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This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.
Patricia Anita Young of Minneapolis asked, in essence, “What’s the deal with $2 bills?” She wanted to know why they’re so rare, if they are worth more than $2 and if the government will ever stop printing them.
WHY THE TWO IS SO RARE:
It wasn’t too hard to find the definitive expert on Toms — that’s the nickname of the $2 bill thanks to the portrait of Thomas Jefferson that adorns them. We took the question to John Bennardo, producer and director of an upcoming film called “The $2 Bill Documentary.”
The story of the $2 bill starts in 1862, when the federal government printed its first nationalized paper bills, Bennardo says. The $2 bill was in that first printing, along with the $1 bill, but it took a while for paper money to catch on.
That’s because a lot of folks made less than $15 a month before the turn of the century. Inflation slowly brought the value of paper money down, but then the Great Depression hit. “This was a time when our country did not have much wealth, and a lot of things cost less than a dollar,” Bennardo says. “So the $2 bill really didn’t have much of a practical use.”
The economy recovered, but the $2 bill eventually found itself in a strange price point. It became the the perfect note for some rather nefarious purposes. “Politicians used to be known for bribing people for votes, and they would give them a $2 bill, so if you had one it meant that perhaps you’d been bribed by a politician,” Bennardo says. “Prostitution back in the day was $2 for a trick, so if you were spending $2 bills it might get you into trouble with your wife. $2 is the standard bet at a race track, so if you were betting $2 and you won, you might get a bunch of $2 bills back and that would show that you were gambling.”
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The Tom got kind of a dirty rep, and over the years as inflation brought the value of the single and the two closer and closer together it became even less necessary. “Imagine if we had a $25 bill,” Bennardo says. “Which one would you use: the 20 or the 25? You probably wouldn’t use both.”
Folks didn’t see much use for poor ol’ Tom, and in 1966 the government decided to stop making it. Ten years went by with no twos.
But here’s the thing, the $2 bill saved the government a bunch of money. “It’s more cost-efficient to print twos instead of ones,” Bennardo says. “You can print half as many twos and get the same dollar amount.”
Today, for example, it costs about 5 cents to make a dollar … and it costs the same amount to make a 2. Since the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing presses upwards of 4 billion $1 bills a year, that adds up to a lot of … coin.
In 1976, the Treasury decided it would take another shot at the $2 bill. It would order the Bureau to print a special bill for the country’s bicentennial, with a big picture of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back. “They made 400 million of them and half as many ones,” Bennardo says. “They saved themselves a lot of money.”
The bicentennial bills turned out really nice. A little too nice, actually. “The way it looked, it was just so beautiful that people said this is a collector’s item, this is worth something more than $2. I’m going to save this,” Bennardo says.
Much to the government’s chagrin, people put the fancy new Toms in drawers and keepsake boxes, and passed them down to loved ones. Again, Toms didn’t catch on, and they’ve been a cherished rarity since.
BUT ARE $2 BILLS ACTUALLY RARE?
The answer depends on what you consider rare.
There are roughly 1.2 billion $2 bills in circulation right now, and they are still being printed. 75 million came off the press in the last 18 months, but in that same time, around 3 billion new “Georges” have come into the world. Out of the $1.2 trillion worth of coins and bills in circulation right now, less than 0.001% are Toms.
“When you compare that to other notes, that’s rare,” Bennardo says. But you can get twos at almost any bank, you just have to ask.
And there’s a small subculture of $2 ambassadors who do just that. In his film, Bennardo interviews several people who get stacks of bills at a time and spend them, trying to keep the two alive. They keep up demand enough for the Federal Reserve to keep ordering them more, even if the number is small.
Toms always get a reaction, Bennardo says. Some people think they’re fake, but usually they bring a smile. In fact, he says, sometimes a Tom will get you more than that.
“If you start tipping waiters and waitresses and valets, they’re going to remember who you are and the next time you come in if you keep doing it, you’re going to get better service. This has been proven to me several times when I use them. It’s a way to get remembered, it’s a way to stand out.”
HOW DOES THE GOVERNMENT DECIDE HOW MUCH OF A DENOMINATION TO PRINT?
“The Secretary of the Treasury can say, at any time, ‘I want a hundred million more $2 bills in circulation,” Bennardo says. “That can happen, but generally, it doesn’t work that way.”
Instead, most printing is based on a calculation of supply and demand. “The Federal Reserve has all kinds of tracking data they accumulate, he says. “They put together their print order annually, and they put that through to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, who makes the money.”
One of the main bits of tracking data the Federal Reserve relies on to determine demand is called “destruction.” “Whenever you spend any cash and deposit it at the bank, the bank looks at it to determine whether it’s fit to return to circulation or not,” Bennardo says. “If you’ve folded up the bill or crumbled it or written on it or if it’s worn out, they’ll replace it.”
The banks then send the bills to the Federal Reserve, where special equipment is used to test them. “They have a machine that checks them for fitness,” Bennardo says. “Just like a vending machine can check to see if a bill is real, they have more advanced machines that can tell you if a bill is fit or not fit to return to circulation.”
These days, the lifespan of a $1 bill is approximately 18 months, but a $2 bill lasts about six years – because people generally put them away and don’t spend them.
Since fewer Toms need to be destroyed, fewer Toms are made.
THE BEST $2 BILL STORY WE COULD FIND
Myrta Gschaar recalls her parents’ saving $2 bills and half-dollar coins in a drawer at her childhood home; her mother earned many of them as a seamstress at a women’s underwear factory on Spring Street.
When her husband, Robert Gschaar, proposed to her at a restaurant on Wall Street in the late 1980s, he did not have an engagement ring to offer. He was a history devotee, and this would be the second marriage for them both. That night he pulled a pair of twos from his wallet, giving one to her. He explained that as long as they carried these twos, they would be united.
Four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, her husband’s remains had yet to be found. A special property recovery unit at the Police Department notified Mrs. Gschaar that it had recovered personal items of Mr. Gschaar’s at ground zero. The items were a wedding ring and a wallet containing a neatly folded $2 bill.
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