Skip to main content

The Penny in English Proverbs and Sayings

I love the English language, it's so expressive and colourful, with its nuances of meaning, metaphors, puns, proverbs, and regional slang

The Penny in Everyday English Language

Here is a range of sayings, proverbs, information and aphorisms about the penny. We use money quite a lot in our figurative language and have a culture rich in the symbolism of the penny.

This is a useful article for learners of English as a foreign language (ESL or ESOL , TESOL or even TSL) and I hope home-grown English speakers will also find it interesting and entertaining.


Quite a lot of our sayings refer to what is now the smallest denomination in English currency, the penny--I am still old enough to remember actually being able to buy things in Woolworths with a farthing--quarter of a penny.

The British have clung on to the name of their beloved penny, resisting its abandonment, even though its value changed on decimalization. But it is now of such low value that its demise cannot be far away. Its popularity has waned, not helped by the subterfuge of sellers saying "£9.99" when they really mean "£10". And who wants to be weighed down by handfuls of low-value coins?

In the last few years there have been moves to take the penny out of circulation, but for the time being it remains legitimate currency.

See how many of these English expressions you know.

Here's a List of Expressions About Pennies

Below the list is some more detail in corresponding numbered paragraphs about each saying

1. Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

2. See A Penny, Pick It Up, And All The Day You'll Have Good Luck

3. Don't Spoil The Ship For A Ha'porth Of Tar

4. In For A Penny, In For A Pound

5. Penny Farthing Bicycle

6. Take Care Of The Pence And The Pounds Will Take Care Of Themselves

7. A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned

8. When The Penny Drops

9. Penny Black

10. A Bad Penny

11. Penny Lane (Lennon/McCartney)

12. Penny Shares - Also Known As Penny Stock

13. Spend A Penny

14. A Penny For Your Thoughts

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

1. Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

Meaning: Be aware of the wider picture . Sometimes when you think you are economising there is a tendency to focus on the wrong things and neglect the larger picture

For Example:

  • Saving money by taking up an offer of a 0% credit card balance transfer on a large amount of debt from your current credit cards to avoid paying interest on your current loan for, say, six months, but consequently finding you are asked to pay a higher mortgage percentage rate on your new mortgage because of the temporary decrease in your credit score, costing thousands.
  • Receiving a 10% discount for opening a new store credit card, but paying the balance off slowly instead of clearing the debt at the end of every month, thus adding interest fees (and possibly late fees) usually at the rate of about 23% per annum.
  • Driving miles out of your way to save a marginal amount of money on goods or petrol, or looking for cheap petrol but buying a vehicle which is a gas guzzler.
  • Not paying for professional advice or work (lawyer, tax accountant, builder etc.) and doing it yourself to save money, but then finding yourself in a mess and having to pay for the consequences and in addition probably having to pay a professional much more to get you out of trouble.
  • Downloading music illegally to save a small sum per CD, but being sued for hundreds and then settling out of court.
  • Buying cheap clothing and shoes which have to be replaced more frequently because of poor quality.
  • Parking your car without feeding the meter because you were only going to be a minute, and then returning to find you have a parking ticket because the parking warden had a quota to fulfil and was lying in wait for someone just like you.
  • Spending hours completing online surveys or writing pay-per-posts for pennies, whilst your time could be better spent improving skills to land a better job or developing a winning business plan.
  • Haggling for price reductions of totally insignificant amounts at car boot sales and charity shops, but buying a new car or having an expensive beauty make-over.

See A Penny, Pick It Up, And All The Day You'll Have Good Luck

See A Penny, Pick It Up, And All The Day You'll Have Good Luck

2. See A Penny, Pick It Up, And All The Day You'll Have Good Luck

There seem to be various versions of this saying, and some even substitute the word "pin" for "penny", as in "See a pin, pick it up, and all day long you'll have good luck".

Here are some of the other versions:

See a penny, pick it up,

All day long you'll have good luck,

Give it to a faithful friend,

Then your luck will never end.


See a penny, pick it up,

All day long you'll have good luck,

See a penny let it lie,

Need a penny till you die.

Scroll to Continue

or even

Find a penny, pick it up.

All day long you'll have good luck.

See a penny leave it there,

Bad luck comes! So beware!

(a bit awkward with its scanning, that last one)

Not much to say about this really--the sentiment is clear, but not so clear whether it is a harmless bit of superstition, or whether it is a metaphor commenting on being careful in order to generate wealth....and does it really matter?

