Should I keep pennies before 1982?

Pennies minted before 1982 are different from newer pennies because they are 95% copper. Newer pennies contain only 2.5% copper with the rest being zinc. This difference in metal content leads some people to save pre-1982 pennies in hopes they may become valuable collectibles in the future.

Quick Takeaways

  • Pennies minted before 1982 contain 95% copper while newer pennies only have 2.5% copper.
  • The copper in pre-1982 pennies means their melt value is higher than face value.
  • It’s illegal to melt down pennies for their copper, so collecting them is speculative.
  • Most collectors don’t value common pennies, even old copper ones.
  • Rare dates and mint errors command higher premiums from collectors.

Why Are Pre-1982 Pennies Different?

Up until 1982, pennies were minted from an alloy that was 95% copper. This gave the coins a distinctive reddish-orange color and hefty weight compared to newer pennies.

Rising copper prices in the early 1980s meant the intrinsic value of the copper in a penny was exceeding the face value of 1 cent. To address this, the composition of US pennies was changed in 1982 to 97.5% zinc with just 2.5% copper plating.

This change gave newer pennies a lighter weight and different color. Pre-1982 pennies are noticeably heavier in the hand and have a more reddish tone compared to the darker zinc pennies minted after 1982.

Do Old Pennies Have More Melt Value?

Yes, the copper content in pre-1982 pennies means their melt value is higher than their face value of 1 cent. With copper prices around $3.50 per pound today, the copper in one pre-1982 penny is worth about 2 cents.

This melt value means that each pre-1982 penny contains about 1.7 cents worth of copper at current market prices. Pennies minted after 1982 have a melt value of only about 0.5 cents because of their lower copper content.

Pre-1982 Penny Melt Value

Penny Year Copper Content Melt Value
Pre-1982 95% copper 1.7 cents
Post-1982 2.5% copper 0.5 cents

However, melting down pennies for scrap is illegal in the United States. The Coinage Act mandates a fine and prison term for defacing US currency. So collecting pre-1982 pennies in hopes of cashing in the copper is purely speculative.

Do Collectors Want Old Pennies?

Most coin collectors do not assign extra value to common date pre-1982 pennies. With billions of them minted and extensive savings by non-collectors, these old copper pennies are easily available and not considered scarce.

Neatly organized folders of old pennies by date and mintmark may have sentimental value, but are realistically only worth face value. Collectors are instead seeking older, low mintage pennies that are actually rare.

Most Valuable Pennies for Collectors

Penny What Makes It Valuable
1909-S VDB Low mintage
1931-S Low mintage
1955 Doubled Die Major mint error
1969-S Doubled Die Rare mint error

While common pre-1982 copper pennies trade for face value, rare dates and mint errors command huge premiums from collectors. For example, a 1909-S VDB penny in average condition may sell for $1,000+ due to low original mintage.

Should I Save My Old Pennies?

Older pennies minted before 1982 are structurally different from modern pennies, containing 95% copper compared to just 2.5% today. But this higher intrinsic melt value doesn’t translate to collectibility for common pennies.

Most collectors assign no extra value to ordinary copper pennies, even older ones before 1982. And melting pennies is illegal due to the Coinage Act. While a few rare dates are exceptions, in most cases pre-1982 pennies only trade for face value of 1 cent.

From a collecting standpoint, circulating copper pennies are not worth saving unless they happen to be a rare date, mint, or variety. For the average person, old pennies mixed in change should simply be spent at face value rather than being saved up in bulk.

Should You Save Old Pennies?

  • Pre-1982 pennies have more copper and a higher melt value.
  • But melting pennies is illegal under the Coinage Act.
  • Most common date old pennies have no extra collector value.
  • Conclusion: No extra value unless they are rare dates or mint errors.

The same logic applies to other low value coins like nickels and dimes. While their melt value may differ slightly from face value, common circulating coins are only worth collecting if they are in mint state condition or have a rare date, mint, or mint error that makes them desirable to collectors.

Circulated coins that are heavily worn with no mint error should simply be spent rather than saved in hopes of them accruing value. In most cases, ordinary old dimes, nickels, and pennies are only ever going to be worth their face value.

