U.S. coin shortage prompts stress at laundromats
Restaurants and retailers encouraged digital and credit card payments, causing the coin shortage during the pandemic
The night before she was scheduled to serve jury duty, Kuromi Hendricks realized the clothes she planned to wear were dirty. She couldn’t find the 12 quarters required for a wash and dry at her Boston apartment building.
By 11 p.m., desperation took hold. She hopped in a $10 Uber to the only place she knew was open and might have spare change—a 24-hour cafe with a couple of arcade games. Not wanting to use the business just for their coins, she ordered a lemonade, asked for about $5 in quarters, played a few rounds of pinball, and headed home to wash.
"They’ve gotten me out of a pinch a couple times with quarters," Ms. Hendricks said.
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The scarcity of spare change—brought on as people leaned on digital transactions and fewer coins circulated—has pushed the quarter-dependent to extremes. Many have spent hours trekking across their cities in search of coins they used to easily procure from local bank branches. One couple hauled four loads of laundry across several states where they could use a relative’s machines. And in some buildings, the yearning for clean sweatpants has resulted in neighbors forging closer bonds.
The flow of change first slowed in the spring of 2020. Restaurants and retailers posted signs encouraging digital and credit card payments and even asked people to exchange spare coins. The problem eased toward the end of 2020 but made a comeback in March as businesses were preparing for an influx of cash transactions after vaccination rates ramped up. Around that time, coin requests from banks began to outpace deposits, according to the Federal Reserve, which provides cash to banks through its regional banks.
Now there isn’t enough coin to go around, and the central bank is limiting orders on pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Banks and other financial institutions deposited about 15% fewer coins at their local Fed banks through mid-July compared with the same stretch last year, the central bank said. Coin deposits were 45% below 2019 over the same period.
Some bank branches are saving coveted coin rolls for their customers, according to apartment dwellers who have asked for quarter rolls at banks where they don’t have accounts. Other banks are telling would-be washers that they have no change to spare.
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Mitch Swan realized he didn’t have enough quarters to dry a load when it was halfway through the rinse cycle. He left his West Hollywood, Calif., apartment building and scoured small businesses for change, including bodegas, liquor stores and smoke shops on Santa Monica Boulevard. By the time he snagged the handful of quarters standing between him and dry pants, his wet clothes had spent 60 idle minutes in the washing machine.
"It was ridiculous that I had to spend that much time and energy finding quarters," he said.
Digital options, such as reloadable payment cards or smartphone apps are gaining ground, but quarters have long been the default payment option, said Matt Miller, president of Coin-O-Matic, which outfits laundry machines with a variety of payment systems.
Demand for machines equipped with digital payment capabilities has roughly doubled since the start of the pandemic, Mr. Miller said. The most popular digital payment method is an app that users load money for laundry and connects to laundry machines via Bluetooth. Washers and dryers that accept credit or debit cards are less common because they require real-time Internet connections, which can be difficult to guarantee in the basements where many laundry rooms are located.
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Families have come through for some of the coin-deprived. Aeryn Emmerich-Wise and her husband piled four loads of dirty laundry into their car for the nine-hour drive from the borough of Queens in New York City to visit relatives in North Carolina, after both sets of in-laws encouraged them to do so. Before that, Mrs. Emmerich-Wise didn’t wash her favorite pair of jean shorts for about three months. She finally gave up and ordered a new pair because she was having such a hard time finding quarters.
"It’s almost easier to drive 12 hours and just do all our laundry there than to find quarters," she said.
Ira Cekici’s parents gathered up all the quarters they could find after listening to her complain about the difficulty of doing laundry in her new Boston apartment. After visiting a Bank of America Corp. branch for a few more quarter rolls, they presented her with a useful housewarming gift: $40 in the form of 160 quarters—the equivalent of 20 loads in her building. Since then, she’s run out of coins and is back to scrambling for change, she said.
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A defective dryer devoured one of Gina Metge’s quarters at her Denver apartment early in the spring of 2020 as a heavy snowstorm descended on the city. Not wanting to venture out, Ms. Metge knocked on the door of the neighbor who came to her rescue with the handful of change she needed. Since then, Ms. Metge has moved to Sante Fe, N.M. and fortunately, her new place has a washer and dryer.
"The camaraderie grew among my neighbors because we were the only people we were interacting with," Ms. Metge said. "We all looked like garbage and were just trying to wash our sweatpants."