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Start a Coin Collection on Four Bucks


Starting a coin collection from pocket change is easy.  Just save one coin of each date!

This is the Jefferson Nickel collection I started with a $4 investment. I am not very artistic, so I'm sure you can do a lot better, but you can see the basic layout here. The two boxes on top are for the 1938 and 1939 nickels.

Photo by Susan Headley

Have you been wondering how to get started collecting coins? It's easier than you thought! I'll show you how to start a coin collection on $4 worth of nickels. This is a great project for kids who are interested in collecting, and also for adults who would like to collect coins but don't really know where to start.

Our collection will be based on Jefferson nickels, probably the most overlooked of the circulating coin types. It's also the easiest set to complete because it has no rare dates!

Difficulty: Easy
Time Required: About an hour

Here's How:

  1. You need to get 2 rolls of circulated Jefferson nickels. Each roll has 40 coins, and costs $2. The best place to get them is from a convenience store or other business that deals often in small change, and that makes their own rolls. What you don't want are nickels from the bank, where you're likely to get mostly uncirculated nickels.

  2. Open both rolls and dump the nickels into a medium-sized plastic food storage container.

  3. Optional - Add a small amount of dish detergent and some hot water, and gently wash the nickels. In general, cleaning coins is not recommended, (see Top 7 Ways to Ruin Your Coins,) especially cleaning them with metal polishes and the like, but when you get coins from circulation they are often filthy and grungy. Gently work the nickels around in the hot, soapy water for a couple of minutes, and then rinse well. Dump them on a towel to dry them.

  4. Sort the nickels out by decades. Look at each nickel, using a magnifier if necessary, and separate them into piles according to dates. Make a pile for coins dated 2000 or later, one for 1990-1999, one for 1980-1989, and so on, for each decade.

    Don't be surprised to find nickels that are 50 years old or more! Because Jefferson nickels stand up to wear well, it's not readily apparent that a given nickel is 50 or 60 years old, so the old nickels are less likely to be removed from circulation.

  5. Starting with the earliest pile, look through the nickels again and keep one from each year. If you have duplicates, pick the best looking one for your new collection, and set the others aside. Things to look for in the "best coin" include: the least amount of wear, the least amount of damage or scratches, or the shiniest, newest looking coin among the choices. Since this is a "year date" collection, we don't need to worry about the mint marks.

  6. Take a piece of sturdy cardboard, cut to about 8 1/2 by 11 inch size (a little larger is okay) and set it down landscape style (11 inches wide by 8 1/2 high.) Starting about 1 inch from the top, use a ruler to mark off 7 rows exactly 1 inch high, and 10 columns exactly 1 inch wide. You want to end up with 72 one-inch squares to place your coins into.

  7. Draw 2 extra 1 inch square boxes above your grid, one on the right side, and one on the left side. These are for the 1938 and 1939 nickels. In between the two extra boxes you just drew, write "Jefferson Nickels" in large letters, as done in my example above.

    About's Desktop Publishing Guide, Jacci Howard Bear, shows you how to use your computer to make a really nice Coin Collection Grid in just a few easy steps.

  8. Now take the nickels you sorted out earlier, and start placing them on your grid in their proper places, starting with the 1940's in the top row, all the way down to the year 2000's in the bottom row.

  9. Once you have them all laid out, and are sure you have selected the best specimen for each date, use a small piece of Scotch tape to affix the coin to the cardboard. Roll a small piece of tape into a sticky cushion and stick it to your board. Then press the coin onto the tape to hold it there.

  10. Congratulations! You have just started a Year Date collection of Jefferson Nickels. Keep looking through pocket change, or buying a roll of nickels now and then, to fill out your collection. Every single date of the Jefferson Nickel series, except the 3 years when only silver "war nickels" were issued (1943-1945) can be found in circulation today. Since there are no rare dates in the entire Jefferson nickel series, it is an easy collection to complete. Good luck!


  1. Disclaimer - This information is given to help a first-time collector put together his or her first collection of Jefferson Nickels. Serious collectors will advise you not to stick tape on your coins, and not to wash or clean them in any way. It is my hope that fun projects like this will bring new collectors into the hobby, who will then learn the more proper and acceptable ways to handle and store a collection.

  2. This coin collecting how-to article is one of the stops on teacher Wendy Russell's Virtual Amazing Race!

  3. You can expand your nickel collection by considering the mint mark on each nickel (found on the reverse to the right of the dome on nickels from 1938 to 1942, and 1946 to 1964; above the dome on some 1942's and 1943 through 1945; and on the obverse from 1968 to current. Nickels minted from 1965 to 1967 have no mint marks. For all other years, if no mint mark is present, the coin was minted at the Philadelphia Mint. The full date and mint mark Jefferson Nickel collection cannot be completed out of circulation, but the 2 key coins (1939-D and 1950-D) are inexpensive, less than $15 each.

  4. If you want to spend a few dollars extra to "do it right," you can buy a Whitman Jefferson Nickel Folder for about $3.00. The folder has a slot for each date and mint mark so you know what coins you are still missing, plus the folder has the mintages on it, so you know how rare your coins are. Compare Prices

What You Need

  • 2 40-coin rolls of circulated nickels ($2 each)
  • Medium-sized plastic food storage container
  • Magnifying glass (optional)
  • A sturdy piece of cardboard (about 8.5"x11")
  • Scotch tape
  • A ruler
  • A felt tip pen

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