping and breaking our necks between buildings. I couldn't put it in my pocket without cleaning it off, so I took a Kleenex out of my coat pocket (something rather hard to do with my gloves on) and wiped it off. After all, a penny saved is tax-free."
I like that line, "A penny saved is tax-free," and I have been saying it for a long time. Sonya (my wife) must be tired of it by now, but then, I'm pretty tired of some of the things she says. We've been married for forty-six years.
So that's approximately what I said to her, before I asked her which sort of wine we needed with dinner, and went down to the cellar to get a suitable bottle. As I selected the wine (a Cabernet Sauvignon) I thought about the penny: Is it really tax-free? I think not. The IRS tax regulations probably include windfalls like a found penny under "Other Income," Line 22 near the bottom of Page 1 of Form 1040. I've been ignoring this for years. I once even found a dime, and never mentioned it to the IRS.
On the other hand, there are certain expenses associated with picking up a penny, especially in the winter. That Kleenex, for example, how much did that cost? Coming upstairs with the wine, I got out the corkscrew and began to open it, asking Sonya, "How much does a box of Kleenex cost?" Various prices, she said, though she generally looked for specials. If you found a good special it might be as little as 87 cents. Since there are 200 Kleenices in a box, it had cost me well over a third of a cent to clean off that penny and keep it from dirtying my pocket. I could deduct that, I thought, with IRS approval (Schedule A, Line 20).
But then, how much would I actually be earning for the time I put in? I know the IRS doesn't worry about such things, but I do. Time is money. I sniffed at the wine (not bad; a Charles Krug Napa Valley Cabernet, 1988) and imagined myself standing ankle-deep in a sea of shiny new pennies. How much could I actually earn if I bent over and picked them up, one at a time, and put them in my pocket? No muss, no fuss, no Kleenex; just pure windfall pennies from Heaven.
Well, my back isn't what it used to be, but the IRS isn't much interested in that either. Let's suppose me a healthy young man, picking up pennies -- one at a time, remember, and putting each one separately in my pocket before stooping for the next one -- and suppose I were trying to make a living thereby. Even ankle-deep in pennies, I can't imagine gathering them in at a rate of more than about five per minute, tops.
Of course, if I were a professional penny-picker I would be best off using a shovel or something, but the situation I'm trying to imagine is not meant to be real, but rather a sort of condensation of years and years of picking them up one at a time, a putting together of one's actual experience in finding pennies. Over the course of my life, that is, at what rate do I get paid when I pick up pennies, one at a time, and put them in my pocket?
Five pennies per minute comes to $3.00 per hour, less expenses. In my childhood, in the days of the Great Depression, that would have been a handsome wage, worth anyone's while, almost. Indeed I remember my childhood very well, on Chene Street in Detroit, not far from a closed and empty Chrysler plant, with unemployed men warming their hands over scrap wood fires in perforated steel barrels on street corners. A penny dropped on the ground in those days didn't stay there very long; the man who picked one up could get a whole hunk of bread, or a Tootsie Roll, for a penny. For five of them he could buy a hamburger.
But today a windfall penny is as nothing, and even accumulated into $3.00 an hour it is less than Minimum Wage -- maybe 0.K. for youngsters needing an entry-level part-time introduction to the world of productive labor, but not really attractive for a college professor with his own lumbar surgeon and a taste for Cabernet Sauvignon. And when you consider the Kleenex and taxes?
"O.K." I told Sonya as we toasted each other across the dinner table, "I won't do it again."
Ralph A. Raimi
28 February 1994