Don't Spoil The Ship For A Ha'porth Of Tar

Don't Spoil The Ship For A Ha'porth Of Tar

3. Don't Spoil The Ship For a Ha'porth of Tar

Meaning: "Don't make false economies"

The saying seems to be a corruption of the original saying "Don't spoil the sheep for a ha'porth of tar" , meaning that if your sheep is injured, don't let it become infected by not putting a ha'porth of tar to seal the wound, as was traditional in the olden days. The word "ha'porth" is an abbreviation of "halfpenny's worth". Halfpennies went out of circulation a few years ago, as they were considered to be of too low a value to be used any more.

The confusion around the words "ship" or "sheep" arose because in some parts of Great Britain the word "Sheep" was pronounced "Ship", and this confusion was further exacerbated by the fact that tar was used both to heal wounds and also to waterproof ships.

People often abbreviate the expression to "Don't spoil the Ship..."

In For aPenny, in For a Pound

In For aPenny, in For a Pound

4. In For a Penny, in For a Pound

Meaning: If you are going to do something or go in for something, you might as well do it in a big way, or wholeheartedly.

5. Penny Farthing Bicycle

Penny-Farthing--also called Ordinary, High Wheel or High Wheeler

The penny-farthing, the first machine to be called 'a bicycle', is a term used to describe a type of bicycle with a large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel, popular after the boneshaker, until the development of the safety bicycle, in the 1880s.

The name "Penny Farthing" comes from its likeness to the British penny and farthing coins, one much larger than the other, so that the side view resembled a penny leading a farthing.

The danger: The rider sat high and nearly over the front axle so that, when the wheel struck rocks and ruts, or under hard braking, the rider could be pitched forward off the bicycle head-first, called "taking a header". Headers were relatively common, and a significant hazard, sometimes causing death. Riders coasting down hills often took their feet off the pedals and put them over the tops of the handlebars, so they would be pitched off feet-first instead of head-first.

Construction of the Penny Farthing: Penny-farthing bicycles had cast iron frames, solid-rubber tyres, and plain bearings for pedals, steering, and wheels. They were durable and required little service, and it is said that when cyclist Thomas Stevens rode around the world in 1880s, he reported only one significant mechanical problem in over 20,000 km, caused when the local military confiscated his bicycle and damaged the front wheel.

Improvement of the Penny Farthing over its predecessor: In spite of the dangers, the penny-farthing was simpler, lighter, and faster than the safer velocipedes of the time. Additionally, the large wheel rode over bumps in the road more smoothly than smaller-wheeled vehicles.

Progress: Two new developments changed this situation, and led to the rise of the Safety bicycle. The first was the chain drive, originally used on tricycles, allowing a gear ratio to be chosen independent of the wheel size. The second was the pneumatic tyre, allowing smaller wheels to provide a smooth ride. By 1893 high-wheelers were no longer being produced.


Take Care of The Pence and the Pounds Will Take Care of Themselves

Take Care of The Pence and the Pounds Will Take Care of Themselves

6. Take Care of the Pence and the Pounds Will Take Care of Themselves

Sometimes shortened to "Take Care of the Pence....."

First quoted by the Secretary of the Treasury, Mr William Lowndes (1652-1724), English Politician.

Meaning: If you take care of little things one at a time, they can add up to big things.

7. A Penny Saved Is a Penny Earned

Could this be the Misers' Charter?

Meaning: Money not spent is money that will still be beneficial later as it remains in your pocket.

When the Penny Drops

When the Penny Drops

8. When the Penny Drops

Meaning: A belated realization of something after a period of confusion or misunderstanding in "by the time the penny dropped and she realized what an evil bastard he was, she was already married to him, with four children in tow".

Penny Black Postage Stamp

Penny Black Postage Stamp

9. Penny Black

The world's first prepaid adhesive postage stamp issued on 6th May 1840

In the late 1830's Social reformer Rowland Hill inspired mass communication, by creating the radical principle that a standard letter not exceeding half an ounce in weight could be sent to any part of the United Kingdom for one penny, and he proposed "a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash".

The result was the Penny Black, the world's first prepaid adhesive postage stamp issued on 6th May 1840 and followed by the rarer Twopenny Blue on 8th May 1840, early in the reign of Queen Victoria; her instantly recognisable portrait by William Wyon in 1834 when she was only 15 was used.

Other countries followed suit and by 1860 about 85 countries or other entities had issued stamps.

As the Penny Black was the first postage stamp, the country name was omitted, a tradition continued with all the stamps of Great Britain. The identifying characteristic is the monarch's head which always faces to the left on definitive stamps.

