Currency design in the US vs. Canada

Every time I visit the US there’s one thing that really bothers me – the money.

I haven’t traveled the world as extensively as I’d like to, so I’ll talk only about American vs. Canadian money in this post.

In Canada, we have $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. We have the following coins: pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, loonies, and toonies – valued at 1¢, 5¢, 10¢, 25¢, $1, and $2 respectively.

Canada discontinued the penny this year, because each coin costs 2.5 cents to make. The coin will remain legal tender, however all cash transactions will be rounded to the nearest 5 cents. Non-cash transactions (Credit Card or Debit, etc.) will continue to be rounded to the nearest 1 cent.

There’s a direct benefit to the user – eventually, we’ll no longer have to carry around a bunch of heavy, almost-valueless coins. Our pockets will be lighter, and that’s a good thing.

Recently, Canada released a new “Polymer Series” bank note that’s touted as more secure and durable, while still being easy to handle. I’d argue that the bills are actually more difficult to handle (they can be slippery, especially the way the bills interact with each other), but I don’t have any huge complaints. The one thing they didn’t change is the unique colour of each denomination.

The US has almost the same currency setup as Canada, but with a few key differences:

  • Instead of using $1 or $2 coins, the US uses a bill for these denominations.

  • The bill for every US denomination has the same overall green hue to it. The latest series of US bills have subtle background colours, but it doesn’t help a user with immediate recognition the way it does in Canadian money.

These two differences may seem small to some, but I think they’re quite significant to the way we experience the money.

When I say experience, I’m talking about storage and usage; storage being how we carry and contain the money – in our wallets, our pockets, our cars, our homes – and usage being the way we experience the money when paying for something with cash.

With US money, I end up carrying around a lot of $1 bills. These really clutter up a wallet. In fact, during my last trip to the US my wallet became FULL – even though I was carrying less than $200. This could happen in Canada (with $5 bills), but it never seems to.

Part of the reason this happens in the US is that you’ll receive a bunch of $1 bills as change after making a purchase, but the next time you buy something, you’re not able to use those $1 bills. Why? Because you’re at a counter with a line behind you, you’ve bought something worth more than $1 and you don’t want to start counting out those bills, so you use a higher-denomination bill. Then you get more $1 bills back as change, and it keeps getting worse. There’s no $1 or $2 coins to reduce the load of bills.

Let’s compare this with how people use the $1 and $2 coins here in Canada. When I receive $1 or $2 coins as change from a purchase, I put these coins in my pocket. Others will put them into the change compartment in their wallet/purse/car, etc. Regardless, most people keep coins separately from bills. It’s easy to remember and locate them when making smaller purchases – like buying a coffee or a pack of gum.

With US money it’s also a lot harder to tell at a quick glance how much money I’m carrying. In Canada I can easily distinguish the bills from one another because they’re totally different colours. It’s easy to notice that I have a brown $100 bill and a red $50, a few green $20’s and a couple of blue $5’s. You have to really look at the digits printed on US bills to know for sure how much the bill is worth. It’s not as subconscious an experience as it is with Canadian money.

If I lived in the US for a while, I’m sure I’d get used to these differences, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t “problems” worth examining. It should be as easy as possible for people to use any country’s currency safely.

They’re also still making the penny, at quite a huge loss:

The loss in profitability due to producing the one cent coin in the United States for the year of 2011 is $60,200,000. This is an increase from 2010, the year before, which had a production loss of $27,400,000.

Straightening out the American dollar is more complicated than just aesthetic design. There are a lot of factors to consider, such as durability, security, cost of production, and so on.

With the world digitizing the way it is, I’m not sure that the UX design behind cash will be America’s top priority.

I will say one thing though – US money feels more gangsta.