“Daddy!” my three-year-old daughter screamed as she rushed to greet her father at the back door as he arrived home from work one day last week. “Daddy, I’m rich!” she announced, proudly thrusting a handful of loose change in his direction.

My daughter adheres to the age-old idiom “Find a penny, pick it up; all day long you’ll have good luck.” She’s so committed to her penny finding ways, in fact, that the one and only item on her Christmas list last year was a piggy bank. And, whether we’re going for a leisurely stroll around our neighborhood or rushing through a busy parking lot as we run errands, my daughter’s constantly on the lookout for an errant penny, dime, or nickel.

Would You Stop To Pick Up A Penny?

It may seem like a simple question, but your answer to it says a lot about how you value money. To a child, a penny is more than just a single cent; it’s a treasure. Whether it’s shiny and new, resembling a coin straight out of Blackbeard’s chest, or needs to spend some time with a little salt and vinegar, that penny represents more than just a fraction of a dollar. Ask any child whether they’d rather have a penny or a dime, and they’d likely tell you they’d prefer the former. Why? It doesn’t matter that the dime is worth ten times as much as the penny; to them, it’s the physical size that really counts. As my daughter told me the other day, “Mommy, bigger is always better.”

I’m a self-described money hoarder. I don’t maintain an eight-month emergency fund, like Suze Orman suggests; no, I stockpile my in-case-of-cataclysmic-events account with enough money to cover a full 12 months’ worth of expenses. I coupon, I shop at consignment stores – both for myself and for my children – I ask for discounts where none are advertised. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, I stopped picking up pennies somewhere around my 12th birthday. Maybe it’s because that’s the age where I really started to understand the value of money, realizing that I would have to find a penny a day for a solid three years to make what my parents gave me in allowance on a weekly basis. Or maybe, stooping to the ground to pick up a dirty coin simply lost its luster as I grew from a child to a teenager. Today, I’m sad to say, I probably wouldn’t stop to pick up a penny – that is, unless my daughter was by my side insisting on it.

A Penny And The Poverty Line

To most Americans, a penny doesn’t hold much value. After all, what can you really buy with one penny? Sure, you could buy a penny stock from a company like Atrinsic, Inc. or Kedem Pharmaceuticals. (Although, my husband once bought 1000 shares of a penny stock thinking, “How can I lose?”, only to see half of his initial $10 investment go up in smoke.) Most drugstores don’t even sell penny candy anymore. Pennies have become so valueless in our society that my mother’s favorite diner back home rounds all bills down to the nearest nickel, avoiding the exchange of pennies altogether; other retailers give away pennies for free in those ubiquitous “need a penny, take a penny” jars stationed next to cash registers.

But consider this: nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 U.S. dollars a day, the benchmark definition of poverty. And while 2005 numbers show the vast majority of residents in underdeveloped nations like Bangladesh, Nicaragua, and Uganda live below the poverty line, industrialized nations aren’t immune. You may not be surprised to learn that more than two-thirds of people in India live on less than $2 a day, but did you know 1.5 million Americans do too? There are 46.2 million living below the poverty line in the U.S.; I wonder how many of them would stop to pick up a penny.

A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned

With this in mind, my daughter and I spent a rainy afternoon counting up the loose change in her piggy bank. I was curious to see just how much she’d collected. So, as she tossed her treasure into the air, repeating the phrase she’d said to her dad – “I’m rich!” – I tallied up her bounty. Discounting the random dollar bills crammed in, most likely by her grandfather, she’d amassed a fortune of $12.81 in pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and one Kennedy half dollar.

It wasn’t until I saw all those formerly lost, dirty, forgotten coins strewn across her bedroom floor that I remembered why I used to pick up pennies in the first place. Viewed singly, a penny’s value is cast aside; its true value is only acknowledged when viewed collectively.

I managed to find some old penny rolls, which, quite frankly, I’d thought were obsolete, and took them down to our broker’s office, where I promptly had the $12.81 deposited in her 529 account. (The broker was actually a little miffed with my all-change deposit, so I ended up writing her a check for the amount, and depositing the no-longer-loose change into my bank.) Even with a modest six percent return, she should see that $12.81 grow into more than $31 before she heads off to college 15 years from now.

Not bad for a three-year-old.

Would you stop to pick up a penny on the ground? What about a nickel? A dime? How much money does it have to be in order to be worth your time and effort?