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Have you ever held a fistful of change and wondered how much the coins are actually worth? We're not talking about the 1¢, 5¢, 10¢, or 25¢ face value of the coins, as that would be easy to add up. We're referring to a more complex metric known as intrinsic value. A coin's intrinsic value is the value of the metal that makes up the coin. Essentially, if you were to melt down that handful of change, separate and purify all the metal elements, and sell them at current market value, intrinsic value is how much monetary value you'd end up with.
To understand what this means today, it's useful to know a little about the history of currency. Back in the days of the Roman Empire, coins were formed from pure precious metals (such as gold or silver), and functioned as commodity money. This meant that the coin's intrinsic value was the same as its face value. Eventually, carrying around chunks of gold and silver became impractical and unsustainable on a large scale, so we transitioned to representative money, which was made of materials that had less intrinsic value (e.g. copper or nickel) but directly represented a set amount of precious metal in a central reserve.
Today, we have moved to a system of fiat money, which has a set value as decreed by the government, but is not based on gold reserves or the materials it's composed of. This is why a quarter is worth 25¢ wherever you go, even though the copper and nickel it's made from are worth far less than that. For survivalists, this poses an interesting question: if SHTF and the government's declared fiat value of our currency became irrelevant, how much money would our coins actually be worth?
Even at current precious metal valuations, the answer is not much, and that value could potentially fall further in the event of major economic collapse. If currency collapsed and everyone started melting their coins tomorrow, supply would increase, demand would decrease, and the value of the metals would likely drop dramatically.
The following infographic from 911 Metallurgist shows the official values of coins, and compares them to the intrinsic values of their metal constituents. Click here to download a full-size version of this infographic.
(Note: Reddit users noticed there was a numerical error with the USD value of the Australian dollar, so we modified the infographic above to correct it.)
Now, this isn't to say you should go trade all your money for gold doubloons, but it's interesting to consider the huge gap between face value and intrinsic value of our currency. If the fiat currency system ever collapses, paper money might be rendered worthless, and coins wouldn't be far behind.