A postal delivery system had actually been in place since 1510 and the postage was paid by the receiver rather than the sender. The purpose of the new stamp, the Penny Black, was to indicate that the postage had been prepaid.

By prepaying the postage, the difficulty the Post Office had experienced in collecting the money was reduced and money could therefore be saved by the Post Office

With the advent of prepaid postage Rowland Hill also advocated that houses should have letter boxes to facilitate delivery of the letter.

The stamps were initially not perforated, but had to be cut with scissors. Perforations were introduced in 1854. Each stamp had its own 'small crown' watermark and the line-engraved printing method was used, in which the ink was in grooves on a plate and pressure was used to force the ink onto the paper.

The Penny Black is not rare - about 68 million were issued in 1840-41. Prices vary according to condition, and as the stamps were cut by scissors, the best prices are for stamps which still have all four margins of the design intact.

A Bad Penny

A Bad Penny

10. A Bad Penny

A bad penny turns up to spoil things just when you thought the going was good

Proverbial Meaning: A person with a bad reputation who has left their town or village, one who causes trouble and turmoil in the community, always returns.

Literal Origins: A shopkeeper will return a bad penny (i.e. a forgery) when he discovers the mistake he made in accepting it.

Common Usage: This expression is still in common usage. It is spoken in a few different ways, for example:

When such a person returns into people's lives, often preceded by a sigh, "A bad penny always turns up."

Or, much more common, in a shortened form to describe someone: "He's a 'bad penny' ."

Penny Lane - The Beatles

Penny Lane - The Beatles

11. Penny Lane (Lennon/McCartney)

Sing-Along with this Beatles Song--do you remember the words of Penny Lane?

Penny Lane

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs

Of every head he's had the pleasure to know.

And all the people that come and go

Stop and say hello.

On the corner is a banker with a motorcar,

The little children laugh at him behind his back.

And the banker never wears a mack

In the pouring rain, very strange.

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.

There beneath the blue suburban skies

I sit, and meanwhile back

In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass

And in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen.

He likes to keep his fire engine clean,

It's a clean machine.

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.

A four of fish and finger pies

In summer, meanwhile back

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout

The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray

And tho' she feels as if she's in a play

She is anyway.

In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer,

We see the banker sitting waiting for a trim.

And then the fireman rushes in

From the pouring rain, very strange.

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.

There beneath the blue suburban skies

I sit, and meanwhile back.

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.

There beneath the blue suburban skies,

Penny Lane.

Penny Lane on YouTube

12. Penny Shares--Also Known As Penny Stock

A penny share is so called because it is of relatively low value and can be bought for pennies or fractions of a dollar or pound

Penny Shares or Stocks are often traded through over-the-counter services, and the term can be applied to any stock which trades at a low price and with a relatively low volume. Most Penny Shares are shares of small companies and information about a penny stock company can be hard to find.

As with any other stock, an investor buys the penny shares hoping that the company will grow, thereby increasing the value of his equity stake in the company, and making a profit on sale. The main difference between penny stocks and larger stocks, such as those listed in the DOW Stock Exchange, is that penny stocks have enormous daily variance in value and there is therefore the potential to carry a large reward for little outlay, although they are a very risky investment because they are so volatile.

For big companies, when a stock goes up or down a few dollars in one day, if the stock is trading at $50, it might change only a couple percentage points. This would be considered a large change for one day in a normal stock. In a penny stock that costs less than a dollar, a change in value of one or two cents could amount to the same percentage change. The lower the price of the penny stock the greater this risk/reward is magnified. If a stock only cost 10 cents per share, an increase of 1 penny in a day would be 10 percent, a return that many would consider very good for an entire year. The downside is that if the price falls by a penny or two, the penny stocks decline just as quickly.

Since penny stocks generally trade with lower volumes than large stocks, and cost much less per share, speculators can drive up the prices of a given penny stock by injecting a large amount of money into them. This provides a means of doctoring the market: the speculators pump money into a penny stock, which raises the price, and consequently the stock then draws attention from the financial industry, drawing in funds from average investors, which further drives up the price.

And as this happens, the speculators pull their money out, making a profit, while the other investors lose money as the price falls back down toward its original level.

Penny stocks are often used as a part of email scams, which promise amazing returns, when in reality the mass emails are a way of pumping up prices momentarily for scammers to sell inflated shares and make money. Since information on penny stocks is often difficult to find, they are easier to manipulate. Considering the dangers involved in penny stocks, the average investor is usually better off putting their money elsewhere.

Reader, my fingers, too, have been burnt!

