My Pockets Are Full Of Change…Are Yours?

My Pockets Are Full Of Change…Are Yours?

By |2016-07-21T23:59:50+00:00March 25th, 2010|Everything Else|26 Comments

I always wanted to write a post while on an airplane. Unfortunately, my last laptop had an ‘extended battery life’ of exactly 17 minutes which made anything more than turning it on without plugging it in a definite impossibility.

But now, with my new laptop in hand, I’m prepared.

Actually, I am starting to write this while sitting in the airport in Fort Lauderdale. My flight back to Mexico, which leaves in about an hour, is only 1 hour and 15 minutes in duration and when I factor in the chunks of time at the beginning and end of the flight when I must keep my computer turned off, I don’t have much time to complete a post. So I need a head start…

This post is not going to be about flying though, nor about luggage or duty-free shopping. It’s not about the security screenings either (although I did just manage to go through security with a large bottle of contact lens solution, a pair of scissors and a flip-knife).

Anyway, this post is about…change.

And when I say change, I am of course referring to the difficulties we all face when we smile our widest smiles, speak in our kindest of voices and ask someone if they could provide change for a large monetary note. Yes, trying to get change in currencies around the world is indeed a matter that needs to be addressed.

Six days ago, when I was checking in for my flight to Florida at the Cancun airport, I spent an extra twenty minutes at the Jet Blue check-in counter simply because not a soul around was able to break a 200 peso (approximately $15 USD) note so that I could pay the departure tax upon leaving Mexico. Nobody could help me out. Jet Blue personnel didn’t have any change, nor did the dozens of staff at the airline counters of Mexicana, Aeromexico or American Airlines. Nor did the cashiers at two different souvenir kiosks in the terminal or the luggage porters outside who receive their wages in the form of small tips.

Finally, it was a woman dropping off her husband at the airport who was able to break the bill and save the day.


Of course, this was not the first time I’ve been in this situation. I can no longer count the number of instances when I’ve been in desperate need of change, yet nobody within 327 miles was able to provide it. It happens everywhere and I’ve come to expect it almost as much as one expects a stomach illness after eating street food in Mumbai.

Speaking of India, whenever I’m traveling over there I often think I’ll need to take a 19-hour train ride to the other side of the country just to break a 50 rupee note ($1) so that I can buy a mango. It’s as if providing change to a foreigner is an illegal activity that carries a twenty-year jail sentence for any local caught in the act.

I’ll never forget an afternoon I spent in Laos running around the town of Pakse trying to break a 20,000 kip note (approximately $2.50 USD) so that I could pay the bus fare to Champasak. The bus driver didn’t have any change and neither did any of the passengers. I even tried two banks in town, both of which claimed not to have any change as well. Needless to say, the bus left as scheduled and I wasn’t on it.

And while there is no doubt that such change issues seem to occur more frequently in the third-world, developed countries are by no means immune. Off the top of my head, I can remember having extreme change difficulties while trying to pay for a coffee in Norway, a room at a hostel in Brisbane and for a bicycle rental in Bariloche, Argentina – all of which led to a lengthy search mission for change that covered an area the size of Belize.

Even during this past week in the US when I went to purchase a pack of gum, the cashier didn’t have enough change to break my $10 bill. I unsuccessfully asked four other customers, one police officer, a biker on a Harley-Davidson and even a dog (I was willing to try anything) before finding someone who could break my note.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this plenty of times yourself, wandering around in circles asking and asking for help, with your cries being met with apologetic yet firm refusals. Eventually, you get your change, but not before throwing your hands in the air in complete bafflement while thinking…


I tend to suspect that most people do, in fact, have the ability to change a note, but simply choose not to do it instead. Perhaps it is fear or greed that leads them to shake their heads when asked, as they try to convince us that they walk around with empty pockets all day. ‘Maybe I’ll need it later, maybe I won’t be able to get change myself, maybe the money I receive in return will be counterfeit’. I don’t know what goes through every potential change-maker’s head, but whatever it is, it keeps them from saying ‘sure, no problem’ and opening their wallets in order to make the exchange.

When I think about it, this type of situation is similar to another form of change – the non-currency-related type. It is a fact that we can all make positive changes in our own lives, but when our life situations seem to demand that we take a few steps in a new direction, we often back away, shake our heads, shrug our shoulders and employ a long list of excuses. ‘I’m too busy, I’m too old, I’m too tired, this is just how life works, it won’t make a difference.’

Why do we do this when the ability to make change is right there in our pockets?

Life is constantly asking us to hand over a few measly, unorganized coins in exchange for a beautifully-designed, impressive bill, complete with a President’s or even Charles Darwin’s face on the front! But when we have the chance to accept this favorable exchange, we look life straight in the eyes and lie, saying ‘Sorry, I don’t have any change to give’.

What are we afraid of? Any ideas?


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  1. Jonny | March 31, 2010 at 3:03 am - Reply

    Lol, nice post man. I tried to change a 1000 ruppee note to day, it took a while.

