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A Beginner's Guide to Starting a Coin Collection

Updated on January 11, 2018
Sam Montana profile image

Sam is certified in optimal nutrition from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and enjoys writing about health and healing.

1909 Indian Head penny
1909 Indian Head penny

Coin collecting has long been a popular and fun hobby. Coin collecting, also known as numismatics does not have to be expensive to start. You can start by collecting only pennies, nickels or state quarters.

There are many coins you can start a coin collection with and add other coins as your collection grows. Coin collecting can turn into a lifelong hobby and a profitable hobby as your coin collection grows.

Coin collecting is a wonderful for young and old to get started in.

Collecting Pennies

You can start collecting what are commonly called wheat pennies. These are the pennies that were minted between 1909 and 1958. These pennies have President Lincoln on the front or obverse side of the coin and two wheat stalks on the back or reverse side of the coin.

You can start your coin collection by collecting all of the wheat pennies. You might still be able to find these wheat pennies in pocket change or buy rolls of pennies from coin shops or eBay. You can collect just each year or every penny from each mint including the rarer 1909-S VDB penny.

Wheat pennies also include the 1943 steel penny. This wheat penny is made of steel instead of copper because copper was desperately needed during World War II. When you find a silver looking penny, it will be the 1943 steel penny.

Before wheat pennies, there were the Indian Head pennies that were minted between 1859 and 1909. This penny had a bust of an American Indian on the front and a laurel Wreath on the back side.

Once you have completed the Indian Head and wheat penny collections, you can start collecting earlier pennies known as the American large cent penny, since they were larger than the pennies of today.

1936 Buffalo nickel
1936 Buffalo nickel | Source

Collecting Nickels

U.S. nickels are also easy and fun to collect. You can start by collecting Buffalo nickels which show an American bison or buffalo on the reverse and an American Indian head on the front of the nickel, which is why this nickel is sometimes called the Indian Head nickel. Buffalo nickels were minted between 1913 and 1938 with the exception of 1932 and 1933.

During the Great Depression, the amount of coins in circulation was so low, that the U.S. mint did not print nickels during 1932 or 1933. In fact, the economy was so bad in the early years of the Great Depression, pennies, dimes, quarters and half dollars all had low circulation and can be worth more.

As with any coin, there can be errors in the coins, which can raise the value of that particular coin. The Buffalo nickel is known for one such error, the 1937-D Buffalo nickel is missing one of its legs. So when you are looking through Buffalo nickels, keep an eye out for that particular error.

Collecting Dimes

You might not find many dimes prior to 1964 in change. This is because dimes were made of 90% silver until 1964 and many have been pulled out of circulation and melted down. The current Roosevelt dime was first minted in 1946, shortly after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A far more interesting dime to start your coin collection with would be the Mercury dimes that were minted between 1916 and 1945. An interesting note about the so-called Mercury dime is that it is not a depiction of Mercury, the Greek messenger, and it is not actually the Mercury dime.

This dime is properly known as the Winged Head Liberty dime and the depiction on the front of the dime is that of Liberty wearing a winged cap to symbolize America’s freedom of thought. Completing a collection of Mercury dimes is not overly hard to do and will make a great start to any coin collection.

You can also collect earlier dimes like the Liberty Head dime, which is also known as the Barber dime that was minted between 1892 and 1916. You should be able to complete this set of dimes except for the extremely rare 1894-S dime since only 24 of these dimes were made and only 9 are known to exist today.

Nevada state quarter
Nevada state quarter

Starting a Quarter Collection

U.S. quarters are fun to collect because there are some beautiful designs and there are also commemorative quarters you can collect. Like dimes, Washington quarters made before 1965 were 90% silver and it is rare to find them in pocket change. But you never know, so always look at your change.

Washington quarters were first produced in 1932 and are basically the same quarter we have today with a depiction of George Washington on the front. Starting in 1998, the state quarter program began with the reverse side having a different state depicted. The key dates or rare quarters in a Washington quarter collection are 1932-D and the 1932-S because they had low mintages.

Before the Washington quarter, there was the beautiful Standing Liberty quarters that minted between 1913 and 1932. The front or obverse side has a depiction of Liberty standing with an olive branch in her right hand. The back of the coin has a picture of an eagle in full flight. Collecting the Standing Liberty quarters is popular among coin collectors.

State quarters are fun and easy to collect today because you can collect the entire set just from pocket change. You can probably look through pocket change right now and find a couple of state quarters. Collecting all 50 state quarters makes for a nice coin collection. As you collect the state quarters, you can continually upgrade your collection just from pocket change as you find nicer coins.

The America the Beautiful quarter program began in 2010 with Washington on the front of the coin and the reverse side showing a national park or other national monument. There are 56 different quarter designs you can collect.

1945 Walking Liberty half dollar
1945 Walking Liberty half dollar

Collecting Half Dollars

When was the last time you got a half dollar in pocket change, you do not see them very often. Half dollars are fun to collect and make a beautiful coin collection. The current Kennedy half dollar design was first minted in 1964 to honor the late President John F. Kennedy.

