Inflation has made it difficult to buy a lot for a penny these days.
$1 pizza has disappeared. Dollar stores aren’t dollar stores anymore.
So wouldn’t it make more sense to start paying with $2 bills instead?
“If you had a $2 bill, perfect,” said Heather McCabe, a writer and $2 bill evangelist who runs the blog Two Buckaroo and chronicles her spending with twos and others’ reactions. “It is very useful to pay for a small amount.”
Still, the $2 bill is the unloved child of paper currency.
It is considered a curiosity by some and despised by others in the United States. The myths surrounding the $2 bill — nicknamed “Tom” by fans because it features Thomas Jefferson’s portrait on the front — are endless. Many Americans believe $2 bills are rare, out of print, or out of circulation.
The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) will print up to 204 million dollar bills this year, based on an annual order from the Federal Reserve System. There were 1.4 billion dollar bills in circulation in 2020, according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve.
But $2 bills account for only 0.001% of the value of $2 trillion of currency in circulation.
BEP does not have to request new $2 bills every year, as it does for other bills. That’s because $2 bills are used so rarely and last longer in circulation. The Fed orders them every few years and works down the inventory.
“A lot of Americans have pretty dubious assumptions about the $2 bill. Nothing happened to the $2 bill. It’s still being made. It’s being circulated,” McCabe said. “Americans misunderstand their own currency to the extent that they don’t use it.”
The United States first issued $2 bills from 1862, around the time the federal government first began printing paper money. Alexander Hamilton’s portrait was on the two until a new series was printed in 1869 featuring Jefferson.
But the runner-up was unpopular and never gained a foothold among the public.
One main reason: the $2 bill was considered bad luck. Superstitious people would tear off the corners of the bill to “reverse the curse”, rendering the bills unfit for use.
“He who sits at a game of chance with a two-dollar bill in his pocket is believed to have a jinx,” said the New York Times in a 1925 article. “They have been shunned as bad stars.”
The two were also known to keep controversial company. It was associated with gambling, where it was the standard bet at racetracks and prostitution.
And during the nineteenth century, partner candidates often used $2 bills to bribe voters. Someone holding a $2 bill was believed to have sold a vote to a crooked politician.
The Treasury Department during the 20th century tried several times without success to popularize the use of the $2 bill. In 1966 it gave up and stopped printing the bills “due to lack of public demand.”
But a decade later, as the United States approached its bicentennial, the Treasury designed a new $2 bill series with a portrait of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back.
The aim was to cut the number of $1 bills in circulation and save the treasury money on production costs.
But the relaunch in 1976 failed. People saw the new version as a collector’s item and hoarded them instead of going out and using them.
The Postal Service offered to stamp them only on April 13, the first day they were issued in honor of Jefferson’s birthday, inadvertently contributing to the idea that they were commemorative notes—a misconception that continues to this day.
“The press and public now tend to associate the $2 bill with the Susan B. Anthony dollar under the general heading of ‘failure,'” said the New York Times in 1981.
There is no rational reason why $2 bills are not as popular as other bills, said Paolo Pasquariello, a professor of finance at the University of Michigan. But people show a preference for multiples of 1 and 5, he said.
Another reason $2 bills never took off: Cash registers, invented in the late 1800s, were never designed with a place to hold them, so cashiers didn’t know where to keep them.
“It wasn’t a cash register change for $2 bills,” Heather McCabe said. “The infrastructure to pay for things didn’t change. There was no adjustment to how people work with that bill.”
If cash registers had a familiar place for $2 bills, the bill would be more popular, she argued.
But there are people who swear by $2 bills. In fact, communities and subcultures have developed around them.
US Air Force pilots who fly U-2 spy planes always have a $2 bill in their flight suits.
Since the 1970s, fans of Clemson University’s Tigers football team have paid and tipped with $2 bills — “Tiger Twos” — in other cities’ restaurants, bars, stores and hotels. The tradition started as a way to prove to Georgia Tech in Atlanta that scheduling games against Clemson would benefit the city.
“There’s a degree of popularity to them. There’s a sense of excitement,” said Jesse Kraft, a curator at the American Numismatic Society. “But when it comes to putting them back into circulation, that’s the key that’s missing.”
Kraft is an advocate for more widespread use of $2 bills.
He notes that it is about half as expensive for the Treasury to print a $2 bill than higher denominations, which come with more expensive security features on the paper. It is also more efficient to print $2 bills than $1 bills because the Treasury can print twice as much for the same amount of money and requires less storage.
John Bennardo, who made a 2015 film about $2 bills called “The Two Dollar Bill Documentary,” has made it his mission to “educate people and enlighten them and start using $2 bills in their lives.”
In short, he concludes, $2 bills are undervalued in the United States and a way for strangers to meet and engage.
“You want to be remembered if you use a $2 bill,” Bennardo said. “It has this ability to connect people in a way that other bills don’t. It opens up a dialogue between you and the cashier.”
“It is a practical calculation with inflation. But it is also social currency.”