I remember a scene from a Tamil film I had seen some years ago . Two friends get off an auto and one of them takes out a 500 rupees note and the auto driver graces him with an expletive he has developed precisely for such people indicating he cannot exchange it. So the other friend pays. Then they stop at a roadside tea shop for tea and bananas where again friend A flashes his 500 note and friend B pays. This is repeated several times in various places and friend B ends up spending more than 500 during the scene while the man with the 500 rupee note smiles smugly, offering to pay everywhere absolutely certain that his note would be rejected in favor of smaller notes. The scene was funny but I thought it was far from reality. Until this Sunday …
This Sunday I decided to spend a few hours in the garden re-potting my plants. Since I was alone in the house, it seemed a good idea to pack breakfast from a Darshini restaurant nearby. Tempted by the smell of assorted items of South Indian breakfast and drooling at the thought of a vada, dosa and steaming tea for breakfast I extended a 500 rs note to the cashier who promptly returned it demanding "40. No change”. And he quickly moved to take the next order. Not having any other denominations, I had to go away savoring just the thoughts of what could have been a delicious breakfast on a wet, wintry Sunday morning in Bengaluru. Banishing the dosa from my thoughts, I walked into the neighborhood bakery to pick up some bread and eggs . Again my 500 rupee note was rejected with contempt but the owner knows me and so he packed them asking me to pay him later.
I can understand when very small business people like vegetable vendors and flower vendors do not carry change with them as their daily sales is often just enough for them to feed their family and replenish their stock, if it is a good day. So they normally start business every day with their stock and an empty cash box. But I don’t see why we should be turned away for lack of change from restaurants and bakeries. Judging from the crowd at the said restaurant I am pretty sure that they do a few thousands worth of business in a day. Perhaps it was too early in the day to change 500 rs notes. But it does not make any business sense to turn away customers because they do not have smaller denominations.

It is the same in buses, auto rickshaws, counters at railway stations – they never have change and in some places there is even a board saying “please tender exact change”. It is not the seller but the buyer who has to carry change and smaller denominations. I suspect that it is not because they cannot change larger denominations but it is to avoid the possibility of errors in the transaction resulting in loss of cash. Having to count and recount the balance to be returned also means extra time for the transaction which they seem to want to avoid especially in crowded counters like the ones selling platform tickets at stations.

Collecting smaller denominations, particularly coins is a challenge too. There is a general reluctance towards returning smaller change even in supermarkets as they have started rounding it to the lower or higher rupee. Auto rickshaw drivers round it to the nearest 5 rupees in Bengaluru. If the meter displays 25 and if you hand over thirty , the driver would happily drive away unless you insist on the balance. And even when he does, he would do so with obvious unhappiness and definitely not without one last bid at retaining it by grumbling that he would have to go empty till the nearest auto stop. Suggesting that it is our fault that we don’t live next to the nearest auto stop. I have heard it so many times that these days I stop at the auto stop and walk 200 meters to my house.
Then there are people who don’t expect to keep the change but they’d rather pay it in kind. My vegetable vendor would give me a lemon or some coriander if he has to return 2 rs, my baker would give me 2 candies instead of 1 re and the flower lady would add a few inches to the string of flowers to round it up; or she would give me a rose.
Unless one uses cash at the supermarkets, it is not easy to collect smaller denominations. Most ATMs also dispense only 100s or 500s. I have tried asking shopkeepers to change a hundred rupee note without buying anything and they refuse to entertain such crazy requests. Other than going to a bank where I hold account, I cannot I think of a way I can change a 100 or 500 rupee note. As for coins, I still don’t know how people manage to collect them unless they have some deal with the priest at a temple nearby.

I have been surprised at how cashiers in supermarkets abroad always give the exact balance without complaint and without short changing. Is it because they value the penny as much as the pound? It is more likely that there is some legal implication if they fail to return exact change. I am not sure if I can drag a shopkeeper to court in this country for refusing to give me change. Even if there is some law in my favour, the whole legal battle might leave me short changed in the end. More importantly, does anyone care about small change? A college girl told me the other day that she did not mind not getting it back as long as it was less than 5 rs. No wonder the auto driver gives me a contemptuous look when I demand my 5 rs back. He doesn’t realize that I need to stock up on smaller denominations if I want my dosa next Sunday morning apart of course from the fact that it is my right to have the balance back.

