8.9% fee punishes unwary users of those coin-counting machines

January 27, 2002|By Jeff Brown | Jeff Brown,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

"Can you beat Sylvester's record?" the sign asked.

No, I can't. And I hope I never do.

I was in the checkout line at my supermarket when I spotted the sign, which portrays a beaming man and jar upon jar of pocket change.

The man, identified as Sylvester Neal, "Coinstar Customer," had converted $7,921.41 in loose change into cash in a more usable form - paper money or store credit.

You've probably seen these green Coinstar machines sitting in supermarkets or other stores. Pour in a coffee can of loose change and the machine counts it and issues a voucher the store will convert to cash or credit.

I confess I succumbed to the lure of the Coinstar machine a couple of times. It's so easy. It's so fast. It's fun to watch the tally build on the machine's monitor. You even get back all those paper clips, screws and drill bits that somehow get into your hoard of change.

But, boy, is it a bad deal: The machine withholds a huge 8.9 percent "service fee."

A recording at the Coinstar 800 number states that "most people consider this a bargain" since it saves them so much trouble.

For Sylvester Neal, the fee on nearly $8,000 in coins must have come to about $700. That's a lot to pay for a little convenience. For $700, you can get 17 coin-sorting machines from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

All of which is a long way of saying that it pays to look after the little things - they can add up to lots of waste and missed opportunity.

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