    • Earl March 31, 2010 at 8:52 am - Reply

      Hey Jonny – Yeah, those 1000 rupee notes are not easy to break. Try buying a snack, eating it and then handing over the 1000 rupee note. Many times, change will suddenly appear at this point as its too late to refuse to accept it!

  2. Ash March 27, 2010 at 10:05 am - Reply

    HA HA HA I despise having to carry around all of the change that usually comes with foreign currency–in the places I’ve been, there are just so many coins, which requires special change purses, which requires special places to keep change purses, which MAKES IT REALLY DAMN HARD FOR ME TO SALSA DANCE ON A WHIM because I inevitably end up with a satchel that must be carried.

    On another related note, I’m madly in love with you. (Still.) Thought you should know. 🙂
    .-= Ash´s last blog ..U.S. Concept of Time & Why It’s Preventing You From Finding Your Passions =-.

    • Earl March 27, 2010 at 11:28 am - Reply

      Hey Ash – I’d love to see you figure out a way to carry around Mexico’s 10 centavo coins, the ones that are the size of a speck of dust and require 130 of them in order to have the equivalent of $1 USD. An entirely new level of change purse would most definitely be required.

      And as for your side note (the more important matter of course) – I hope you won’t change your mind when you discover that I can’t salsa!

  3. Mike March 26, 2010 at 9:49 am - Reply

    How about using a debit/credit card or even a prepaid Visa type card… is it hard to use these cards abroad in daily life?
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..5 Questions to Ask Homeowners When Looking at a Home to Buy =-.

    • Earl March 26, 2010 at 12:00 pm - Reply

      Hey Mike – thanks for stopping by and commenting! It really depends on where you are abroad as to whether or not credit/debit cards work. In any third-world country, you will rarely have an opportunity to use them and if you do, you’ll often be charged an additional fee on top of what you credit card company will charge you for using it abroad. But even in developed countries, there are just too many normal, everyday purchases that require us to use cash more often than not.

      On the other hand, I suppose that if you tend to travel in luxury, you’ll have more opportunities to use your debit/credit card…but luxury travel isn’t exactly my specialty!

  4. Moon Hussain March 26, 2010 at 7:44 am - Reply

    Somebody once asked could I spare some change for gas
    I need to get myself away from this place
    I said yep what a concept
    I could use a little fuel myself
    And we could all use a little change

    Your post reminded me of that Smash Mouth song when I was in high school.
    .-= Moon Hussain´s last blog ..Are You Embarrassed Of Saying “Passive Income” Out Loud? =-.

    • Earl March 26, 2010 at 11:41 am - Reply

      Hey Moon – Those lines are very true indeed, especially the last one. Now it’s just a matter of how to summon our ability to make such change happen! Thanks for sharing as always…

  5. Maria Staal March 26, 2010 at 5:27 am - Reply

    very recognisable post! Worst change crisis I ever had was at the train station in Bazel, Switserland, where I had to change from one international train onto another. In between trains I needed to pee desperately, but the lady at the toilets only wanted to accept small Swiss Franks coins, while all I had was a 10 Euro bill. In the end I went to an ATM, got the smallest amount of Franks out of it, bought some sweets at a news agents to break the bill and finally arrived back at the toilets with the all important coins in my hand.
    .-= Maria Staal´s last blog ..Time to meet Radbod =-.

    • Earl March 26, 2010 at 11:15 am - Reply

      Hey Maria – there couldn’t be a more perfect example of a change crisis than your story! Those toilet fees around the world have forced travelers to purchase the most random things just to get a coin or two. And having to go to an ATM just before leaving a country is always a hassle, especially if you add up the fees your bank charges to withdraw money and then the money lost in exchanging it again…but, if you have to go, you have to go!

    • Dina March 28, 2010 at 9:26 am - Reply

      Wow! She should have just let you in without the pay!
      .-= Dina´s last blog ..Black water rafting in the Waitomo glowworms caves of New Zealand =-.

  6. Dina March 25, 2010 at 9:31 pm - Reply

    Earl, I think I have an opposite experience here. My husband has a habit to purchase with larger bills, and leave the change with me. Often I have a huge pile of coins. Many times I buy 20 USD worth grocery with all coins. Maybe next time you need to break your bill, you can find me 🙂
    .-= Dina´s last blog ..Black water rafting in the Waitomo glowworms caves of New Zealand =-.

    • Earl March 26, 2010 at 12:12 am - Reply

      Haha…you should have a toll-free number that I can call whenever I’m in need of change so that I know exactly where you are. That would certainly save me quite a bit of hassle. You must have one over-loaded coin jar!

      • Dina March 28, 2010 at 9:23 am - Reply

        Haha, I’ll let you know when the toll free number is set! We used to have a huge jar of coins, over a foot tall. That one was mostly pennies, dimes and nickles though. When we found for the first time a coin exchange machine in a grocery store, gladfully we threw all the coins and we shopped with the money. After that, we had a small pot, but Ryan dropped $ 1 and 2 coins too there. My lunch money. Now on the road, I tried to keep it fit into my tiny coin purse.