An interesting article here on the coin crisis in Argentina leading to an ironic situation. Thanks Sid!
37 Responses
  1. Mahatma Gandhi had something to say about this so many years ago. "You must be the change you want to see in the world". :-)

    I have this same problem in Mumbai getting change. I haven't seen a 5 Rs currency note in a long time, though Rs 2 coins seem to be very popular here. Slightly prosperous roadside bhajiwalas give me whatever change I need.

    But I have always wondered whether they have just stopped issuing certain currency denominations. Why is there no change in circulation ? If commercial establishments across Europe and the US give you back your change down to the penny, is it an attitude problem in India, or is something undefined happening to the metal, that we dont know , that is slowly taking things out of circulation. With so many scams happening, I wont be surprised if this too is part of something.

  2. Art Says:

    I can relate to what you have been through...
    The worst is when you just want change and ask the shopekeeper for change he says "no change" and when you buy something, he has the change :)

  3. buddy Says:

    Bus conductors are the worst offenders of this. they never give change, at least in mumbai

  4. Unknown Says:

    Usha I have had shopkeepers asking me to pay the billed figure even when they have to return just 3 rs . I refuse to do and have often left the stuff .Supermarkets however are kinder here than Bangalore as are takeaways . Poor you - having to just savour the smell of the breakfast you craved !

  5. Praveen Says:

    The worst are the Madras bus conductors and local railway station counters. Rude and arrogant lot and they make you feel miserable.
    I heard Paris has a seperate card to pay up small amounts.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Imagine if you were living in Argentina earlier this year?

    - Sid

  7. Anonymous Says:

    If I was a rikshawalla I would not accept 500Rs note for the reasons;
    1. It coule be a fake note and would land me in trouble. And yes I do not have a fake currency detector.
    2. If the hire fare is 450Rs then yes I will except, but not if I have to give you the entire change.

    The fake note issue would be true with most of the establishments as well.

    I used to manage the counter of my grandpas shop and we always started the day with a definate small change everyday of around 100 Rs. Yes, it was around 12yrs ago.
    But small vendors might not have this capacity.
    Also, we had to purchase the change from one agent.. You get change of 490 Rs for 500 Note :D

  8. Vishnu Says:

    A very good post expressing your experience with vendors / businessmen / bus conductors.

    I agree with you on some aspects and disagree on a few.

    Some people are really concerned about saving the smaller denominations for the rest of the day, playing a safe game. There would be some people who genuinely do not have any change.

    There was a medical shop nearby my house which was shut half the time and the rest of the time he lost customers (not just me) as he did not have CHANGE!

    Some people just chase their customers away without even taking a look at the cashiers box for change. While in many cases, the vendors might not have had the change for real. There is an equal possibility for a vendor to run out of smaller denominations if a few of us like you and me visit them with a 500 Rupees note each.

    Think about it!

  9. There is another side to this. In Railway Reservation Counters, when you do not have the exact change and ask them to keep the change rounding it off to the nearest 5 or 10, they hold the ticket and ask us to get the exact change. And procuring that exact change would normally mean going out of the complex and buying some toffee or coffee. Moral of the story: Having sufficient change with you all the timeis worth the extra weight to carry around.

  10. Ravi Says:

    You made a good point. Even desi stores in US make sure to return exact change even if its just 1 cent. These are Gujarati and Punjabi store owners who in India wouldn't hesitate to give you toffee or candy if they have to return you 1 rupee (which is more than 2 cents, but worth more in India). I wonder why it is so.

  11. Bharathis Says:

    Living in India, we check if we have change for various combinations - so always carry, 500,100s, 50s, 20s, 10s, 5 Rs coins, 2rs coins, 1 Re coins (2 each. For this we have to invest in getting the currency packets from the bank in various denominations and locking up our money in these investments(!). Even then, if we visit 2 or more places our stock gets exhausted!I don't want to carry more change in my handbag as it weighs one shoulder down and leads to various 'itis' complaints starting from spondylitis!

  12. Usha Says:

    Ugich: Are they melting the coins for the metal - possible? A few years ago they started issuing a new 5 re coin which looks a lot like the 50 ps coin. Even the banks are reluctant to give coins - you have to make a request in advance. And even the notes - 10s and 5s are tough to collect unless you use cash at supermarkets.

