Most days of the week, we handle a good chunk of change. But how often do we actually look at those pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters...

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Most days of the week, we handle a good chunk of change. But how often do we actually look at those pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters?

These days, for most of us, that’s rare — and it could mean you’re letting valuable coins slip through your fingers.

I examine coins out of habit, because I had a penny collection when I was a kid. Recently, I was surprised to find an 1899 Indian-head penny, which managed to stay in circulation for more than a century before it found its way to my home.

It was a rare find, but similar coins might be mixed into the proverbial jug of change.

“Once in a blue moon, you’ll find something that’s really valuable, but not as often as years ago,” says Jay Beaton, spokesman for the Colorado-based American Numismatic Association.

This is true partly because people started hoarding older, more valuable coins as soon as the U.S. stopped making silver coinage in 1964.

But it’s also true because, thanks to coin-counting machines, you can turn a jar of change into paper money in seconds without looking at a single coin.

Lost in the mix

According to Bellevue-based Coinstar, about 80 percent of U.S. households accumulate change. (People in the remaining households spend every coin they receive.) And the average household with spare change has about $99 in coins, or a total of $10.5 billion sitting in mason jars, in piggy banks and between sofa cushions nationwide.

If you dump your $99 or so in loose change into a self-service coin-counting machine, how would you know if you have old, rare or valuable coins in the mix?

The answer: You wouldn’t. Most coin-counting machines won’t return them to you. The machines have coin-return slots for unrecognizable currency, but a penny is a penny to a coin-counting machine, whether it was minted this year or generations ago.

“Although they may have a higher market value, there is nothing that would differentiate them from a similar coin whose market value is face value only,” says Coinstar spokeswoman Marci Maule. “Coins including the Eisenhower silver dollar and 1943 steel pennies may not be returned to the customer. This is stated on our user interface before the user begins a transaction, so we suggest that they sort these out along with foreign coins.”

Different brands of coin-counting machines may accept or reject different coins, but as a general rule, an old and therefore valuable coin will be accepted at face value by all such machines.

Back in the register

There’s no way for the machine’s owners to realize there’s anything of value inside, either. All coins in the machines go back into circulation, so any rare coins that you inadvertently dump in will be recirculated, too.

Coin-sorting machines work too quickly to note a coin’s date, which often speaks of its worth, says Larry Lorenz, vice president of marketing for the Illinois-based Cummins-Allison, makers of Money Machine self-service coin-counting machines.

“If the metallurgy (of a rare coin) is similar to what the coin is currently made from, the machines won’t know the difference at the speed they’re being processed,” says Lorenz. “If Uncle Fred’s valuable penny gets into the mix, it’s probably lost.”

The normal life of a circulating coin is 30 years, according to U.S Mint spokesman Michael White. Nonetheless, it is possible to find older wheat pennies, buffalo nickels, silver coinage and even a century-old Indian-head penny without going to a rare coin shop. But what are the odds?

“I would say, of coins that pass through hands in normal commerce, 1 in 10,000,” says Dennis Tucker, publisher of the Georgia-based Whitman Publishing, which prints coin-price guides. “If they’re observant, their chances of finding a rare coin really increases. You have to pay attention and take a closer look.”