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By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com

Q: I know it is illegal to deface and/or damage money with the intent to defraud or to force the government to replace the damaged bills with new ones. My question is: is it illegal to burn a bill beyond recognition and scatter the ashes? Since I cannot submit it to the Feds for replacement, they are out nothing. Actually, that's one less bill they have to answer for, so it's like donating money to the Government.

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True or false?— Jeffrey K., Omaha, Neb.

A: Even though you may have money to burn, turning cash into ashes is a no-no, according to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which makes all U.S. paper currency.

Specifically, this is a violation of Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code, which says that “whoever mutilates, cuts, disfigures, perforates, 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, Federal Reserve Bank, or Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such item(s) unfit to be reissued, shall be fined not more than $100 or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.”  The law is enforced by the Secret Service.

As a practical matter, of course, money burners are not easy to catch. If you find yourself in the woods trying to start a fire, and the only paper you’ve got is cash, you’ll probably get away with the crime. Just don’t light the match if you see a guy in a black suit with sunglasses talking into his sleeve.

One big reason the government takes a dim view of destroying or defacing currency is that it has to replace it; it costs money to make money — about a nickel per note. And the demand for dollars is huge. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces 37 million notes a day with a face value of approximately $696 million.

As for helping out Uncle Sam, it’s not the government’s money, it's yours. Legal tender is provided by the Federal Reserve as a method of satisfying debts (see above), but unless you use it to pay taxes, the government doesn’t own those notes.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, there is about $675 billion in cash in circulation — the majority of which is outside the United States.  But that amount is not fixed; it rises and falls based on the how much cash banks need to keep their ATMs stocked and keep the U.S. economy humming. (The Fed manages the supply of money by buying and selling Treasury debt from banks.)

As money circulates, the Fed takes old, tired bill out of circulation and replaces them with crisp new ones. Despite those laws against manhandling it, paper money still takes a beating. The average lifespan of a one dollar bill is about a year and a half.

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