How many pre-1982 copper pennies are still in circulation?

Quick answer?  13.4 pennies in each role are pre-1982 (as of November 2014 in Ann Arbor MI).  Longer answer follows:

If you’re reading this post I’m assuming your not a regular reader (welcome to the site) since I don’t usually write about investing in currency.  My primary topic is financial independence with a focus on buying real estate as a means to this end.  Currency, commodities, and financial markets however have always been interests of mine and coin collecting runs in my family.

As a recap/summary: There are those out there that have deemed pre-1982 pennies and nickels (to the current day) as “risk free” investments because of the bullion value of the copper used to mint them.  You buy the coins at face value, assuming that the price of copper will continue to rise (which it probably will) and hold onto them until the U.S. government decides that it’s too expensive to continue to mint them in copper and switches to something cheaper such as zinc.  At that point, the coins with the more valuable metal, in this case copper, become collectors items.  This happened with silver dimes and quarters (both minted until 1964) and now only available a for purchase based on the price of silver).

Lincoln pennies were made out of 95% copper until 1982 when the government decided that copper was too valuable and switched to primarily zinc.  Based on the current price of copper, a penny is comprised of  2.03 cents worth of copper (as of this writing, up-to-date information available here).  Every nickel up through 2014 (when this was written) are made up of 75% copper and have a melt value of 4.49 cents (latest data here).

The idea put forth is not to buy pennies or nickels and melt them down but to wait until the difference between the face value and the melt value is so great that they become collectors items, just like silver (pre-1964) nickels and quarters.  The problem with buying pennies is that it’s impossible to acquire 100% pre-1982 pennies these days without paying a premium to someone who will sort them out for you.  You will generally end up paying about 2.1 cents per penny.  Sorting pennies is laborious and time consuming which is why folks investing in coins for their melt value opt for nickels … no sorting needed, at least as of 2014.

Part of me is drawn to this sort of thing, maybe it’s the fact that you can get pennies for 1 cent, look through them, keep the good ones, and sell them back for exactly 1 cent.  There’s no chance of losing money.  Just as an experiment, I went to the bank and got $24 worth of pennies (48 rolls of 50) and sorted them.  An average there were 13.4 pre-1982 pennies in each roll, in percentage terms, 26.8%.  Some had as many as 20 and some had as few as 7.  There were also 5 wheat sheaf pennies in the lot and 10 Canadian cents.

A quick disclaimer …

Some 1982 pennies were made out of copper and some out of mostly zinc.  The only way to tell is to weigh them.  Since I didn’t have a good enough scale, I counted all of the 1982 pennies as copper pennies so the percentage of copper pennies could be slightly smaller depending on how many of the 1982s were actually zinc.

If you have any experience with this, please feel free to leave a comment below or drop me a note.

9 thoughts on “How many pre-1982 copper pennies are still in circulation?

  1. noticed the last 4 months that are very very few pre 1982 pennies still in circulation al of the sudden..i always look for copper pennies in my change and have definitely noticed a huge drop in the amount of pre-1982 95% copper pennie[1982 had zinc and copper..copper weigh 3.1 grams while zinc weigh 2.5..I have 700 lbs of copper pennies from sorting 5 years ago..back then about half of each bank roll was 1982 or earlier i hear its now[2015] about 5-10 pre 1982 pennies per roll so SOMEONE is hoarding them!
    heard that hedge funds are cornering/hoarding the pre 1982 95% copper penny market ..don’t know if it’s hedge funds but SOMEBODY is collecting/hoarding or the Mint is re-calling them finally and putting out disgusting discolored zinc slugs..they’re pathetically ugly after a few years after the super thin copper veneer wears off them..Its embarrassing how crappy our “currency” has become since “real money” is no longer used[silver,copper,and gold]
    have found only 5-10 pre-1982 pennies in ALL my pocket change in 2015[and this is middle of December] soon there will be NO pre-1982 pennies anywhere..I believe the 1982 95% copper pennies will be worth a dime when the penny is pulled from circulation for good.,and wheat pennies will be worth 20-25 cents..J-My-2 cents..we shall c

    • Hi Tony,

      If you think you have one of those pennies most people aren’t really collecting them yet. I have a feeling though that as inflation gets worse, that precious metals will become more valuable in terms of dollars and at some point people will start keeping them just as people started keeping silver dimes and quarters, minted 1964 and before. I keep them. By the way, nickels are to this day are 75% copper.

      • When I got married in 1987, I started to put my change aside and roll it when I have a large enough quantity to go to the bank (typically somewhere north of $500). The pennies I never bothered with and just put them in this big water jug. About 10 years ago, I sat on my recliner every night and sorted them while watching TV. I currently have 14,853 pre-82 pennies, an additional 294 “wheat” pennies and 1,991 1982 pennies (haven’t weighed and separated them). No idea why I have done this, or what the hell I’m going to do with them. They weigh a ton.

        I think that since 1982 pennies alone make up 13.3% of all the “copper” pennies I’ve collected, someone IS sorting out the actual “copper” pennies and not bothering with 1982, as they are an either/or situation in terms of composition and not worth the trouble of sorting.

        I’ve noticed a PRECIPITOUS drop-off in pre-1982 pennies and I suspect they’ll become a thing of the past soon No doubt due to the crumbling Biden economy. I suspect we will see a shortage of nickels on the market soon enough.

  2. So… just for fun and an insane hobby of mine – I have been searching through boxes of pennies off and on over the last 10 or so years. I’m on box 395 and very close to finishing up having searched through 1 Million pennies! This “milestone” will happen when I complete my 400th box. I keep very good stats. From the beginning until now – I’ve averaged 21.4% copper pennies. As you’d expect (due to new pennies consistently being made and put into circulation and also due to some people saving copper pennies) this percentage has gradually declined since I started. For example – first 50 boxes averaged 23.8%… my most recent 50 boxes have averaged 19.2%. I think this number will gradually continue to drop until one day copper pennies are as rare to find as wheat pennies are now. I’ve saved over 210,000 pennies and the other over 785,000 pennies have gone back into circulation. I’ve found 4,700 wheat pennies, 1,660 Canadian pennies and surprisingly 13 Indian Head pennies (the oldest being from 1880). Lots of other foreign coins get mixed into circulation as well as Dimes getting mistakenly rolled in with penny roles. I’m in Virginia – so I’m sure stats very from State to State, but this is what I have found here so far.

    BTW – if you want to tell if your 1982 penny is copper or not – flip (a little aggressively) the coin and if you hear a ringing sound it is copper. If you hear just a dull thud sound – it is zinc. Try this with a 1981 or earlier penny and a 1983 or later penny and you will know the sound you are looking for. Yes – I am a Penny Nerd! They just fascinate me for some reason.

  3. I’ve definitely found a 1982 d penny copper 3.1 g on the scale. These were minted in Denver there was only $20,000 of them minted out of the 23 million coins minted in Denver that’s why they’re so rare and nobody can find them I got lucky good luck to all you out there I hope this falls in your life

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