CoinsWhen I was a young girl, the Australian currency was pounds and pennies (pence). The penny was not even the lowest coin. The lowest coin was a half-penny. That is half a cent, today!

For a half-penny, I could go to the local ‘milk bar’ (variety grocery store) and buy a paper bag bigger than my head, filled to overflowing with a wide array of assorted lollies (candy).

I could also go see a movie at the local cinema for the matinee session on Saturdays.

I loved the sound of the money words they had, then. You didn’t say ‘harf’ penny for a halfpenny, you said, ‘hay’ penny. Two pennies were tuppence. Four pennies were fourpence. Six pennies were sixpence.

A shilling or ‘bob’ was the equivalent of ten cents, today. A two shilling coin was known as ‘two bob.’ (That was the sum always slipped to me and my sister by our adoptive grandfather during rare visits to his home). In Australian colloquialism, when someone had an opinion, they were “putting in their two bob’s worth.”

A quid was a pound note. (A dollar in Australia, today, but still worth two dollars in the United Kingdom). The quid was also part of Australian colloquialism. If you wanted to say you didn’t really care about something, you’d say, “I don’t give a quid!”  If you really wanted something, you’d say, “I’d give a quid for that!”

The sixpence was my favorite. – that was the third coin up from a halfpenny, and my Nanna put lots of sixpences in her delicious brandy-soaked plum pudding each Christmas. My cousins and sister and I would gobble it down, mucking through the yellow custard drizzle to find our treasure and race to the ‘milk bar’ before the grocer went home for his own family celebration.

My sister forgot to check for sixpences one year and swallowed hers. It was a long wait over the dunny (toilet bowl) before she saw it again. My uncle also chipped a tooth on one he forgot to sort with his tongue. That only added to the fun for us. There were risks involved in getting your sixpence, and most kids love a challenge.

After the currency changed, Nanna kept a hoard of sixpences just for the Christmas pudding. When we found one after that, we would be given a five cent piece to spend.

It just didn’t have the same feeling to it. When you have to stop and wait for Mum or Nanna to get their purse to swap the coin, you can’t get the lead on your cousins and buy out all the best lollies at the shop before their legs can get them there… As well, instead of a huge bag of lollies, we could buy just twenty with five cents (…I know, still more than my grand-daughters can buy today).

I missed seeing the lovely young queen on the back of the old coins. She had long strings of ribbons and curls blowing in the wind. The queen that came with the new currency was older and had a saggy chin (although she did have a tiara). She didn’t look so happy.

I did like the variety of Australian wildlife on the new coins, though. The old bounding kangaroo was getting a bit stale by then.

Even when Australian money became ‘americanized’ in the 1960s (albeit not as greenbacks, but with bright and happy colors), one cent went a very long way. The average wage was about $40 a week. A car cost a few hundred dollars. A house was a few thousand dollars. It’s amazing to think of the difference in cost between those things now and then, but the truth is that the value is still about the same. All they did was increase the numbers, so the wage went up at the same time as the cost of purchases. That’s called inflation.

My school was into teaching the value of savings when I was a kid, and bankers sometimes visited our class to spread the word. They even gave us free tin moneyboxes that looked like pieces from a monopoly game, but when you rarely see money at all, saving it seems such a waste when you could go and buy that comic book you would never be able to get any other way…

My money box never got filled up. I had good intentions, but the comic books always won.

My mother would sometimes stoop to pick up a coin as we walked along a city street. She’d say, “See a coin and pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck.” I never saw her get particularly lucky, though.

She had a similar mode for bird poop falling on her shoulder or head. She thought that if she bought lotto before cleaning it off, she’d win. She never did. So I had to learn to not worry too much about being embarrassed about the way my mother looked… Hey, it was all for a good cause!

Once I started earning my own money, I learned the value of having a large purse. Every time I bought something, the coin section would swell with new change. It didn’t matter how many times I tried to count out that change to spend on another item and get rid of it, it was soon back and stretching the leather.

I always wondered why guys (or in Aussie lingo, blokes) didn’t have coin sections in their wallets. Well, some did, but they were so small you’d never get any real change into them. I wasn’t surprised that men didn’t even try.

I was surprised that they just put the loose change in their pocket. I thought, maybe they like the sound of that change jangling together as they walk? Then, I’d see them running and wonder how the change didn’t fall out. It wasn’t until I started putting my hands into my future husband’s pockets for fun that I realized that men’s pockets are super deep. Then I got very jealous…

Of course, after we began living together, I didn’t mind him putting his change in his pockets when I vacuumed the couch and found a trove under the cushions. My mother taught me well. “Finders keepers!” she would say when she found coins in her couch…

When bank cards began to circulate in the 1980s, everyone was wary. The thought of swiping a card to buy something seemed ludicrous. How could we trust the banks at their word that they wouldn’t take more money from our accounts than what we had actually spent?

For a long time, I resisted getting a bank card. I liked to have control over my own money, not rely on others being trustworthy enough to handle it for me. (Well, I was right to worry, since now I pay debit fees for using my own money, when back then it didn’t cost anything to get some from a friendly bank teller).

It’s strange how time inures you to things. Eventually, resistance to trends wears down until you just give the new modes a try. (It’s good that some trends pass, though, or my sister would still have a skinhead hairstyle, today). One day I gave in to the bombardment of applications in my letterbox and have never really looked back.

Today, my purse is stretched not by coins but by cards. I have cards for just about everything. I have to prioritize which cards to leave at home and which ones I really need in my purse, because otherwise I can’t shut the thing.

For years, everything was bought with a swipe. My purse had rarely seen notes or coins, but now a new wave of shopkeepers are bucking the trend and going back to ‘cash only’ sales. It’s very frustrating to want the delectable pastry in the bakery window, only to be told I need to find an auto-teller to get the cash to buy it. That’s not convenience!

As well, I had to learn to hoard gold coins somewhere in my bag ($1 and $2 in Oz), for the times my grand-daughters were with me and came across one of those rides they scatter through shopping malls. (I know, I could have said no, but I’m a grand-mother, now!)

My disabled son goes to the bank each week and gets his allowance out in lots of bagged coins that he uses to pay for his purchases. I thought this was just another of his oddities until I finally ‘twigged’ why he did it.

Being disabled and only able to use one hand, he had difficulty handling notes. They would often fly away or fall to the ground as he fiddled with his wallet.

He didn’t like to use his eftpos card because he knew that he had a limit to what he should be spending, and his short term memory loss meant that he could easily forget how much he had spent and would eat into the money he needed for bills. So his solution was to get coins.

I thought this would be a problem in most shops, counting out the coins so laboriously, but most shop-keepers are very patient with him, (possibly because he has a lovely smile). They also are often glad of the extra coins for their till. When people buy things with notes, these days, the notes are usually large ones, and that means that cashiers need a lot of change.

I still have a penny in my drawer at home with the year of my birth on it. It is smooth and dark brown, with a bounding kangaroo on one side. I remember getting pennies when I was young that were bright pink copper, just minted, but if I cleaned my old coin today that apparently reduces its value. Not that the year of my birth is a good year for rare pennies. They minted lots and lots of them, then. So the value is all for me.


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