How Much Money Do You Have to Earn Before Picking Up a Penny is a Waste of Your Time?

By kind permission of
Shannon Christman

“If Bill Gates saw $100 lying on the ground, it wouldn’t be worth his time to pick it up,” Jack said to Jill. He reasoned that Gates would make more during that time by doing something else. At an estimated salary of $4,000 per minute, every minute of the week, Gates would indeed be making more than $100 – about $133 – in the two seconds it would take to pick up that $100 bill (though he’d be earning only $66.67 if he used just a second to pick up the money).

“But what if he’s off the clock when he sees the $100?” Jill replied. “Then it would be worth his time. Yes, people like Bill Gates are never really off the clock, and in fact, that $133 per minute includes even the minutes he’s sleeping, but he could just as easily spot the cash when he’s on the beach as when he’s doing business. Then he’s making money in his leisure time, not when he’s earning his salary.

“Even if the $100 flew in his office window while he was working,” she added, “he could easily continue certain types of work – thinking of new ideas or talking to an assistant, for example – while he bends down to pick up the cash. Then, during those two seconds, he would have made $233 instead of $133. Even minimum-wage workers are allowed a few seconds to stretch, so no one is cheating his or her employer by picking up a penny on the clock.”

Odds are, you’re not Bill Gates, you don’t make $4,000 per minute, and you never see $100 bills lying on the ground. You probably see quite a few pennies, though. Is it worth your time to pick them up? If you could make a living picking up pennies, one after the other, forty hours a week, you would make $37,440 a year, assuming two seconds to pick up each penny. Some people, like Jack, would say that picking up a penny is not worth your time if you make more than $37,400 annually. Jill would say that, even if you made $500,000, picking up that penny would be worthwhile because you would then have made $500,000.01.

The amount of money you make is irrelevant to whether it is worth your time to pick up a penny. However, other factors may lead you to choose to let the penny there. By picking up a penny on a busy sidewalk, you risk being trampled and having to pay much higher medical bills. By picking up a penny whose previous owner you can identify, you may be stealing (at least ethically, if not legally).

By picking up a penny on a first date, your date might think you’re cheap, and you’ll miss out on a second date. (Though, if he’s a keeper, he will be thrifty himself and may beat you to the penny.) You may be too tired to pick up the penny; your back may hurt; the penny may be covered with disgusting goop; a child may appreciate finding it more than you would.

Any of these circumstances could provide a legitimate reason to let a penny on the ground. “I make too much” is not a good excuse. If you had picked up the penny, you would have made more.