No Hay Cambio — the Art of Making Change in Mexico

According to the Bank of Mexico there are more than 5 billion bank notes and over 14 billion coins in circulation across the country, which works out at about 150 notes and coins for each of the country’s ~126 million inhabitants.  Why then does it seem that no one ever has any change?

The constant pursuit to make change

¿No tiene cambio? —haven’t you got change?— is an expression you will soon get used to hearing whether it’s in offering up a 50-peso note for a 30-peso cab ride, or a 100-peso note for a 20-peso coffee.  And it’s not only at street stalls, outdoor markets, or in taxis.  The “no change” response is as frequent at convenience stores and other local shops, restaurants—and even occasionally at the supermarket checkout.

With a large informal economy, most of the country’s daily transactions are paid for in cash.  But even in the formal economy, cash is the preferred method of payment.  Bankers estimate that of all the transactions conducted with debit cards, nearly 90% are to withdraw cash from ATMs.

Although debit card use is becoming increasingly more common, many people here still prefer using cash, even at gasoline filling stations—which, by the way, are among the best places to get change if you’re stuck with nothing but a 500-peso note (that can be as frustrating as having no cash at all).

You’ll come to find that small change is essential in Mexico: for tipping, for small purchases from local independent traders (even when they have change they will not be pleased if you pay for a 10-peso purchase with a 100-peso banknote), and even to break larger notes for others (friends, family) who may need change at any given moment.

The game of ‘change tug’ between buyers and sellers

With so much currency around, it’s a wonder people can be so reluctant to give change.  Some have change, but don’t want to break a large bill for fear it will leave them without change.  One infuriating twist: people with notes in the cash register will, at times, hand you all your change in coins.

One of the reasons why change is hard to come by with small local stores and local markets early in the day is that these traders often don’t begin with a ‘cash float’—they are relying on their customers to furnish them with their float as their trading day progresses.  Ambulant street traders work in similar fashion.

Random bill combinations at ATMs

ATMs sometimes dispense a range of smaller notes, and sometimes they dispense only large bills.  It can be inconvenient when you withdraw $2,000 pesos and the machine dispenses it all to you in $500-peso bills.

The distribution of banknote values that are dispensed to you will depend on how the machine is programmed, how much you request, and what denominations are available in its bill cartridges at the moment when you make your withdrawal.

Ideal places to make change

You can take large bills to any retail bank and ask for change, and by law you don’t have to be a customer of the bank to request change from them—but this is time consuming as lines tend to be long, especially on paydays, and it just isn’t convenient to do each time you need change.

Other good places to “make change” if you find yourself with a wallet full of large bills include gasoline stations, ticket kiosks at bus terminals (especially during busy weekends), and busy central markets in larger towns and cities.

When you’re traveling on tolled interstate highways, note that the toll booths only accept payment via windshield ‘tag’ devices and cash—and thus toll booth cashiers are good places to make change from those 500-peso bills the ATM dispensed to you.

If you’re staying at a large hotel resort, the front desk will usually break a larger note for you to use as tips; $20 peso bills are a popular choice.  Indeed, the $20 peso bill (and coin) is possibly the most versatile banknote for use in small trades

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