Certain hobbies don’t take a lot of time or effort. By far my oldest hobby is scrutinizing my pocket change for special coins. And this time of year—right about now—is the absolute best time of year to find old, special coins. Why? My theory is that coin stashes have been emptied nationwide to help fund Christmas. So January is the best time to find those recently-recirculated coins.

To start, empty your pockets and coin purses and throw them on a desk.

Pennies

You will notice you have two types of pennies. Nice, dark, coppery looking ones with a uniform color, and crummy, old-looking ones that are blotchy, pitted and icky. The old-looking, crummy ones are actually the newer coins. Toss them aside. They are no longer even made of copper anymore, which is why they look so yucky. I don’t even like handling them.

Of the nice coppery ones, turn them to the reverse. The wheat-back coins are definite keepers. The rest are a toss-up. With each year, as more and more copper coins are taken out of circulation, these coins are going be worth more and more. If you stumble across a penny that you have mistaken for a dime because it is silvery, definitely keep it. It is probably a steel penny that was manufactured during WWII.

In 2009, the Lincoln Penny took on a whole new meaning when four coins were minted with various likenesses of Lincoln. Marring this event was the crappy composition of the coin. If you can find some nice ones, be sure to preserve them in plastic.

Sample coins – click to enlarge

Nickels

During 2004 and 2005, a series of special coins were made you might want to collect yourself a set. They aren’t worth anything, but it is a good practice to keep a sample of any special edition coin.

Other than that, nickels aren’t very special. They’re made of … well, nickel, and aren’t very exciting.

Dimes

You might find a dime that is more silvery looking than the others. Check it out. If it is 1964 or earlier, immediately set it aside. It is 90% silver. Nowadays, they are actually copper coated in nickel. You will notice that real silver coins make a silvery ping when you bounce them on a table, or when they jingle with other coins. If you ever hear anything unusual in your change, scrutinize every coin.

If you find a dime with a woman on the front, not only should you set it aside, you should seal it in plastic. Liberty dimes were last minted during WWII.

Of additional interest are unclad dimes. These are dimes that look like pennies because they never got their nickel coating. Most of these have been stripped artificially, but if they are all coppery with no suspicious ring of silver around the ribbed edge of the dime, it may be an actual unclad dime.

Quarters

Quarters were also mostly silver before 1965. So check out any old quarter. The recent state quarters aren’t worth very much, but it might be worth the trouble to collect yourself a set.

Starting this year, another multiyear set is being issued, the America the Beautiful Quarters program. These quarters feature national parks. Coin sets for 2011 are still available at the Mint.

Of interest are bicentennial quarters. These were minted in 1976, and they have a drummer on the reverse. They are starting to get pretty special to find in your change. I immediately take any I find out of circulation and encase it in plastic.

Other coins

Going to the post office and using cash in the the stamp machine can yield you some dollar coins. The post office is the only place that regularly uses dollar coins. I don’t have any of the recent ones, only some older Sacajawea coins. The two current dollar coins are the presidential coin, and the Sacajawea coin. I also grab the Susan B. Anthony coins, but I think they have all been removed from circulation. During its last mint year, I got one encased in mylar from the Mint. They may be almost impossible to find nowadays.

Same goes for half-dollars. I have one of particular interest–a bicentennial half-dollar coin. It looks almost new, too. I’ve had it since Junior High. Other than that year, this coin has not changed in recent years, like other coins have. Also be on the lookout for pre-1965 silver half-dollars.

I have hundreds of coins, mostly because I grab anything that’s unusual to me, even current foreign coins. Thanks to a friend of my father, I have lots of European coins from WWII, including a french coin made of tin. I really need to grab a set of Euro coins, but they’re kind of expensive.

So, go empty those pockets and change purses. Find anything cool?