The Obsession with Exact Change



You know how if you make a purchase at a store and it totals, say, $6.57, you can give the cashier a $20 bill, get your change, then leave with your goods and be done with it?  Well it’s not like that here. If you purchase something for €6.57 and you pay with a €20 bill, they will ask you for €1.57 so they can give you back €15  in bills; no coins. Or you can just give them 57¢ and they’ll give you back a €10 bill and two €2 coins, but they strongly prefer bills to coins. So strongly, in fact, that they become really annoyed if you don’t have exact change. Yesterday I bought a nutcracker and a loose-leaf tea filer at a kitchen store on Via Merulana and it totaled €7.39. I gave the cashier a €20 bill and she wanted €2.40 in coins so she could give me back €15 and 1¢. Also, if you have a pile of coins in your hand that you’re sorting through, the cashier will reach over and help him/herself to the required amount.  True story. It happened to me yesterday.  But what if I had wanted those coins for a quick metro ticket transaction? Or a gelato at Fatamorgana? I don’t get it. I know bills are much more manageable and lighter than coins, but if I wanted to have my bag weighed down by 5¢, 20¢, 50¢, €1 and €2 coins–and every other coin under the sun, for that matter–that’s my business, right? I just don’t understand what all of this exact-change fuss is about.

I’m not quite sure from where this obsession with exact change stems, but it can be incredibly overwhelming,…especially at a place like Elite where it’s self-service bagging. What under normal circumstances would be a simple purchasing process requires one to implement a strategic, chess-like prowess to master it efficiently. You’re racing against time to find the exact change and if you don’t have it, you get a look of disappointment that really stings….you feel like you’re a failure.  Then, once you’re done counting the coins, you have to hustle to bag everything in a timely manner because they need the space for the following customer’s purchases.  I usually never have more than a few items, perhaps some milk, cereal, a box of tea, yogurt and maybe a package of Garofalo spaghetti, but the art of bagging is just that, an art in its own right. You can’t just “throw” everything in….you have to place the items neatly so that they fit comfortably with no corners or sharp edges that dig into your side or swipe a passerby during the walk home. I breath a sigh of relief every time I see a few people ahead of me in line because then I know I don’t have to fumble around…it allows me ample time to have my wallet, coins and “bagging tote” unfolded and ready to go.

It’s a little less intimidating at a pizzeria, café or gelateria as no bagging is required, but this exact-change practice is common everywhere you go, and the thing is that I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand the rhyme and reason behind it. Case in point: I went to Castroni to buy coffee (200 grams of Bar Castroni ground for a moka) which usually comes out to around €3.20. I proudly had my €5  bill and a 20¢ coin ready to go. The smiling cashier hands the 20¢ coin back to me and tells me it won’t work because she doesn’t have €2 coins. She couldn’t give me two €1 coins?  I just don’t understand.

The moral of the story: what I have learned from all of this ado is to keep all of my coins in one place, and always, always make sure my coin purse is zipped all the way shut to avoid coin spillage, a mishap which could keep me at the register–as well as at the receiving end of an disdainful, impatient gaze–way longer than necessary as I dig to the bottom depths of my bag searching for that damn 13¢.


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