Before the Kennedy half dollar, there was the Franklin half dollar with a depiction of Benjamin Franklin on the obverse and the Liberty Bell on the reverse. The Franklin half dollar was minted from 1948 through 1963 and is a fairly easy coin collection to complete, but you will not find them in pocket change as they are 90% silver. The key dates are 1948, 1949-S, 1953 and 1955 due to low mintages.

One of the most beautiful coins in U.S. history is the Walking Liberty half dollar, minted between 1916 and 1947. The front of the half dollar shows Liberty draped in the U.S. flag walking towards the rising sun in the east carrying oak and laurel branches, which are symbols of strength and peace. The reverse shows an eagle perched on a rock with outstretched wings. The depiction of Liberty walking east was to show support and strength for our allies in Europe, who at the time the coin was designed, were involved in World War I.

Low mintage dates for the Walking Liberty half dollar are 1921 and 1919. The design was brought back in 1986 and is currently on the American Silver Eagle one-ounce bullion coin.

Mint Marks

When you start collecting coins, you might just want to collect each date for a particular coin. As you progress with your coin collection, you will want to have each year and each mint mark. Throughout the years, the U.S. has had numerous mints, some of which are no longer in production. The following mint marks are used for the various U.S. mints:

  • No mint mark or P - Philadelphia
  • D - Denver
  • S - San Francisco
  • CC - Carson City, Nevada
  • W - West Point
  • O is for the New Orleans mint that minted coins from 1838-1861 and 1879-1909

Due to certain conditions and the Coin Act of 1965, some coins over the years and especially during the mid 1960s will not have a mint mark.

1866 US 3 cent coin
1866 US 3 cent coin

The Best Book for Coin Collectors

All coin collectors, beginners and seasoned coin collectors rely on the Red Book. This book will let you know what your coins are worth, or what you should pay for a certain coin.

Coin Grades

As you continue to build your coin collection, you will begin to buy coins. You can start by buying lower grade coins or jump right into some higher grade coins. The value of a coin is partially based on the condition or grade of the coin.

When buying a coin, you will come across coins that have grades on them but not certified by one of the coin grading associations, so it helpful to understand how coins are graded. The two main coin grading association, PCGS and NGC, are what you will see most often.

There are many stages of coin grades ranging from PO-1 which means the date is at least identifiable to MS/PR70 which means it looks as if it came directly from the mint.

Starting Your Coin Collection

You can start a nice coin collection with very little money by collecting the state and America the Beautiful quarters from pocket change.

You can find bags of unsearched wheat pennies, Indian head pennies and nickels at coin stores and on eBay. Some banks might still sell bags of pennies and rolls of nickels that you can search through. This is a great way to start filling up your coin books with these bags of coins.

As your coin collection grows, you will need to become more knowledgeable about coins, coin grades and which coins are the key dates. Coin collecting is a great hobby that you can pursue without spending a lot of money at first and you will learn as you continue. Once you get more experienced, you can then start to collect older American coins like two cent coins and three cent coins from the 1800s.

There is a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment when you find that missing coin for your collection, whether it be the last state you need for the state quarter collection or a 1919 Walking Liberty half dollar.

One final note about your new coin collection; never clean or polish your coins as that can decrease the value of the coin.

© 2014 Sam Montana


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    • Sam Montana profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Montana 

      5 weeks ago from Colorado

      Teresa, it would depend on the mint mark of the 1920 US penny. A mint condition 1920 US penny could be worth as much as $75. On average a 1920 US penny is worth 35 cents. I am not aware of a 1978 error US penny.

    • profile image

      Teresa flores 

      5 weeks ago

      What is value on a 1920 penny and a penny1978 with a mark upside down bottle with the mark vt

    • Sam Montana profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Montana 

      5 years ago from Colorado

      Thank you. Coins are interesting to look at, like looking back in time. The U.S. hasn't really changed the basic design of its coins in a long time. I remember when I was a kid, it was fairly common to still find wheat pennies in change and possibly a buffalo nickel and a Liberty dime. I recently got a Silver Certificate dollar bill in change, now that was a surprise.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      5 years ago

      My son used to have a coin collection when he was young. It is was interesting to look at his album with all the different coins. You have certainly posted a very useful article that will give many direction on this hobby.

    • Sam Montana profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Montana 

      5 years ago from Colorado

      I used to collect coins when I was younger and stopped as life became busier. When the state quarters came out, I collected all of them out of pocket change, but I would like to get serious again about coin collecting. Even if that means buying bags of coins to start filling coin books. It is fun.

    • peachpurple profile image


      5 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i started to collect coins during my school days, still collecting now but not seriously.

    • Sam Montana profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Montana 

      5 years ago from Colorado

      That is really neat. Coins and stamp collections that are passed down are a great way to remember someone.

    • ologsinquito profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      My grandmother, before she died, gave my children a quarter collection. They still have it to remember her by.


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