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Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Need for Change

There are a countless number of cultural differences that take getting used to in a new country.  Argentina is no exception. 

Some differences take one or two instances of exposure before growing accustomed.  Little things like remembering to ring a bell and get buzzed in to enter stores during business hours (due to heightened security) or to avoid shopping in the middle of the day when many shops inexplicably close for a few hours. 

Some take months of exposure before becoming habit.  Things like kissing on the right cheek when greeting hello and goodbye to people - even during first meetings, or remembering to keep my keys in hand while leaving our Alcatraz-style apartment so that I can unlock the three separate doors on my way outside. 

And then there differences, the one in particular that inspires this post, that are easy to remember, but incredibly difficult to understand. 

Change.  Literally, coins or monedas.  There is a perpetual drought in Buenos Aires in the form of small bills and change.  It is some sort of bizarre phenomena that I cannot for the life of me figure out.  This extreme culture difference is exacerbated by the fact that coins are something that I've spent all my adult life in the US trying to get rid of.  There are literally trays of free pennies for those who just want to give away their change.  Not only that, but who uses cash anymore??  Aren't we a plastic-using society?  Not here, not in Bs.As.  All cash, (almost) all the time, and don't even try to pay with your $100 peso note because you can be sure that they don't have change.

We have managed this money drought a few different ways.  First hurdle: Breaking large bills.  Whenever we withdraw money from the ATM, we always attempt to withdraw in odd numbers, the best being a number that ends in $90.  This plan is foiled by the ATMs that only carry $100s and $50s.  Keep in mind that a $100 peso bill is roughly the equivalent to US$25, so it's not like we're toting Benjamins all over town.  Another way is to pay with a $100 at any store that will accept it, more likely at larger grocery stores or upscale shops.  We then stockpile the smaller bills in our safe for later use.  It has become my part-time job to ensure that we have small bills in our safe at all times.  It sounds silly, but it's a very real part of everyday life to make sure that you always have small bills in your wallet.  The lack of can lead to very uncomfortable situations. 
Exhibit A) I was riding in a cab with $212 pesos in my wallet (with two $100s), we arrived at my destination and fare was $18 pesos.  The cabbie couldn't break my hundred and I had no other money.  I had to short him $6 pesos for the ride, and clearly no tip.  Awkward. 
Exhibit B)  I was shopping at a small bulk health food store where the shopkeeper needs to portion out and weigh all of the items.  After putting together 7 or 8 items, I went to the register with my $100 and they couldn't break it.  And they didn't take credit cards.  And I left the store empty handed - 45 minutes of my life I'll never get back.

So many bus rides!
Second hurdle:  Coins.  Coins are the only form of currency for those that use buses, and since Jon uses the bus to commute, and I use it when I know where I'm going, we go through a lot of change.  People go to great lengths here to avoid giving you change.  Some small shops will give you candy instead of change when your bill is uneven.  Cashiers will ask you for change to round up your bill so they can supply your change in all paper.  Taxi drivers will round your fare down to avoid giving you coin change.  It's incredible.  So, how do you accumulate change?  The method of choice for me, up until yesterday, was to go to the bank.  I would travel to the bank, a couple times a week, stand in line like a dunce for 15-45 minutes and receive a grand total of $10 pesos worth of change.  That's right.  Even the BANK is stingy with coins.  Yesterday, I discovered the mecca of all change locations:  Retiro Station.  Retiro train station has a designated window for monedas because it is a huge bus hub and their train ticket machines only accept coins.  This window inevitably has a 100 person line, but I happen to be at the train station yesterday and it was worth it to save a trip to the bank.  I was even going to kill two birds with one stone and pay for my pesos with a $100 bill, so I could get small bills AND coins.  Imagine my surprise when I get to the window and the man behind the counter gives me $50 coins.  FIFTY.  Five saved trips to the bank.  I couldn't believe it.  And then, I couldn't believe how happy I was to receive coins.  Times have certainly changed.

Our coin reserve is plush now, although it certainly won't last forever.  Note to those in the Bs.As. area that need coins, Retiro is the place to go.  Anyone with other change and small bill tips, please feel free to share.  This is one battle that I had never envisioned myself fighting.   


  1. Stank and BlakelyJuly 23, 2010 at 6:21 AM

    This sounds so crazy, but I can understand. I hate coins and wish the US would use all paper. The $1 would be the smallest form of currency. And we should do away with things that cost $3.49 -- everything should be an even dollar amount!!

  2. This post cracks me up, and after our time in Europe, it sounds very familiar. For our cab ride to the Venice airport the cab driver couldn't break our money, so we had to short him 4 euros (but it was his suggestion). We also got a few evil eyes when we asked to use our credit cards -- at places that accept cards! So, we got by with cards a lot in Spain and Italy, but we did have to always have change, all the time.

    By the way, everyone in Spain and Italy wears Hammer pants too, so I thought of you every time I saw them :)

  3. You're kidding me! What is the deal with these Hammer pants? I've done a bit of fashion conforming, jeans inside boots, etc, but the Hammer pants will remain a mystery to me.

    I totally agree with you Blakely! If nothing else, the US should at least do away with the penny. So useless...