        The worst moment was trying to pay with all the coins, and finding out that I was short by little amount after all coins already spread across the cashier desk (could be 20-30 coins there). I collected them back and got to pay with a paper bill..
        .-= Dina´s last blog ..Black water rafting in the Waitomo glowworms caves of New Zealand =-.

  7. Liz March 25, 2010 at 8:47 pm - Reply

    I guess sometimes it is more practical to pretend you are a millionaire and just say “You know what? Keep the change”! I loved the post!

    • Earl March 26, 2010 at 12:10 am - Reply

      Hey Liz – I suppose that’s an entirely different approach to take. When asked if we have change, we just hand it over with taking anything in return. That should earn you some karma points for the next time you need change yourself!

  8. rose March 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    …And then there are places like Cambodia, where you’re expected to pay for everything in US dollars and they will gladly give you your change in riel, which you then can’t use to buy much of anything, and if you do you just lost 30 percent of the value of your money because they won’t use the standard exchange rate… Aargh!!

    Although I have been in similar change-less situations many times, I have to say I have been incredibly lucky in general, and many people have opened up their wallets, or even outright paid things for me when there were small things I simply didn’t have the right change for. I think a good smile goes a long way… Then again, I can’t even count the number of times I have bought snacks I had never intended to eat just to break a bill!

    • Earl March 25, 2010 at 6:37 pm - Reply

      Hey Rose – It is amazing when we pay in US dollars somewhere and receive change in the local currency. Sometimes it would take about 2 hours with a calculator to figure out if you received the correct change and of course that isn’t worth it…so we just take whatever we receive instead and assume it’s ‘close enough’.

      And yes, a good smile probably does help out!

  9. Nate March 25, 2010 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Earl – this is pretty funny! I’ve run into similar situations in Mexico. I go to the ATM and the smallest bill I get is 200 pesos, but then nobody has change, or if I try to buy something they ask if I have a smaller bill or coin. It’s a whole, ridiculous Catch-22. In order to buy something in pesos I have to go to the ATM, which only provides large bills…and if I ask someone for smaller bills, they don’t have them….and then I can’t even buy anything because the person doesn’t want to accept a large bill b/c they don’t have change. Maybe change doesn’t exist after all!
    .-= Nate´s last blog ..You Have Only This Moment To Live =-.

    • Earl March 25, 2010 at 6:35 pm - Reply

      Hey Nate – You had me laughing with that comment! It is exactly what happens down here every single day. I’ve started to keep three groups of money – large bills, small bills and change. Every time I leave the house, I take a little bit of each to make sure I don’t end up stuck with only big bills. I have small change to tip the gas station attendant, some small bills for normal purchases and one large bill in case I catch a peek of a cash register that has change to spare!

  10. Abigail March 25, 2010 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    Hola Derek,

    I experience this in Mexico all the time and you have articulated the dilemma beautifully! I am ashamed to admit that just a few days ago a woman was asking around for change and I did not even pull out my wallet to see if I could help her. The even more terrible thing is that I probably COULD have made change for her. In my case, the hangup was that if I make change for her and take her big bill, then in a few hours, I will be the one begging around town for some change!

    Nobody wants to be that person, so instead, I was the person who just mumbles, “Sorry,” and walks away.

    OK, I promise never to do this again! I will at least check and see if I can make change. How’s that for change?

    .-= Abigail´s last blog ..Dirty Bussy =-.

    • Earl March 25, 2010 at 6:31 pm - Reply

      Hey Abigail – That’s the spirit! Of course, every one of us had not only needed change but probably refused giving change to someone else at some point. It’s a never ending cycle, although perhaps it can be broken by doing just what you’ve done – promising to check next time before saying ‘no’!

  11. Lisis March 25, 2010 at 11:04 am - Reply

    Another beautiful post, Earl. That’s all I can say right now, ’cause I’m packing my bags… but I LOVED IT!! 🙂

    • Earl March 25, 2010 at 6:32 pm - Reply

      Thank you Lisis. I hope you completed your packing and are all ready for your trip!

  12. Francoise March 25, 2010 at 9:48 am - Reply

    Making/getting change has got to be one of the biggest hazards of developing country travel.

    I once walked into an Egyptian bank, and convinced one of the clerks to change a 200LE note (about $40CDN) into 200 1LE coins…I walked out with my daybag weighing a ton, but it was worth it. 🙂
    .-= Francoise´s last blog ..Chosing the right travel daybag =-.

    • Earl March 26, 2010 at 12:25 am - Reply

      Hey Francoise – How on earth did you pull that off? I’ve often found that banks are the least likely to give out change. That’s impressive. But what did you do with all of those coins?? How long did you carry them around for??

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