Found Money, Visualized

Bar chart showing count of currency found over time
Click through to interact with the chart!

I first began picking up and tracking change I found in August 2014, then really started getting invested in it the following year.

In 2016, for each day that I found any currency, I took a photo of it and wrote something about that day.

Then I wanted to get a little more interactive, so I tried to develop a project in which I’d replace a coin I’d found with a coin-sized token I’d numbered consecutively. That went bust, because there wasn’t a way for someone who’d found one of my coins to trace it back to the project (and because hammering info into tokens is noisy work unappreciated by roommates, cats, and neighbors).

I was stumped in overcoming these design flaws (and do people even pick up beautiful small things, anyway?), and then I started graduate school, so I felt a little less invested in picking up any change I’d come across, seeing a penny on a subway stairwell, sighing deeply, and passing it by.

Still, I continued to dutifully put the money I’d found into jars, which I’d then organize at the beginning of a new year. Last week I was counting out the 2019 haul, which seemed like a smaller amount of change than I’d accumulated in past years. So I wondered: Was that accurate? What had I picked up over the past five (and change) years? How much was it all worth, and how many individual pieces of US currency had I carried home in my pockets?

I dropped the data into a couple of spreadsheets to find out.

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LP 2016 (& LP-000)

Found in 2016. (Photo by Mary Bakija)

On each of the final three days of 2016, people talked to me about lucky pennies.

“I thought of you recently,” Leah said as she dropped ice cubes into her wine, adding to the list of wonderful people who’ve helped me realize ice in wine is a fine decision. She told me she’d seen a penny, remembered my post from last year, and decided to pick it up.

The next day, Katie told me how she and Nicole have a separate jar for the coins they find, saving up for something for the cat. “Well, mostly I find them,” she said. “Nicole will only pick up folding money.”

Then on New Year’s Eve-ternoon, Gabrielle brought out her phone to show a photo she’d taken after she’d been reminded of lucky pennies by Paul. “A shiny 2016,” she said of the penny taped inside a Christmas card which had been stuffed with lotto scratch-offs, the coin’s luck noted in an inscription.

After another year of picking up abandoned change (and documenting it), these small exchanges helped reinforce something I’d spent the past year thinking about.


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Found Luck

Photo by Mary Bakija
Photo by Mary Bakija

Until about August 2014, I’d spent most of my time in New York City looking up. I’d carry my camera along for miles on urban hikes, snapping photos of old signs and layers of peeling paint and architectural details. But that summer, following a breakup and questioning everything that had once seemed alluring on those long walks, I left the camera behind and started looking down. I didn’t have the energy to see what I’d once seen, but mostly, I didn’t want to bump into anyone I knew and have to make small talk.

That month, I noticed something strange. There had been several moments while I was walking through the city when I literally kicked a piece of spare change. “Find a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck,” is one of those childhood phrases etched into so many of our beings, but as an adult in NYC, it never held any superstitious weight. If anything, it was something you’d avoid. God knows why that penny is there — at worst, a drunk just vomited it up after accidentally swallowing the change from his nips, instead of putting it in his pocket; at best, someone bleeding from the face used it to plug up their nose briefly before the ambulance arrived.

Still, it was hard to ignore the coincidence, and I was definitely in need of some luck. I decided to accept the risk, and I started picking them up.

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