    Art:yes, they do that all the time.

    Buddy: And the contempt with which they look at you when you demand that 50 ps or 1 re back is even worse.

    Mrs G: Supermarkets are ok here too. if the bill amount is 63 and you give a hundred they will ask you for 103 rs and then pay you 40.
    if it is 50 ps they will give you a candy. At reliance mart the software rounds it up to the next re if it is more than 50ps and if less to the lower re.
    Takeaways are fine with 100 re notes but 500 and 1000 alwasy pose problems especially early in the morning.

    Praveen: And the bus conductor would swiftly move through the bus ina crowded bus before you ask for change and most often you cant catch his eye until your stop.

    Siddhu: Thanks that was a very insightful article.

    Anon: I understand if the rick wala doesnot take 500 rs but I object if he does not return my 5 re balance. I understand if small vendors do not carry change - most of the time they do enough business just to feed their family for the day. But small restaurants turning away customers for want of change - doesn't make sense to me.

    Vishnu: I have also encountered those people who simply refuse to take big notes without even checking if they have change. They are too lazy to count the change I think.

    c.R.A: Now that would be a torture. This is where cards are handy BUT then using cards leads you further into a situation where you cannot collect change.

    Ravi:Well they save on change and make a sale too. That is why!

  13. maami Says:

    My mother is an old-fashioned lady. She demands that money be given in demonations of 10, 50s from the bank and does not prefer to extract it from the ATM.
    "I dont want to be jipped by vendors or hassled by their rudeness", she says.

    Vaathiyarukku dakshanai kodukara maadiri 5, 10 vechukanum pola. Illatee nutrine candy or 1 lemon vonly!

  14. R's Mom Says:

    Ah Change...thats one thing I fight for everyday with the rick guys in Mumbai..I agree that they may not have change early in the morning..but that doesnt mean that they are downright rude about a days..I just go to the nearby chaiwala near office...and ask him to give me change...what to do..and what Art said happens to me so often...shopkeepers dont have just 'change'..they have 'item to be sold' + 'change'

  15. amreekandesi Says:

    To some extent this is a reflection of market conditions and buyer-seller dynamics in India.

    It is a huge market and if one buyer goes away the seller will find a thousand more. This twisted (and unfortunate) logic is what makes some people not care about the customer. Bothering with change is one of the by-products.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    I had been to Rameswaram recently and faced the same predicament. Everyone in Rameswaram seemed to fret at the sight of a Rs.500 note. In one hotel, I was treated like a penniless tramp because I had nothing other than two 500 rupee notes.

  17. Usha Says:

    God bless the neighbourhood Nandhini outlet guy who provides me with my daily bunch of 'change's along with Milk!

    try this one, it works better than asking the grumpy people at the bank. Some of the regular shops usually give back the change. So what I do is to get it from them, and keep a bunch of them in my jeans pocket for using them at places where they dont know the ABCDs of what customer satisfaction can do to their business.

  18. One of the bosses in my company goes around with this 500 re note in his wallet. We joke that its the only one he's been carrying for the whole year. He whisks it out when its time to pay whatever only to turn to one of us and say - the guys doesn't have change someone pay him please... and back goes the 500/- into his wallet. Samrt guy! Till date we've never seen him pay for a ride/meal/anything!

  19. Parvathi Says:

    So far I have not faced this problem in Hyderabad. However in most commercial establishments in US I found machines who count exact returnable change and deliver.So no manual labour is involved in it.Therefore there shoul be no reluctance in dealing with coins.Though you get back your change with no pilferage, except quarters other smaller denominations are as useless as 25 or 50 Np in India.I found many Indians reluctantto transact in cash because of piling cents, and suspecting American mathematical aptitude.Most of the piled up cents are exchanged at exchange machines in wall marts for lesser value.Sometimes I wondered if smaller denominations are of no consequence why they should be in circulation.May be they are there to fecilitate their XX.99cents price tags.

