A common question among newcomers to the hobby is whether there’s a “right” or “wrong” way the collect coins. The answer is no—but there are ways of collecting that may prove to be especially enjoyable and rewarding. Some buyers are accumulators who simply buy items that pique their interest. Others attempt to form collections with a specific theme or structure. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but collectors often derive the most satisfaction from assembling sets.
Many collectors got their start with cardboard coin albums. The most popular album, for example, contained one slot for every Lincoln cent minted from 1909 through today. The majority of the coins (at least, once upon a time) could be found in everyday circulation. This just left a few remaining open holes for the rare “key” dates, which would be sourced from a local coin shop if you weren’t lucky enough to stumble upon one in your change.
These cardboard albums got collectors in the habit of assembling complete sets, meaning buying one of every date and mintmark combination. Even after collectors graduated from common modern issues, they would nonetheless adopt the same approach with more valuable or challenging series. Collectors find tremendous satisfaction from completing sets; the thrill of the chase is almost as rewarding (if not more so) than enjoying the coins themselves.
There’s one potential issue with building complete sets: the cost. Some series (e.g. Indian Cents, Buffalo Nickels, Mercury Dimes, etc) can be completed in average circulated condition for under $10,000. Other series, however, can only be completed with a significant budget. A complete set of 1878-1921 Morgan Dollars, for instance, would run tens of thousands of dollars in lower grades and hundreds of thousands in Uncirculated. A complete set of 1840-1873 Seated Liberty dollars, regardless of grade, would be nearly $1,000,000.
This is what makes type sets and year sets so popular. In a type set, collectors buy one example of every major design type (usually a common date). For instance an Indian gold type set would consist of a $2.50 Quarter Eagle, a $5 Half Eagle and a $10 Indian Eagle. A variation on that same theme is building a year set, i.e. one of every denomination produced in a given year. These two approaches give collectors the thrill of the chase while allowing them to dodge expensive and hard-to-find key dates.
There are countless ways to collect, depending on one’s personal goals, preferences and budget. Some prefer a highly rigid approach with specific parameters, while others just buy items that “strike a chord.” While collecting tastes will always vary person to person, completing a set can prove to be an especially satisfying and fulfilling method. It need not be an ambitious set that takes years and millions to assemble; there are many sets that the average collector can reasonably tackle.