Take This Poll About the Smallest Coin in Your Country--See How Other Pollsters Measure Up

If you are British, your wallet or purse is weighed down with coins of very little value, 1p and 2p pieces. No doubt in other countries wth devaluation you have a similar problem. They are a nuisance but do you think we should still retain them?

Oh, and when you read the answers, note how many figures of speech are used, even in commonplace little polls like this. I didn't even insert them on purpose--you just can't help finding and using figures of speech all the time if English is your home language! English must be sheer hell to learn as a second language.

13. Spend a Penny

Meaning: Go to the toilet (because that's what using a public lavatory used to cost). e.g." I need to spend a penny" means "I need the toilet".

The same activity would more likely cost you more than10p in most station toilets these days. However, since April 2019, the cost has been scrapped completely in many stations.

Spend a Penny in the Ladies Lavatory at Potto Station, England

Spend a Penny in the Ladies Lavatory at Potto Station, England

  • The Beginners Guide to Penny Stocks
    Penny Stocks. Microcap Stocks. Over the counter Markets. High-risk stocks market. Penny Stocks Risks and Scams.
  • BBC NEWS | UK | Pennies not so pretty
    The penny has been part of British denomination since medieval times. Few would believe the saying "see a penny, pick it up, all day long you'll have good luck", but glimpsing a tarnished copper on the pavement could soon become a rarity

14. A Penny For Your Thoughts

Meaning: Tell me what you're thinking.

Well, what are your thoughts?

A Penny For Your Thoughts

A Penny For Your Thoughts

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

A Penny For Your Thoughts--Please Leave Your Mark on This Comment Section--Your Place to Give a Little Feedback

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on June 23, 2020:

This has been a most enjoyable article to read. I never realized that the penny has so many associations. And while it is an obvious thing, I've come to realize that the penny played a role in the daily lives of people living in historical times.

Treathyl FOX from Austin, Texas on January 10, 2020:

What a great HUB! I enjoyed this. The question about not minting pennies anymore has come up before. But I still think they have value. Of course, it's a sentimental value. I can remember when I used to be able to buy 2 cookies for a penny. LOL. For that, I don't want to see them disappear. They are important history!

Diana Grant (author) from United Kingdom on June 11, 2019:

Yes, it's interesting seeing the cultural changes in vocabulary and signs just during our lifetimes.

"oh man, that's sick" instead of "I say, that's jolly decent, old man" and "Hi, bro'" instead of "hallo" or even "hello". I've learned a lot from my five adult grandchildren in multicultural London.

Diana Grant (author) from United Kingdom on June 11, 2019:

Roman coins became valuable when dug up thousands of years later, so why not pennies in 4019, when half the UK will be under water and the other half a plastic desert?

RoadMonkey on June 06, 2019:

So many young people no longer use these phrases. I think some of them would have as much difficulty with them as people for English is a foreign language! These kinds of phrases always enrich our understanding.

Rose Jones on June 06, 2019:

Knowing these idioms really helps with creative writing. Am I foolish to hope that I sometime will find a valuable penny worth thousands of dollars? I remember my parents collecting wheat pennies.

Angeles from Spain on April 23, 2019:

Great! It's so interesting! You may spend several years learning a language, but you'll always need to know about idioms and expressions! You know? We also have some similar expressions in Spanish, related to money! There are a lot of proverbs and saying with the equivalent in Spanish, my native language. Good work! :-)

Diana Grant (author) from United Kingdom on May 25, 2014:

@Frugal-UK LM: Ah, now the penny really has dropped!

Frugal-UK LM on May 25, 2014:

when the penny drops relates to old slot machines in old english fairs usually the fortune telling kind

Diana Grant (author) from United Kingdom on November 25, 2013:

@Colin323: We don't see kids asking for a penny for the guy these days - giant public firework displays are now the norm, rather than kids setting of bangers.

Colin323 on November 21, 2013:

I remember 'Penny for the Guy, Mister?' around Bonfire Night, Although you would be mighty peeved if they actually gave you so low a sum!

Diana Grant (author) from United Kingdom on August 12, 2013:

@BLouw: : Thank you for your message which will be dealt with as soon as possible.

This is an automated reply.

Barbara Walton from France on August 12, 2013:

Such a fun lens - I bet you enjoyed making it. The poem about"find a penny, pick it up" I've never heard, but we do say "See a pin and pick it up and all the day you'll have good luck. See a pin and let it lie and you'll regret it by and by."

