What happened to the $2 bills?

“If you had a $2 bill, perfect,” said Heather McCabe, a writer and $2 bill evangelist who runs the blog Two Buckaroo, chronicling her spending sprees with couples and other people’s reactions. “It is a very useful thing to pay for a small amount.”

Yet the $2 bill is the unloved child of paper currency.

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 a portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the front — are endless. Many Americans believe that $2 bills are rare, that they are no longer printed, or that they have gone out of circulation.


The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) will print up to 204 million $2 bills this year based on an annual order from the Federal Reserve System. There were 1.4 billion $2 bills in circulation in 2020, according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve.
But $2 bills represent only 0.001% of the $2 trillion worth of money in circulation.

BEP should not require new $2 accounts every year like other accounts do. This is because $2 bills are used so rarely and last longer in circulation. The Federal Reserve orders them every few years and reduces the inventory.

“A lot of Americans have pretty dubious assumptions about the $2 bill. Nothing has happened to the $2 bill. It’s still being made. It’s being circulated,” McCabe said. “Americans misunderstand their own currency to the point where they don’t use it.”

Bad luck

The United States first issued $2 bills in 1862, around the time the federal government first began printing paper money. Alexander Hamilton’s portrait was of the two until a new series featuring Jefferson was printed in 1869.

But the couple was unpopular and never caught on with the public.

Main reason: the $2 bill was considered bad luck. Superstitious people would tear off the corners of the banknote to “reverse the curse”, rendering the notes unusable.

“He who gambles with a two-dollar bill in his pocket is thought to be burdened with a curse,” said the New York Times in a 1925 article. “They were shunned as unlucky.”

The two were also known for keeping each other controversial. It was associated with gambling, where it was the standard bet at racetracks, and prostitution.

And in the nineteenth century, candidates often used $2 bills to bribe voters. Someone holding a $2 bill is believed to have sold a vote to a fraudulent politician.

In 1900, the Treasury Department tried unsuccessfully several times to promote the use of the $2 bill. In 1966, the banknotes were abandoned and discontinued “due to lack of public demand”.

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But a decade later, as the United States approached its bicentennial, the Treasury Department created a new series of $2 bills with a portrait of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back.

The goal was to reduce the number of $1 bills in circulation and save the Treasury money on production costs.

But a relaunch in 1976 failed. People saw the new version as a collector’s item and hoarded them instead of going out and spending them.

The Post Office offered to stamp them only on April 13, the first day they were issued in honor of Jefferson’s birthday, inadvertently adding to the idea that they were commemorative notes, a misconception that persists 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 ‘fiasco,'” said the New York Times in 1981.

There’s no rational reason why $2 bills shouldn’t be as popular as other bills, said Paolo Pasquariello, a finance professor at the University of Michigan. But people show a preference for multiples of 1 and 5, he said.

Another reason $2 bills never caught on: Cash registers invented in the late 1800s were never designed with storage space, so tellers didn’t know where to hide them.

“There was no cash register change for $2 bills,” Heather McCabe said. “The infrastructure for paying for things hasn’t changed. There was no fix to the way people were working with this account.”

If cash registers had a familiar $2 bill slot, the bill would be more popular, she argued.

$2 subculture

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 keep a $2 bill in their suits.
Since the 1970s, fans of Clemson University’s Tigers football team have been paying and tipping with $2 bills — “Tiger Twos” — at restaurants, bars, stores and hotels in other cities. The tradition began as a way to prove to Georgia Tech in Atlanta that it would benefit the city to schedule games against Clemson.
“There is some popularity in them. There’s a sense of excitement,” said Jesse Craft, curator at the American Numismatic Society. “But as far as putting them back into circulation, that’s the key that’s missing.”

Kraft is a proponent of wider acceptance of the $2 bill.

Clemson fans mark theirs

He notes that it costs the Treasury half as much to print a $2 bill as a higher-denomination bill, which comes with more expensive paper security features. 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 space.

John Benardo, who made a 2015 film about the $2 bill called The Two Dollar Bill Documentary, made it his mission to “educate people and enlighten them and start using $2 bills in their lives are”.

In short, he concludes, $2 bills are underappreciated in the United States and are a way for strangers to meet and engage.

“They will remember you if you use a $2 bill,” Benardo said. “It has this ability to connect people in a way that other accounts don’t. It opens a dialogue between you and the cashier.”

“It is a practical banknote with inflation. But it is also a social currency.”

CNN’s Harry Enten contributed to this article.

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