    In India banks can indent and get as many small coins as they want from the Government.But disposal is becoming very difficult and strong rooms are flooded with small coin bags.Commercial establishments are being forced to take small coins in excchange of small favours.Delivering coins on individual basis is almost an impossible task for the banks with the existing fecilities.Yet we can get them in banks at certain festive seasons.
    In the market there is no dearth for coins. But I guess day byday the value of the metal is increasing in comparison with money value. Yet you can get gold plated Dollar coin in every Railway ticket vending machine in exchange of 20 dollar bill in US. But here You can always be rest assured with some kind of malpractise by our super enterprising brains who can make anklets with 20paise. The real value of our small coin including Rs.5 is very very negligible in terms of global metal prices.

  20. Parvathi Says:

    Sorry to post once again. This five hundred rupee problem was there few years back.Now even a pan dabbawalh is able to give change without much difficulty and reluctance. It is not unusual to find change even with a roadside fruit vendor who sells each apple for Rs25/-. This is of course as far as Hyderabad is concerned.

  21. BangaloreMom Says:

    Hi Usha

    I have been lurking around for so many years but HAD to comment on this one. I have this BIG grouse against people who refuse to give me small change pretending as though it were no big deal. Autodrivers, shopkeepers, roadside vendors. My enmity with autodrivers is long standing. So much so that I carry change even in 50 paise denomination and give them exact change. Sure, I am the recipient of a lot of ugly looks but who cares?? If the meter showed 21Rs. would they walk away with 20 bucks? Every pie is precious as far as I am concerned.

  22. sk Says:

    I just had to comment on this one - they round the price down for me - my local subcontinent store in CO, USA - if the price is USD8.17, just charges me USD8; in Mumbai, Pune, sure, buying medium priced items get rounded down for me to the nearest 50 or whatever; even the peruvala just adds another peru.

    At least that's how I remember these things; rose-colored glasses or just lucky and bhola-bhala I guess.

  23. Lekhni Says:

    This problem arises because ATMs dispense Rs 500 notes, right? If I remember, you don't even have the option of Rs 50 notes, unlike here, where you can get $20 from the ATM.

  24. S.V. Says:

    Usha, the latest 5 rupee coins are a shiny golden and look nice. I think they have stopped manufacturing the 5 rupee notes, for a while now. As far as the change goes, I always ensure that I keep spare change in the pouch of my bag and use these only in exceptionally urgent circumsatnces. (You can always act as if you suddenly remembered that you have coins in the bag, and applies well to rickshaw wallahs) And of course I refill the coins whenever possible, ensuring that they never reach below the benchmark of 10 rupees in all. It works for me, u shud try it too.

  25. Hip Grandma Says:

    ou must not be harsh on the baker's and restuarant guys. No one feels safe accepting a 500 rupee note.fake notes are flooding the market and if the poor man has to check on its authenticity all the time his business would suffer.

    As for coin shortage, i've heard that a sinle 0ne rupee coin can be melted and made into a dozen steel blades for shaving purposes and fetches more money. This is a flourishing industry in Nepal. It could be the same in Argentina too.I know a petty vendor of paan paraag who gives a ninety rupees as coins and gets back 100 rupees as currency notes. There are two sides to a coin or so they say.

  26. Debjani Says:

    Dear Usha,

    Thank you for the post. In addition to the reluctance to hand over change, shopkeepers and bus conductors in Kolkata also refuse to take slightly older (but not torn) notes! Didn't see that happening in Bangalore.

    And, just to keep the record straight, I should add that it happens outside of India as well. I have been shortchanged a few times in France (at the cafe near my place of stay) when I was not yet familiar with the coins.


  27. Anonymous Says:

    Although I have faced this problem in the past, I find most shop keepers are kinder to old and regular customers. We have a whole lot of shops who home deliver our grocery, dosas (yes!), three apples or six bananas or a single strip of disprin or an ad gel refil, and I can tell them to bring change for rupess 500/-. They bring the change or else they ask us to pay later.

    Sometimes there are so many coins collected that I pay 100 rupees in one, two and five rupee coins to just finish the coins. My kids find this embarrassing.

    And then, the day I have to pay Rs 5 for pay and park, there is no change :)

  28. Anonymous Says:

    The restaurant refusing to give change and breakfast was wrong! I am sure they could have organised it from somewhere, generally they ask another customer - if they don't have.

  29. Mama - Mia Says:

    ah! the eternal pain of the changeless purse! its soo annoying!

    i usually havent had too much trouble except ofcos with the auto guys! there are such few occasions when traveling by auto when i havent had to fight either about the fast meter or lack of change!!!

    and why am i wrong to ask for my 3rs back anywayz?! gah!!!

    and agree with Art. those are the MOST annoying times when they dont have change till you buy something from em!


