Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Making the change

I am feeling a little bitchy today.

I am usually on edge when my stash of small bills starts to dwindle. When I realized today that I was on my last $10 peso bill, and only have $100 peso notes left in my stock-pile, I had to start scheming.

You never want to be without small bills in this town. Paying for something with a $100 peso bill for anything that costs less than $50 pesos is a humbling experience. It seems that vendors would rather turn down your business than make change for your $100. Even a $50 peso note will get you a look if you are buying something for less than $20 pesos.

As petty as this seems, it gets stressful when you want to buy a banana licuado for $6 pesos at the kiosco on the corner or asparagus for $5 at the produce stand and realize you only have a $50 note. I am to the point now that I don’t even bother to try. Some vendors will begrudgingly make the change after a lengthy hem-and-haw session, but the shame I feel later for taking their small bills is so not worth it. (Damn that Catholic guilt.)

Nothing is worse than wanting to go to a milonga and realizing you only have a $100 peso bill. I once was forced to wait at the door of a milonga for 15 minutes waiting for them to make change for my $100. I felt like a naughty child caught lying to the teacher and forced to stand in the corner with a dunce cap on. Twice I have had to ask for change from fellow tangueros to avoid this situation. Now, I just don’t go out if I don’t have change, it’s not worth the stress.

To put this into perspective, a $100 Argentine peso note is roughly equivalent to $25 U.S. Most milongas cost $20 pesos (about $5 U.S.). Can you imagine getting the third degree from any cashier in the U.S. for trying to make a $4 purchase with a $20 bill? 

When my small bill stash starts to dwindle, I usually head to the big chain grocery store in my neighborhood, Carrefour. Their cashiers have never given me trouble with making change, although I usually break a $100 by making at least a $20 purchase. Today, however, I had lots of provisions to purchase so I brought two $100 peso bills just in case my purchase was over $100.

When the total came to $103, my heart sank. Add to the situation that I stupidly forgot to leave the one $10 bill I had at home and absentmindedly pulled it out with my big bills when I went to pay. Seeing the smaller bill, the cashier handed back one of my $100s and asked me to provide the smaller bill. Crap.

“No.” I said, “Necesito el cambio.”  (I need the change.)

She stared at me. “How dare you!” She said to me with her eyes, “You can’t expect me to give you $97 pesos in change!” I stared back, held my ground. I can be a stubborn bitch when I have to be, and I wasn’t about walk out the door with fewer small bills than I came in with.

She finally sighed, rolled her eyes and called a manager over to bring more small bills. They both made sure it took a few minutes and whispered to each other as I stood waiting. The man in line behind me groaned. He was probably a tourist because Argentines are used to this crap.


  1. wow! Who knew something so small could be sooo different in another country!

  2. Yeah, there are many quirky things like this here. I need to find time to explain clothes and food shopping--those are frustrating adventures too.

  3. Any of the banks will change a $100 note for smaller ones. They'll exchange notes for monedas too. I found most would do $10 at a time, a couple would do $20.

    Any time I passed a bank I'd peer in and if the queue for the cashiers was short enough I'd go in and get some change. A couple of minutes spent in the bank saves a lot of fibbing and stress...

  4. Thanks for the advice, Mark. I should try the banks again. I gave up on them in about week two when I lost my ATM card and found the queues to be no less than 30 minutes whenever I went. Will have to be more diligent about peeking in from time to time. A new game for me--find a bank with no queue. :)