Argentina, Mixed Bag, Soft

The Fight for Change

Saturday, January 31, 2009  

In Argentina, the change you have in your pocket is sacred. That’s because there just aren’t enough coins. Anytime you make a purchase, the merchant will infallibly try their best to wrest that last 50 centavos or one-peso coin remaining in your pocket. Waiters will forgo getting a tip in order to avoid giving you that $3.35 in change. I have refused my own boyfriend, Guillermo, change for the bus when, for the second day in a row, he requested 2 peso coins from my reserve in exchange for a paper bill. This has been the way of life here for longer than the 4 years I have been here, and recently it has gotten worse.

Public transportation in Argentina is great, but the buses here only accept coins as payment. The machines will happily give change for your one-peso coin, but there is nowhere to insert a paper bill. Until a couple weeks ago, the fares within the city of Buenos Aires were 1 peso or less, so with a single peso, you could count on transportation. Now that the fares have risen to $1.10 and $1.20, that is no longer the case. People are scrambling more to get those extra coins.

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My friend Pato commutes every day to and from work via 2 buses, where you can only use coins. He needs lots of coins all the time. Fortunately his mother works at a horse race betting agency, and is able to sell him rolls of coins whenever he needs them. I wonder if she charges him a commission. There is a black market of change here where it is said you are charged $100 for $85 in coins. I have thought of an alternative: as a symbiotic way to give to panhandlers, offer a $10 bill for $9 in change. I haven’t actually tried it, but I am sure it would work.

In the US everyone is accustomed to a different culture of change. In a bar, if you pay $10 for a $5 beer, you will always get 5-$1 bills in change instead of a single $5. They want to make sure you have no problem leaving a tip. If you pay for a $6 item at Safeway with $21 in bills, the cashier will often get confused. In the US there is an opposite struggle to get rid of change, and many people accumulate jars full of coins that sit for years without being used. Instead of there being a black market to buy change, US supermarkets offer machines that charge to take your change and exchange it for bills.

Oftentimes, merchants in Argentina give up five to ten cents in your favor when they don’t have the correct change. Other times they want you to purchase more to round off the total. The owner of the vegetable stand on the corner near me is always coaxing me into buying one more tomato or lemon to round the total from $4.5o to $5.00 even. Everyone here calculates change intuitively, so it is understood why you have presented 25 pesos (one 20-peso bill plus another of 5-pesos) for a purchase of $18.85. If you don’t have the presence of mind, the merchant will help you out asking you for an additional one-peso coin, and if not then for a five-peso bill. With that, you get 3-$2 paper bills in change plus 15 centavos. If the merchant is out of five-centavo coins, a common occurrence, they will offer you a small piece of candy instead. Fortunately there are no one-centavo coins.

One time Guillermo and I were going to a party at night in the La Boca neighborhood. Taxis will not take two guys to La Boca. It has a bad reputation and they were afraid we’d rob them. So we had to go by bus, but we were short on change. I went to a service station to buy a bottle of water to generate more change. Instead the clerk asked me for change to complete the purchase, because he was out. I forewent the purchase admitting to him that I was more interested in the change than the water. He understood, because that is normal. Eventually we did find a taxi, one who appeared more like he’d rob us than the other way around.

By law, Argentine banks are obligated to give each customer up to $20 in change when requested. However, they prefer to pay the small fines rather than comply with this. Instead the local “chinos” (neighborhood groceries) fill the gap somewhat. You go to the chino and buy stuff that totals $21.50, pay with a solitary $100 bill, and without batting an eye, you are given change in return, replete with coins and smaller bills.

What change you have in your pocket is a private matter. Everyone here lies about how much change they have in their pockets. When making a purchase I often say I am without change or at least don’t mention the peso coin I have because I may need it for a bus ride or something else, or to add add to my modest hoard. But when you can be generous with coins, you will always be compensated with a smile and “gracias.”

There is plenty of counterfeit money here. It works like real money, but just less reliable. Even false coins of 1 peso and 25 centavos invariably end up in your hands. Fortunately, the good fakes work in the buses so if you are stuck with only one false peso, it can be as good as a real one in this case. In a way these forgeries provide an important public service that the government and banks fail at, distributing  more coins for completing purchases and to riding public transportation. Counterfeiting in Argentina may actually help the economy.

I just read in today’s paper that the government is finally doing something to help alleviate the problem. No, they are not minting more coins. The federal government is buying and distributing magnetic cards for passengers and card readers for all the buses, subways, and comuter trains. All at a cost of about 100 million dollars. In a few months anyone will be able to add $5 or $10 to a card and use it for any form of transport. Hopefully this will take a bite out of the change struggle.

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