The Money Nobody Wants

Unlike most Americans, New Jersey Transit ticket agent Philip Martin sees the Sacagawea dollar all the time. Commuters, who receive the golden coins as change from NJ Transit vending machines, use them to buy tickets from Martin, or simply trade them for dollar bills. Martin knows better than most how the public feels about the glittery currency. "People want to get rid of them," says Martin, who works in Morristown, N.J., about 30 miles west of New York City. "One guy said they were weighing down his pants."

That is not what the U.S. Mint wants to hear. Launched in January 2000 with great fanfare and a $40 million ad campaign featuring a hip George Washington, the Sacagawea dollar is intended as a flashy replacement for the Susan B. Anthony dollar, the Edsel of the coin world. The golden dollar was designed to overcome the Susie B's big drawback, that it was easily confused with a quarter. But more than a year after its debut, the new coin has failed to catch on with consumers or retailers, who prefer the familiar, nonjingling dollar bill. The golden coin is rarely seen and even more rarely used. At the Costco warehouse store in Van Nuys, Calif., which serves some 6,000 customers daily, only about five Sacagawea dollars turn up each day.

But the Mint isn't giving up. As part of a new push to promote the use of the coin, the government last month launched a campaign with Safeway Inc. to distribute 1.5 million golden dollars through its 1,500 supermarkets. Similar deals are in the works with other major retailers, including a nationwide chain of restaurants, which Mint officials declined to name.

Why is the U.S. Mint so intent on promoting a type of currency the public has almost no interest in using? It's not just a sop to coin collectors, who are hoarding millions. Mint officials say there are sound economic reasons for their efforts to sell the country on dollar coins. For one, paper money wears out quickly, in about a year and a half, compared with the 30-year life span of a coin. By some estimates, the government could save more than $400 million a year switching from dollar bills to dollar coins. And the Mint already makes a nice piece of change on the coins. The golden dollar returned more than $800 million to federal coffers last year. That figure is the difference between the face value of the coins delivered to the Federal Reserve and the cost to make them, which is 12 cents apiece. The coin does have a few boosters: vending-machine operators say machines that sell food and beverages lose about $150 million a year in sales due to rejected dollar bills.

Mint officials deny they are trying to jam coins down the throat of an unwilling public and maintain that the coin is a hit, sort of. "The goal for the first year was awareness, and in terms of that, this coin is already a success," says Mint director Jay Johnson, citing a Mint study that shows that 90 percent of Americans know about the coin. Still, he acknowledges that the Mint's next goal is actually "getting people to use this coin, to spend it and find out that it does make transactions more convenient." But many consumers, including Brigid Brahe, are going to be difficult to persuade. The 37-year-old software manager from Oakland, Calif., hates getting the golden dollars back as change. "It sucks to haul all that weight around," she says. Which is one reason the coins are easier to find in dresser drawers than cashier drawers.