Rather than saving up jars and bags of old coins, it makes more financial sense to set that money aside in an interest-bearing savings account. Even small amounts will grow faster through compound interest than any potential appreciation of common coins.

So while that 1982 penny in your change may look different from newer ones, it’s not going to make you rich. When evaluating coins for collecting and investing, be wary of overhyped sales tactics and focus on truly rare numismatic pieces with proven demand.

Factors That Drive Penny Values

For the few pennies that are actually valuable to collectors and investors, what factors make them so special compared to ordinary circulating pennies?

Low Mintage

Pennies with very low mintages, indicating fewer coins struck, are more likely to be rare. This includes years like 1909-S VDB, 1931-S, and 1955 that saw fewer pennies produced. Low supply translates to higher demand from collectors.


Collector quality pennies should be uncirculated with no wear or damage. Pennies with evidence of circulation quickly lose appeal. Proper storage and grading seals are also important for condition-sensitive coins.

Early Years

Pennies from the early 1900s and 1910s tend to be worth more as they are older and more scarce, with more lost over time. This also extends to the pre-1900 Indian Head cents.


Mint errors like doubled dies greatly increase value for both early and modern pennies. The 1955 doubled die is perhaps the most famous and valuable penny error.

What Makes a Penny Valuable?

  • Low mintage – Fewer coins struck
  • Mint condition – No wear/damage
  • Early years – More rare
  • Mint errors – Doubled dies, etc.
  • Most old pennies have none of these traits

Understanding why certain pennies are so expensive can help illustrate that common pennies have none of those desirable traits. They may look old, but without scarcity, condition, or errors, old does not equal valuable.

Are Pennies a Good Investment?

For the vast majority of dates, investing in circulated pennies makes little financial sense. Their low face value means even large collections have limited upside. The lack of scarcity for most years also caps appreciation potential.

Buying already graded high value pennies like the 1909-S VDB also requires a substantial upfront investment. The collectible coin market can also be complex to navigate for casual hobbyists.

That said, building a nicely presented collection of 20th century pennies can be rewarding as an educational hobby. Just avoid overpaying for pennies unless they are certified rare dates or varieties.

For investors focused solely on returns, pennies lack the upside of stocks, bonds, or bullion. But they can add diversification alongside other hard assets like gold or silver coins. The key is concentrating value in the rarest of the rare pennies.

Top Tips for Penny Collecting

  • Collect for education/enjoyment, not riches
  • Save money on folders and supplies
  • Fill books out slowly over time
  • Handle coins carefully to avoid damage
  • Learn to identify rare dates and errors

Collecting pennies can be a fun hobby that provides hands-on historical education. Just maintain reasonable expectations about investment potential and frugality. That will keep things affordable and let appreciation be a nice potential bonus down the road.

Other U.S. Coins Worth Collecting

While most pennies are only face value, other coin series offer greater upside for investors and collectors.

Key Date Quarters

Low mintage keys like the 1932-D and 1932-S Washington quarters trade for thousands in mint state. Even well-worn specimens are worth well above melt value.

Early Half Dollars

Capped Bust, Liberty Seated, and Barber half dollars from the 18th and 19th centuries carry strong premiums especially in higher grades.

Gold Coins

With intrinsic value in precious metals, gold coins like $20 Double Eagles provide an inflation hedge and upside potential. High grade specimens are most in-demand.

These series offer greater value potential than pennies, though buying the right coins still requires numismatic expertise. For investors, using third party graded coins and proven market leaders like the 1932-D quarter simplifies the process.

The Bottom Line

Pre-1982 pennies have more copper content and melt value compared to modern pennies. But this melt value doesn’t directly translate to collectibility, as melting coins remains illegal under the Coinage Act.

For ordinary circulating pennies, even older copper ones, there is virtually no collector premium. Occasional rare dates, mint errors, and condition standouts are exceptions.

In most cases, common pennies are only ever going to be worth face value regardless of their age. Rather than being saved, they are best spent at face value in circulation.

Collecting pennies can still be an engaging hobby, especially for children. Just have reasonable expectations about investment outlook, and focus funds on truly scarce numismatic pieces.

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