An Ode To The Change Jar

Eternal symbol of Getting Your Financial Shit Together.

Saving money is sexy again. Live with Mom, make your own coffee, get a side hustle… whatever it takes. Save yo’ money.

I’m seriously proud to be a Millennial whenever I read statistics about saving money. Because we are great at it. We’ve seen some financial nonsense in our time: The Great Recession, a terrible housing market and Boomers wringing their hands over us not becoming rich fast enough.

We’re great at saving, and we even have a mascot for how much we value it: The change jar.

Etsy is full of custom change jars, ranging from the cute (“Mom’s Laundry Tips, teehee!”) to the deadly serious (“Vacation Fund. Because seriously, how else are we going to afford one?”).

The origin of the piggy bank as a household item makes sense: People wanted somewhere to keep their metal change at home because banks didn’t really exist yet. It wasn’t a good idea to trust your money to someone else outside the home. Who even does that? It’s your money!

What changed over time (in a way that’s hard to track) was our way of tracking our saving progress literally becoming transparent. We wanted to see exactly how much money we were saving. We wanted to feel good about how much we were putting away.

But change jars depend on one economic factor: Money as physical cash. As long as we have physical money, the change jar will probably stick around. Banks try to institute the same idea with virtual money, and apps with this idea exist. But come on. It’s not the same. I know some Billfolders feel differently, but for me those apps don’t provide that visceral good feeling of passive saving, or of using “hidden money” to, say, pay for a vacation without heavy budgeting.

How I Tricked Myself Into Being a Better Saver This Summer

With inherently less numbness to money (my new favorite concept), maybe a full change jar is more psychologically rewarding than a full virtual savings account. Just putting it out there. I know that whenever I use cash (which is a rarer occurrence month to month), the experience is validated slightly more when I get a little change out of it. A little more I can add to my personal pile of money.

People get fiercely protective of their change jars. It’s almost surreal. More than getting cash out of someone’s wallet, more than using someone’s Paypal account or taking a credit card off the shelf to pay for something, you do not touch the change jar. Renowned video game critic Jeff Gerstmann told a story on a podcast about a houseguest attempting to steal change out of his change jar, and the worst part of the story wasn’t the attempted theft. It was the shock at someone trying to steal from his change jar. It would have made sense if she tried to steal his credit card or cash. Who would steal from the change jar?

Who, indeed. Emptying out the change jar feels like defeat. Remember the jar-smashing scenes in Up? Or when that hooligan took all the change in Broad City? We cringe when we see this happens because it’s more relatable than watching someone’s credit card be stolen. A change jar is the closest most of us will get to owning a treasure chest. You bet we’re keeping that thing safe.

In my house, the current change jar is just a hollowed-out tube with a slot at the top that probably contained crayons or popcorn at some point. But when I was little, my pride and joy was a three-foot-tall crayon bank.

This thing was massive. It felt like I could never fill it no matter how much money I made in life. But when that day finally came, my dad and I opened the bottom to discover an ocean of change inside. Seriously. I made a change angel in that pile of money, Scrooge McDuck style.

See it. Smell it. Kiss it. Touch it.

That was the moment in my life when I realized what money really was, and I fell in love with it. With good habits, I could one day have all this money at my disposal (to buy ice cream and computer games, of course). I just had to keep squirreling it away. Money wasn’t going to evade me; it didn’t care that I was six years old and all I had to save was change. Money didn’t care. Money would show up if I did all the right things.

It’s a lot harder to get a snow-angel amount of money now. Every bit of cash I have, I want to use. I have a separate change jar for quarters I dip into whenever I need to take public transportation. In my darkest financial days you bet I cracked open that jar and headed to a Coinstar. Anything to avoid bank fines, am I right?

It took about eight years for me to save $96 on my last change jar quest. Back in the crayon bank days it only took two years to save the same amount, although I got most of my savings by asking my parents if I could have their pennies or dimes to put in “my bank.”

But the jar’s still there, and it’s added to on a weekly basis. I haven’t given up on it. Change jars are symbols of financial hope. Put it away passively, and it’ll all add up. Just keep the faith.

Brit McGinnis is a copywriter and author of several books. Her work has appeared on XOJane, SparkNotes and anywhere fine stories are sold. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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