Q: Is this legal?
A: Yes, It’s Legal!
Many people assume that it’s illegal to stamp or write on paper currency, but they’re wrong! There are three things that you CANNOT do to paper currency:
- You CANNOT change the denomination — for example, you cannot add to zeros to a one dollar bill and pretend that it’s a one hundred dollar bill. That’s illegal.
- You CANNOT burn, shred, or destroy currency, rendering it unfit for circulation.
- You CANNOT advertise a business on paper currency. For example, if you own a Bagel shop, you cannot stamp “Eat at Joe’s Bagel’s” on a dollar.
But we are putting political messages on the bills, not commercial advertisements. Because we all want these bills to stay in circulation and we’re stamping to send a message about an issue that’s important to us, it’s legal!
Q: What laws are applicable to stamping money?
A: Defacement of U.S. currency is regulated by 18 USC 333, which states:
[w]hoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.
There’s also a law prohibiting the use of paper money as advertising, 18 USC 475, which states: “[w]hoever . . . writes, prints, or otherwise impresses upon . . . any [coin or currency] of the United States, any business or professional card, notice, or advertisement, or any notice or advertisement whatever, shall be fined under this title.”
18 USC 333 is written to prohibit the malicious destruction of currency, and 18 USC 475 is written to prevent currency from becoming a vehicle for commercial advertising, like for Burger King. Because we want stamped money to stay in circulation and we’re stamping to express our opinions about a political issue, not to make a profit, we’re good to go.
Q: Can businesses refuse stamped currency?
A: 31 USC 5103 states: “United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues.” As the U.S. Treasury Department has noted, however, there is no Federal law requiring a business to accept cash as payment:
Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash unless there is a State law which says otherwise. For example, a bus line may prohibit payment of fares in pennies or dollar bills. In addition, movie theaters, convenience stores and gas stations may refuse to accept large denomination currency (usually notes above $20) as a matter of policy.
It’s worth noting that this discusses denominations of currency and cash generally. With that in mind it seems unlikely that stamped bills, which are legal tender, should not be treated any differently than unstamped bills. We occasionally hear about local businesses that have policies not to accept any marked currency, usually as a precaution against counterfeiting, but It’s not clear whether or not such a policy is legal. They do appear to be well-intentioned and do not discriminate against stamped bills in particular.
Q: How many people will see each stamped bill?
A: The Federal Reserve estimates that the average one dollar bill lasts 4.8 years. That is 1,750 days. We figure the typical bill you will be stamping will be halfway through its life, or have 875 days left. We then assume that the typical bill is passed around once every other day or about 438 more times in its life.
Let’s say you stamp an average of 10 bills a day, that’s 300/month. Even if you take weekends off you’ll end the year stamping about 2,500 bills and each will be seen an average of 438 times. That means you’ll get your message out 1,095,000 times!
Q: Do all denominations of bills circulate at the same rate?
A: No, higher denomination bills circulate less frequently, but they stay in circulation for a longer period of time:
$1 – 4.8 years
$5 – 3.8 years
$10 – 3.6 years
$20 – 6.7 years
$50 – 9.6 years
$100 – 19.9 years