Change Counter: Is Coinstar Worth It?

In college, my friend Kim and I were resident advisors, which meant that we stayed in the dorms after all the other students left. An enterprising pair, we ambitiously sorted through the junk left behind, including lots of spare change. Pennies were neglected in the back of drawers, dimes were swept into corners with gum wrappers, and even precious laundry quarters were hiding underneath mattresses. Kim and I knew we had found a miniature treasure that could be taken to a Coinstar machine.

We were delighted that the cheery, robot-like machine displayed cute messages like “My, you have a lot of coins! Please wait while I catch up.” But beyond our mild amusement with the interactive screen, we were primarily interested in the cash voucher we’d receive from the big green machine. Our payout was well over $70. After that first positive experience with Coinstar, I used the machines regularly for several years. But as I grew older, I learned that Coinstar, while fast and fun, may not always be the most prudent way to cash in on spare change.

With all the Wonka-esque bells and whistles of the green Coinstar machines, it’s easy to forget that the company isn’t counting change for free. They take a percentage off the top, and while they don’t hide that fact, you’re unlikely to walk away from such a happy contraption once you’re in front of it with a bag of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters.

Change Counter: How much of a commission does Coinstar take?

Prepare yourself. The service fee is 8.9% for cash vouchers at United States locations. And it’s even higher in Canada (9.8%). If you’ve got $100 of US change, you’ll only cash out with $91.10. If paying $8.90 to get cash for $100 of coins doesn’t sound too outrageous, remember that you can reach $100 in coins pretty quickly. According to an estimate on the Coinstar website, a typical 1-gallon jug filled with a mix of change is worth almost $230. Even a half gallon, the volume of a standard milk carton, is estimated at over $100 when filled with an array of coins.

I recently learned, to my surprise, that many banks and credit unions actually provide coin counting services to customers for free. Why do people have their change counted at Coinstar if it’s possible to have a bank do it without cost? The answer is that few folks even realize their local bank may offer coin counting. So call your branch and ask before you commit to Coinstar commission.

Change Counter: Is there always an 8.9% commission on Coinstar payouts?

For cash payouts, Coinstar will always take the 8.9% chunk out of your change total. However, some Coinstar locations do offer gift cards for popular retailers. Because these companies – including Starbucks, Borders, Amazon, and Pier1 – are so eager to get your guaranteed business, Coinstar makes money from them instead of you: service fees on gift card payouts are waived. That’s good news if you want a branded gift card.

Change Counter: Are there any alternatives to Coinstar’s cash service?

Other than asking a bank to count your change or tediously hand-counting it yourself, the other alternative to Coinstar is buying a time-saving machine to count change and prepare it for rolling in wrappers. These machines, which start around $30, don’t have Coinstar’s 600-coins-a-minute speed or all its personality, but they’ll get the job done. If you know that over the course of a few years, your household will collect hundred of dollars of coins, the investment in a coin counting machine may be worthwhile compared to the Coinstar commission. But do you really want the hassle of buying a change counter?

Change Counter: Other Coinstar Tips

Some Coinstar users forget to check the tray for rejected coins that the machine spits. Often, the rejected coins just need to be fed through again, as with a vending machine. So, if you do decide to try Coinstar, be sure to bend down and check this slot before even starting. You may find a small treasure, as I did the last time I used it. About $8 of rejected money was sitting down there, mostly in Sacagawea dollar coins. Be sure to check the slot again when you’re all done, unless you’re feeling generous.

And speaking of generous, I’ve been focusing on cash and gift cards, but you can also donate your coins to charity through Coinstar. Just follow the prompts on the screen, and you’ll even be rewarded with a receipt for tax deduction.

Change Counter: Final thoughts

In my opinion, the best way to use Coinstar is to opt for a gift card at one of the participating retailers, though options are limited and not all Coinstar locations even provide this service. If you want cold hard cash instead, then check with your bank before heading to Coinstar.

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