Foonie? As loonie turns 30, it's time to think of a name for a $5 coin: Don Pittis

This week, the loonie turns 30. Don Pittis explores why it may be time to start saying a long goodbye to the blue $5 bill.

And while we're at it, Canadians must lose their attachment to those pesky nickels

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield presents Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz with the $5 bill he took into space. Maybe next time, it will be a coin. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Foonie doesn't really work, so Canadians will have to put on their thinking caps to figure out a name for the $5 coin.

As the loonie turns 30 this week, painful though it may be, we must inevitably begin to prepare ourselves to say goodbye to our blue Wilfrids.

This is not an inside scoop from the Bank of Canada; officially there is no plan to kill the bill.

But there is evidence it is already on the minds of Canadians: The Royal Canadian Mint includes a query about a $5 coin in its list of frequently asked questions.

'Cost-saving measure'

"The decision to issue a new circulation coin is the responsibility of the Canadian government," says the mint's answer to that FAQ. "There are currently no plans to make $5 coins or discontinue the $5 bill."

However the final line of the FAQ could be taken as a hint: "The $2 coin was introduced as a cost-saving measure in 1996."

In other words, it has been more that 20 years since the last time a bill was replaced by a money-saving coin.

You can see why the mint would want to soften us up in advance.
Get ready to say goodbye to Wilfrid Laurier, Canada's seventh prime minister, though the tough new polymer bills may give him more staying power than the paper ones and twos. (Bank of Canada)

As we witnessed during the long and divisive battle to be rid of a penny that had become absurdly valueless, families were divided for and against the copper-coloured coin. Evidently people have an odd attachment to their money.

Our U.S. cousins have persisted with their handfuls of floppy $1 bills that really have become a nuisance — evidence that the country may have attained that dangerous kind of immobilizing conservatism that rebels at change, even in the face of rationality.

The problem is, of course, that even at current low levels, inflation is relentless.

When the U.S. Lincoln penny was first struck in 1909, five of them would buy more stuff than a current U.S. dollar bill.

2-4 for $5

In Canada, many of us have fond attachments to the blue five. In my case, I recall that a great aunt used to mail me a $5 bill in a birthday card at university, which I would use to buy a 2-4 of beer. Yes, a full case of beer for $5. And yes, as a kid, I remember coffees for a dime. Loaves of spongy grocery store bread, as well.

Now, $5 will generally still buy you a fancy coffee-shop coffee — but there won't be much change left.

Nowadays, fives are never quite sure if they belong in your wallet or rattling around with your change.

This won't cost you a dime anymore. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

There are a few things that could extend the life of the modern $5 bill, advantages that the $1 bill did not have back when it was replaced in 1987.

While $50 bills and $100 bills only come out occasionally, the lowest-value banknotes get passed around more often, making hard-wearing coins cheaper to circulate. Thus the savings. 

But the Bank of Canada says polymer bills — first introduced in 2011 — will last about 2½ times as long as paper, meaning even high-use fives won't have to be replaced so often.

Another advantage for the five is that bills are now at least as reliable as coins in vending machines. So even when a Coke is $5, you can still use a polymer note.

Cashless society

A third perk is that while the long-promised cashless society has not yet appeared, an increasing number of us are using automated payments either by phone or by card. While not everyone has them yet, tap-cards work for small things where we would formerly use coins or small bills.

A final advantage is low inflation. So long as it lasts, one per cent inflation means that the blue polymer five will keep its value much better than Canadian bills did in the 1970s and 80s, when prices were rising more than 10 per cent a year.

Low-wear $100 bills don't need to be replaced as often. (Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press)

A bit of lead time would be good so the mint doesn't make the same mistake as it did with the first two bill replacements.

Since the $1 and $2 bills were being replaced with mere coins, someone at the Bank of Canada decided that we had to have large and substantial-feeling coins to demonstrate their value.

According to the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator, something that you could have bought for one thin dime in 1950 will now cost you a clunky loonie coin. Next time, we should think ahead a few decades.

Nickel and dimed

Speaking of thinking ahead, it may officially be time to lose the nickel. I know because this weekend, one of them fell out of my change purse, dropping under the restaurant table, and I did not get down on my hands and knees to fish it out. 

That's the way it started with the penny. Soon they were littering the streets, not even worth storing in the coin jar on your bureau.

The $5 bill and the five-cent piece have served us well, but their time has almost come.

Having been through the process before with $1s, $2s and the penny, Canadians know it will be tough to say goodbye. But we need something better than foonie. Make your suggestions below.

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.