Diana Grant (author) from United Kingdom on March 21, 2013:

@Gypzeerose: You've made my day with your lovely comment

Rose Jones on March 21, 2013:

A penny for my thoughts? This is an awesome lens! I really loved my time here and I pinned it onto my This I want you to know Board. I often think of pennies from heaven. My personal saying is that "A Penny is the Same as a Million Dollars" which means we live in an abundant universe, and Spirit is our supply. Blessed and out by digg.

anonymous on March 20, 2013:

Spending a penny days are definitely over and inflation had got to a penny for your thoughts, it's more like £10 now lol

PinkstonePictures from Miami Beach, FL on February 22, 2013:

Some countries give you a sweet instead of a low value coin. Great idea. Then again, you'd end up spending a pretty penny at the Dentist :-)

Diana Grant (author) from United Kingdom on September 14, 2012:

@EMangl: It took me a while there for the penny to drop!

EMangl on September 12, 2012:

since i don't talk english usually, i learned something new

when i saw the ship "my penny is over the ocean" came to mind :-)

yes, i know the correct version

ismeedee on May 16, 2012:

I learned the expression, 'spend a penny' when I hadn't been in the country long and was in hospital for the birth of my daughter. The nurse asked me if I needed to do that and I gave her a very strange look indeed!!! haha! I'll never forget that. Very nice lens- so creative!

Barbara Isbill from New Market Tn 37820 on May 08, 2012:

Absolutely interesting! Great topic!

poutine on April 17, 2012:

Yes, Canada is abolishing the penny.

Doc_Holliday on April 16, 2012:

A very clever lens. I liked it. It is fortune that Squidoo does not cost a pretty penny to put together. I have a penny whistle but don't have two pennies to rub together.

Diana Grant (author) from United Kingdom on April 04, 2012:

@anonymous: Yes, 1p or even 2p are no longer significant sums of money, and just encourage shops to charge misleading amounts like £1.99 which looks a lot less than £2.00!

anonymous on March 31, 2012:

I read in the news this week that Canada is taking the plunge and abolishing the penny. Britain and the U.S. should do the smart thing and follow Canada's lead. I enjoyed your lens.

blogvicar lm on January 29, 2012:

I had forgotten that you once had to spend a penny to access a toilet cubicle. I enjoyed the nostalgic aspects of this lens. Thanks for sharing.

OldStones LM on October 27, 2011:

I real enjoyed reading this fun look at the penny. Very well done.

That's just my 2 cents :)

mrducksmrnot on September 06, 2011:

Wonderful lens and the real value of a penny. Why so many?

Chardoo on May 31, 2011:

Great post. I had a jar of pennies that grew while I traveled from California to Japan and then to North Carolina and back to my home in Seattle (husband was in the military) before I decided to count the contents in the two jars. $250. in pennies. We rolled them and took them to the bank. Then bought myself an office desk and printer.

ChrisDay LM on May 30, 2011:

Nice collection of the linguistic culture around the penny - nicely done.

Snakesmom on April 28, 2011:

I still stop to pick up pennies off the ground, they really add up. :) What a great thought provoking lens you have made, love it!

anonymous on April 18, 2011:

I'm showing my age here but I can remember when you could buy a piece of candy for a penny. The good old days!

kguru1979 lm on April 09, 2011:

Brilliant lens... well presented..! thumbs up...!

anonymous on February 27, 2011:

Loved your penny wise ideas that are worth more than pennies, great advice and smart tips in this well crafted lens.

awakeningwellness on February 25, 2011:

Very clever lens, I can tell your thoughts are worth far more than a penny!

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on February 25, 2011:

Here's my version: See a penny, pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck. See a penny, let it lay, bad luck will follow you all day.

CruiseReady from East Central Florida on February 25, 2011:

What a fun lensthis is!

tandemonimom lm on February 14, 2011:

Very interesting! I have read that "see a penny" was actually originally "see a pin" because pins and needles were so hard to come by and valuable in the Middle Ages; "see a penny" would then be the corruption. Lensrolled to my "Million Billion Trillion" lens!

norma-holt on October 12, 2010:

Great lesson about one of the staples of our economy. Well researched and presented. It is now featured on my lens Money and Society

encouragingwords on September 30, 2010:

This is so clever - great job!

Spook LM on September 23, 2010:

My wife being a Penny always hated, 'has the penny dropped yet'? I say, 'penny wise and pound foolish'. Blessed by an Angel.

Delia on March 27, 2010:

Great lens...5*...I never kew there was so much written about a penny saying ...will lensroll it my "apropos aphorisms" lens

inkserotica on March 27, 2010:

Just a quick note from a Squidoo Greeter! Very interesting topic :) Found out some things I didn't know! 5*

Related Articles