  30. teendudes Says:

    This case is even worse when they dont give a change for ten rupees in city buses. For a change, this change is changing our life sometimes!!!!

  31. Usha Says:

    JLT: Your boss is probably the guy that scene was based on. Nice strategy tho. But I guess you should carry change for 500 and give it to him to pay one of these days!

    Parvathi: you are lucky in Hyderabad. Even this morning I got a couple of lemons in lieu of change!

    Bangalore mom: yes, it is the attitude that bothers me whatever be the amount.

    sk: we have some shops where they round up or down. I was pleasantly surprised when my grocer waived 2 rs because I did not have change!

    Lekhni: Yes ATMs dispense 500s or 100s. I am not sure if we have ATMs which dispense lower denominations. I think they load the machine once a day and using smaller denominations would mean loading it more often.

    Stephenson: I have started carrying a coin pouch too.

    Hipgran: It seems there are many sides to the coin now!

    Debjani: Torn notes are a problem everywhere.
    Now I dont know if I should feel good or bad that this happens in france too! :)

    IHM: I never seem to have enough coins. And the parking guy here is one person who always seems to be able to change 100 or even 500. Wonder how much he makes per day.
    As for the restaurant guy's refusal, it wasn't right but arguing with him would have meant waiting till he made enough business to change my note and by then I would have lost all my appetite!

    Abha: There are times when I am willing to forego a couple of rupees but never with the auto guys.

    teendudes: I have faced that too.

  32. Nice post again.

    Not sure if this is the problem when we go to new shops where they don't recognize us. Recently, I was buying vegetables from our usual shop and asked him to pack me the coriander and karibevu and he quickly updates me that my Father in law just took it few hours back during his evening walk. I was pleasantly moved with his gesture and these people many a times gives us option to pay later.
    These small shop guys trust us more than the bigger ones. I remember once I had missed my purse and I realised it after I filled the fuel in a petrol bank and I had to request the petrol bank fellow to allow me to bring the purse and I had mortgaged my precious titan watch for this.

    Luckily, my father had this habit of keeping all these change in some place and my mother has them in plenty for such expenditures and this habit has got us away from this change problem. Now that I have the "golaka" for my son, sometimes I end up taking out smaller denominations from the backdoor of his savings box :-) :-)

  33. Abnother point to prove that we Indians need lot more self control :P
    I was particularly interested in that auto walla part , where you have mentioned that for 25 Rs , the auto walla would round it off too 30 Rs
    Trust me,here at chennai, not even in my wildest dream i could travel to a any place for 25 Rs(even to my neighbours house) ! I wish we had meter system here as well :(

  34. Reema Says:

    maybe this situation is in bigger cities only! In my city there is no problem of getting smaller denominations and as for coins I keep a lot of them always. I hate getting candies instead of change!
    One more reason behind people avoiding 500 rs maybe be the increased penetration of forged notes in India.

  35. Reema Says:

    maybe this situation is in bigger cities only! In my city there is no problem of getting smaller denominations and as for coins I keep a lot of them always. I hate getting candies instead of change!
    One more reason behind people avoiding 500 rs maybe be the increased penetration of forged notes in India.

  36. Saumya Says:

    A lot also depends on the mindset. With autos and florists in India, I find them thinking - these people can afford it why not? It irks me because I should get to decide what I can afford to let go, not some random person I happen to do business with!

    Having said that, it is a genuine problem and pretty soon, India is going to have to come up with rupee changers. Ex: there are machines in public transit terminals in the US where a $20 bill is taken in, and four $5 bills are given back.

  37. TOM Says:

    Even few banks are reluctant to give change for a 500 rs note..Today, I visited the ING Vysya Bank(Kolar, Karnataka) where I hold an account with and requested for change..I had given the cashier 2- 500 rs notes and wanted in 10 - 100 rs notes..

    He refused to give saying that they didnt have any notes in the bank..Did he mean that hey didnt have any notes or just he didnt want to give me change..

    If the bank doesnt have any currency notes, then why is it kept open for the day!!Its totally ridiculous..

    I will be going again tomorrow to try to get change .Lets see what excuse he gives me next..