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The Magic of Tipping with $2 Bills


“Good things happen when you meet strangers.” — Yo-Yo Ma

Growing up, I took $2 bills for granted. My father enjoyed handing them out for birthdays and other occasions, while my mother loved leaving them as tips. I didn’t really care about $2 bills, and I was less-than-enthusiastic when I became the owner of a hefty cache of them after my mother’s death. At first, I lamented the fact that I’d have to figure out how to distribute them — until I discovered the magic that often occurs when handing out this not-so-common currency. Magic for the receiver, and for the giver.

“[The $2 bill] has this ability to connect people in a way that other bills don’t.” That’s according to John Bernard in his film The Two Dollar Bill Documentary. ( It’s true. Hand someone just about any denomination of currency and they won’t bat an eye (OK, they probably would if you handed them a $100), but throw out a $2, and you’re likely to receive some sort of comment or story.

Case in point: I left a $5 tip for a server using two $2 bills and a one. The server had picked it up without paying much attention and then excitedly came back to my table with the bills in his hands. “Oh my gosh!” he said. “I can’t believe you gave me these $2 bills!” He then told me about his nieces and how he had planned to give each of them a billfold containing a $2 bill, but wasn’t sure where to find the currency. “Thank you so much for this!” he said with emotion, as my heart swelled.

More recently, I handed a waiter two $2 bills and he actually gasped before telling me, “I had a $2 bill for 16 years, and then had to spend it when I ran out of money. And now I have two! Thank you!” What a special moment between two strangers — and because of a $2 bill! There’s even a mystique for the $2 bill in other countries. My oldest son handed out $2 bills (sent to him by my mother) while stationed in Afghanistan, and appreciative street vendors waved them over their tables, saying they brought good luck. Again, a $2 bill brought joy to strangers and a happy experience for my son.

Thing is, they’re really not rare — but people mistakenly treat them like they are — and as a result don’t distribute them, instead tucking them away in a keepsake box with the misconception that they’re scarce and/or no longer printed. At first this made me hesitant to hand them out — fearful that people who might really need the money will instead feel burdened with this currency they think they shouldn’t spend.

But then I reasoned that if they’re special enough to save, doesn’t that make them worth more than currency they’d spend right away? If nothing else, doesn’t the sometimes special exchange between giver and receiver make them even more valuable — and worthy of handing out? Does the fact that people treat them like they’re worth more increase their worth?

According to, there are currently about a billion in circulation, and they’re still being printed. The confusion about their scarcity probably ensued because first they were printed (starting in 1862), and then they weren’t — as of 1966. And then they were again — starting in 1976 — as a way to commemorate the bicentennial. ( They’ve been available and plentiful ever since.

But still, hardly anyone spends them. I can’t recall ever receiving a $2 bill as part of my change after making a purchase. For one thing, there’s not a slot in the cash register for $2 bills, and as mentioned earlier, people are still hiding them away in a sock drawer. “I save these for my children,” or “These bring good luck!” are common responses from recipients — usually said with a big smile and words of gratitude. Occasionally, someone will knowingly declare, “They don’t make these any more!”

“Yes they do,” I assure them. But I know they don’t really believe me, and they’re probably not going to spend them — unless they’re desperate. And that’s OK. Because the $2 bill makes people happy — and makes me feel like I’m spreading a little magic.

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