Do banks lose more money to robbery or to stolen pens?

100 Dollar Bill with Pen

100 Dollar Bill with Pen

While mak­ing a deposit at the bank the oth­er day and real­iz­ing I did­n’t have a pen in my pock­et, I thought about steal­ing the pen on the deposit counter. This kind of lit­tle theft hap­pens all the time, and we all do it. It’s like doing 51 in a 45 mph zone — we don’t real­ly con­sid­er it wrong. So I thought, how much do banks spend in a year in replac­ing all the pens that all of us mis­cre­ants blithe­ly walk away with? Is it more than banks lose to rob­beries?

Because banks don’t pub­lish their annu­al pen bud­get, I have to run this back­wards and see where the two amounts meet. I’ve done the research, so let’s do some math. Here are my results.

  • Num­ber of bank branch­es in US (2010): 98,515. [Source]
  • Cost of a sin­gle pen (cur­rent): approx. $0.25 [Source]
  • Lost amount of cash and trav­el­ers checks, minus the amount recov­ered in the US (2010): $34,823,034 [Source]

So what I’m real­ly ask­ing here is: ($0.25 cost of a pen) x (?? num­ber of pens) = $34,823,034 amount stolen.

So, we would need to steal 139,292,136 pens a year to equal the amount that banks lose to rob­beries. Divide that num­ber by  the num­ber of bank branch­es and the min­i­mum num­ber of days a bank is open every year (365 — week­ends and bank hol­i­days = 250) and you get an eas­i­ly digestible answer. If every bank branch in Amer­i­ca los­es 5.7 pens per day to theft, then banks spend more on pens than they lose from rob­beries.

Ta-da! To answer these kinds of ques­tions I was inspired by the book Freako­nom­ics, which I only recent­ly read. Ask­ing nov­el ques­tions is fun. Thank­ful­ly, the inter­net has made these kinds of knowl­edge jour­neys much eas­i­er. Imag­ine try­ing to do this 15 years ago…


  1. I can imag­ine doing this 15 years ago…
    “Hel­lo? Can I speak to whomev­er is in charge of office sup­plies for your branch? Yes, I’m doing some research on office sup­ply usage in the region and I’m just curi­ous what your annu­al pen bud­get is? Yes? You’ve been very help­ful! Thank you so much!”

    In addi­tion, I would ven­ture that get­ting the infor­ma­tion direct­ly from the per­son in charge would be far more accu­rate than approx­i­mate­ly 25 cents apiece, which no office man­ag­er in their right mind would pay for bulk pen pur­chas­es. The office I used to work at pur­chased pens at $50 for 3,000 (or around 1.6 cents per pen), and that was for a small busi­ness mak­ing very few orders. I can imag­ine a bank would be able to lever­age their much larg­er orders, not to men­tion the fact that they’ve prob­a­bly invest­ed in the pen man­u­fac­tur­er, to get an even bet­ter deal than that.

    I’m not try­ing to pick bones here, just point­ing out that while the inter­net has made it eas­i­er to find some infor­ma­tion, it has dras­ti­cal­ly ham­pered the cred­i­bil­i­ty and accu­ra­cy of that infor­ma­tion, pre­cise­ly because its ease of access leads to hasti­ly jumped con­clu­sions. In this par­tic­u­lar case I’d ven­ture that it has­n’t real­ly saved much time at all, and has led to high­ly inac­cu­rate results.

  2. 1) A sam­ple of 1 out of a pop­u­la­tion of 98,515 is insuf­fi­cient. Some bank branch­es are very large, some are very small. A sam­ple size of 0.00001% does not con­trol for such fac­tors.

    2) I chose a pen based on the most com­mon pens I have seen in bank lob­bies. Click pens, plas­tic, cus­tomized with the name and logo of the bank, bought in quan­ti­ties of 1,000. They were inex­pen­sive com­pared to the oth­er pens avail­able that I looked for.

    5) I don’t answer the ques­tion, I only point to the fence on which the answer would fall to one or the oth­er.

    I can find as many prob­lems with your research meth­ods as you found with mine. The dif­fer­ence of course is that I actu­al­ly did my research. I’ve dis­played my sources and shown my work, so the prob­lems caused by the one vari­able that could vary wide­ly should be read­i­ly inferred. This was for fun, not a grade. You how­ev­er, main­tain your sta­tus as the High Priest of Mys­tic Skep­ti­cism.

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