USA, Money, Now + Beyond

Your $2 bill has more power than you think

This lucky and rarely seen bill may be the physical currency to outlast them all.

We all have memories of money. A first paycheck, a dollar taped above the register, a crisp $20 in a birthday card. Memories of real, physical money. That shared experience will fade as we move into a more cashless, credit-based world that favors the Bitcoin enthusiast over the Benjamin. Of course, anything still marked as legal tender has to be treated as such, but what will happen as the world of money becomes digital?

Right now, digital money is king but, there are still some irreplaceable or at least some nonreplicable aspects of money-in-hand that Venmo or Vipps can’t have.

One of those is the $2 bill. An oddity in American money. This bill has a reputation for sporting such low circulation that some cashiers question its validity. Americans have even been arrested for attempting to pass counterfeit currency when trying to spend these very legal bills. Among a world of $20s, $10s, and more frequently exchanged bills, it’s easy to see why some people assume such an oddly specific denomination must be a fake. Looking at a vending machine or ticket kiosk, it’s never included alongside “acceptable” bills. Why then does the treasury print it?

The $2 was first introduced in 1776. Though it was briefly discontinued in 1966, the bill returned to circulation ten years later to commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s birth and has been changing hands ever since. Some confusion may have arisen from the changes in size and status that the bill has undergone in its history. The bill has been printed as a silver certificate, a national bank note, and a treasury “coin” note. Now, it’s just a regular, wallet-sized piece of green with the same cotton-linen blend as any other bill. There is nothing about the $2 that makes it all that different from other notes.

The face on the front is perhaps less recognizable. Instead of Franklin, Lincoln, or Washington, the $2 features President Thomas Jefferson on the front and on the back a painting of the Declaration of Independence. Previously, the bill featured portraits of Alexander Hamilton (1862), General Winfield Scott Hancock (1886), U.S. Treasury Secretary William Windom (1891) as well as Robert Fulton and Samuel F. B. Morse (1896). Whomever’s face was on the front of the bill, a man of America’s money is nothing new and ultimately, there’s nothing exceptional about the note’s appearance to justify the mythology around the bill.

And yet, two dollar bills are hoarded, treasured, and never spent. Even though, it’s value has yet to move beyond the original price of $2 unlike buffalo nickels or other rare forms of currency. So why hold on to something so unremarkable?

Personally, I wouldn’t think twice about spending two dollars. I regularly feed $2 worth of quarters into a parking meter or washing machine. Without blinking, I pay $2 to add a fried egg to my burger. To me at least, it’s not a lot of money. In New York, it’s about a single ride subway ticket. It’s what you forget in the depths of winter jackets.

So why the sudden burst of sentimentality? The obvious answer is: it’s rare.

As a result of low demand, there are not as many $2 bills in circulation as the other bills. Odds are you won’t be handed one when you break a twenty at the bodega or the bank, so the bills are held on to. Some believe they’re lucky. Or just fun. It’s common and popular, to purchase uncut sheets of $2 bills for display. Imagine someone having an uncut sheet of $10s or $20s framed in their home. Not the same effect.

One at a time though, the bills leave their most memorable impression. Given their scarcity, the sudden appearance of a $2 bill can be a useful visual that illustrates spending habits. Over the course of its circulation, $2 bills have been used at horse racetracks, football games, conventions as well as in university towns to demonstrate the spending power of the attendees and their impact on the area. These Two-Dollar Bill Challenges or Spend Tom campaigns have been used to show support for everything from gun rights to the Clemson Tigers. Businesses are also known to purposefully give change in $2 bills as a sort of marketing ploy. The 1% of total currency in circulation that the $2 bill controls create this unique opportunity. Wouldn’t you talk about the grocery that gave you $2 bills instead of a fist full of $1s?

Does a $20 have that power? Does PayPal? It seems its rarity keeps the $2 bill alive. Perhaps this visibility will be the future of all paper money. In a sea of Apple Pay transactions, there will always be something at least memorable about that sudden flash of green.