A few weeks ago, I received six half-dollar coins in change. Since then, I’ve spent five* of them at counter-service fast food restaurants, and every single one has managed to confuse the clerks handling them. I suppose it’s understandable: fifty-cent pieces aren’t exactly in wide circulation, though I remember seeing them somewhat regularly when I was growing up in the 1980s.

Wendy’s – Clerk turned it over, examining it for several seconds, before she finally entered it as fifty cents.
Wasabi – Clerk peered at it for a few seconds, then asked, “This is a dollar, right?” I corrected him.
Wahoo’s – Clerk turned it over for a few seconds, then finally asked me how much it was worth.

(Weird: I can only remember three of them, but all three start with W!)

All of them took the coins without argument, though, unlike the classic story of the Taco Bell that refused to accept a two-dollar bill. What really surprised me were the two clerks who weren’t able to figure out how much it was worth on their own. It says “Half Dollar” right there on the coin. I guess all those collectible dollar coins and quarters are, in fact, confusing people.

*I left the sixth as part of a tip, along with two quarters and the appropriate number of dollar bills.

No one liked Susan B. Anthony dollars. “Gold” dollars all but vanished from circulation, as far as I can see (I can’t remember the last time I saw one that wasn’t change from a vending machine.) And while CNN/Money seems skeptical, Congress wants to try for another dollar coin. The catch? Collectability. Modeled after the state quarter series, they’ll release four Presidents a year, in historical order.

OK, it could work. But I have yet to see any of this year’s crop of commemmorative nickels, and I’m not even sure I’ve seen all of 2004’s quarters, never mind any from 2005.

Then there’s the matter of living people:

When the time comes to honor contemporary presidents, such as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and their successors, their likenesses are to be minted whether they are living or dead.

That means by 2018 or so — when Bush and Clinton would be in their early 70s — the United States could break a long-standing tradition that money only honors the deceased.

I had thought this was codified somewhere, but I may be confusing the issue with postage stamps. The important part is keeping current government figures off of the money (too monarchist), but I’m not exactly thrilled about the precedent.

Of course, the real question is this: Why hasn’t the dollar coin caught on? I remember an Australian grumbling about American currency and how “you can have a pocket full of coins and have nothing.” Admittedly Australian currency no longer uses $1 bills (coins go from 5¢ to $2 and bills from $5 to $100), but they had a point: A pocket full of £1, 1€ or even AU $2 coins can buy a lot more than the same pocket full of quarters and dimes.