How to Turn Obsolete European Money into a Charity Windfall

Close-up image of obsolete monetary bank notes of various countries.
Horizon International Images Limited / Alamy
There is a lot of money -- billions of dollars worth -- hidden in cans, sock drawers, and boxes full of vacation photos. Money that if stumbled upon, most Americans would see as worthless due to the date on the calendar, and their current location.

But enterprising people are going to find a way to collect these forgotten souvenirs and turn them into cash. One of them might be you, so let me fill you in on the details of how.

In 2002, the euro replaced the sovereign notes and coins of 18 European Union states. After a short transition, marks, francs, lire, pesetas, guilders and other currencies were no longer accepted as legal tender.

But let me let you in on a secret: Some of those bank notes and coins can still be converted into money you can spend. Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain will still convert their former currencies into euros without any fees.

The Bundesbank -- the central bank for Germany, the biggest of these economies -- estimates that there are $13.31 billion in Deutsche Marks ($8.9 billion in U.S. dollars) in circulation. It they will convert any post-1948 Deutsche Marks to euros, for anyone, at a fixed rate of 1.96 DM per euro (the rate at the time of the 2002 switchover). You can even exchange your Deutsche Marks by mail.

On the Trail of the Missing Cash

Where are all those Deutsche Marks, and the rest of those pre-euro bills and coins? Though there are no studies nor hard evidence to prove it, my gut tells me that most likely the vast majority of that cash is in the United States.

The provisions for the euro transition were established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which meant that Europeans had 10 years before the conversion to adjust to the idea their native currencies would at some point no longer be welcome at the corner grocery store. In fact, those nations spent hundreds of millions of dollars in 2002 to education their populations about the need to exchange local currencies for euros.

Common sense says that those people would have been the most aggressive in exchanging their money. They'd have had the most notice, the most convenient methods for conversion, and the most motivation. But even if you were to estimate that half the missing Marks are still in Europe, that leaves $4.23 billion still left unaccounted for.

Outside of Europe, the United States is by far the largest source of tourism to Germany. In addition, it has the largest number of residents with German heritage outside of Germany, not to mention the largest foreign military presence in Germany.

All those family members, servicemen and tourists were traveling to and from Germany, each time bringing back unspent pieces of that $4.23 billion. Even if 25 percent of those unspent travellers' Deutsche Marks went home with visitors from Asia and South America, you still end up with $3.23 billion somewhere in the U.S.

It Takes a Village

This begs the question of how to both find and gather this and other "obsolete" eurozone money, which is doubtless held in small amounts among millions of people, into large enough quantities to be profitable. And there is the rub.

It is almost inconceivable to think that an individual could create a business that would be able to round up any serious fraction of that lost currency profitably. But, by using already established local and a national organizations, a lot of it might be able to find its way into charitable organizations.

What if your local church, synagogue, school district, Kiwanis club or other charitable organization began a foreign money drive? Members could be encouraged to dig out those coins and bills, which are of virtually no value to them, and then using this "currency alchemy," create a windfall for a good cause.

As of now, Portugal's redemption program is set to end in 2022 and the Netherlands' in 2032. Germany and the other European states listed above have stated that their redemption periods are "indefinite," but all have the right to end them without notice. If that happens, then those billions of dollars' worth of unaccounted for foreign currency will be worthless.

The clock is ticking.

Brian Lund's blog offers more on small business, the stock market, investing and the secret to eternal life.

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I have some French paper francs from 1966. Your article does not mention that. Where can I redeem them?

June 18 2014 at 10:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don´t really get it What for rescue Money waste? Is it worth?
What they want to do with this ? A Museum?...or what.
Sorry, to me is just meaningless

June 16 2014 at 11:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The IMF just said the US should raise the minimum wage. Supposedly the minimum wage in the US is third lowest. Even with imports the prices in the US are too high for the crap wages here.

June 16 2014 at 10:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So the Dollar is is worth more than the DM. Imagine how much yuan you can get, it's staggering!

June 16 2014 at 10:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yeah, I've got a 10 DM note from the being stationed in Germany with US Army in the 70's. Wow, I can get five euros (about $8.00 US). Cost me more in gas and time than its worth.....

June 16 2014 at 5:14 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply