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I'm not a real coin collector. I pile up change until it gets to a few hundred dollars, bag it and then take it to the bank. My wife just loves rolling coins. Something therapeutic about it for her. If I happen to get a half dollar or maybe a $2 bill, I might keep it for the kids. But back when I was a kid, I collected coins. I collected them without having any knowledge of their worth. My wife did the same thing and it wasn't until we poured over her small collection that we had finally understood what some coins were really worth. If you are like the average person, you probably overestimate what some money is worth and vastly underestimate what other coins could actually bring.
First, lets look at the money that many people think is valuable that really is worth little more than its face value. The favorite is the 1976 $2 bill. I had one in my wallet the other day and when I pulled it out, a man saw it and offered me three dollars for it. I declined because I thought that it must be rare. Turns out, I should have taken the three bucks as the $2 bills are only worth a slight premium if they have been uncirculated. The same goes for the 1979 Susan B. Anthony coins which everyone expected to be worth something. Their worth about their face amount of a dollar. So in my wife's small collection, we had many, many bills and coins that weren't worth a dime more than when she acquired them some twenty something years ago. For a while it was a little depressing to think that a whole collection had gained nothing for over two decades. But then we happened upon a few coins that had appreciated well over the years.
For most of us with small collections, the real value comes not from the rarity of the coin, but rather the simple fact that certain coins contain silver. For these coins, nobody really cares about their condition once they've been circulated, their value is driven by the price of silver. With the price of silver fetching over 18 dollars an ounce, most of these coins are worth 10 - 15 times their face value! Most people are aware that the Kennedy half dollar is valuable. In 1964, after Kennedy's assassination, the half dollar was minted in 90% silver. The amount of silver is a little more than 1/3rd of an ounce which fetches about $7.00 today or 14 times the face value. From 1964 to 1970, the Kennedy half dollar was minted with 40% silver and the price today is about $3.00 for the average circulated half dollar. Still 6 times face value is not too bad. Sure enough, my wife had a 1964 Half and a trio of 40% silvers that added up to about $16 for four coins. Not bad, but of course, she had only 4 of them. The other 22 half dollars were all from later periods, in decent condition, and worth only slightly more than their face value. For us though, the real value came not in the Kennedy half dollars but the lowly quarter.
The Washington quarter was the staple in America before they introduced the quarters for all 50 states. Most of us look at a Washington quarter with no more interest than a nickel. But there's a very important difference: Washington quarters minted between 1932 and 1964 are made of 90% silver. So while they appear to be far more common than the half dollar, based on their silver content, they have appreciated just as much. These coins were widely available in the 1960s and for every quarter you put in your sock drawer back then, it would be worth $3.33 today. Had you done that, you would have gotten yourself a 6% annual return over 45 years. Not too shabby. But as I found out, I happened to do significantly better just by dumb luck.