Penny Here, Penny There


It may be a sign of impending old age, but a few residents in Wisconsin’s St. Croix Valley still get excited finding a wheat penny. In fact, a fast talking community booster recently freed a penny from an icy tomb in a parking lot. Too shiny for a wheat cent, it still found a place in a coat pocket.

The wheat penny or wheat cent has a special place with U.S. currency. It’s a coveted treasure. The distinctive penny gets its name from the two wheat stalks or sheaves on the reverse side of the coin, with ONE CENT and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA between the wheat. And of course, E PLURISBUS UNUM – Latin for out of many, one – is along the top. The front of the penny features the likeness of President Abraham Lincoln.

Wheat pennies were produced from 1909 through 1958. 1909 marked the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, and the roll-out of the wheatie was the first time a president was featured on a circulating U.S. coin. Commemorating the 150th anniversary of Abe’s birth, the design was changed to include the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty years of wheat sheaves was a good run.

Pennies are tied to many phrases:
-penny saved is a penny earned (money not spent now may be spent later)
-bad penny (unpleasant or unwanted person or thing)
-penny wise and pound foolish (don’t focus on the little things and lose sight of the big picture)
-in for a penny, in for a pound (all-in on something)
-penny for your thoughts (to ask what a person is thinking)
-worth every penny (completely worthwhile)
-penny pincher (a frugal person)
-cost a pretty penny (very expensive)
-shiny as a new penny (extremely bright and clean)
-pennies from heaven (unexpected good fortune, a windfall)

Whether it’s a penny, nickel or dime, experts say the use of spare change is in decline. Fewer Americans find a useful purpose for change. Credit cards and other hip electronic payment methods are seemingly more attractive than cash options. Using cash results in an unwanted quarter, dime and three pennies in spare change.

Does nearly $20 million in sales tax distributions from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue to St. Croix, Polk, and Pierce counties put the lowly penny in better standing? All three counties collect an extra half-cent on top of the state’s five cents assessed to taxable goods and services. On a $100 taxable purchase, merchants collect an extra $5.50. Our friends in Madison keep five dollars and return fifty cents to the county where the purchase occurred. In 2022, St. Croix earned $11.9 million (rounded) from Revenue; Pierce got $3.23 million and Polk received $4.83 million. All three counties use the distributions in different ways, but most importantly, they lower property tax bills. Rather than borrow money, special projects are paid for with cash. The interest charged on borrowing is avoided.

The lowly penny has great value. Tourists and travelers in the St. Croix Valley are encouraged to spend away. Ten percent of the sales tax revenue will find its way back. Old Abe would be proud of how a coin bearing his likeness provides ongoing benefits, one cent or a half-cent at a time.