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Play Money in Mexico

I have learned a lot about the world of finance here in Mexico between working & living here for the past year. One of my favorites, as my friend Alice explained, is the fact that having exact change to give a customer is a foreign concept in most transactions here. In the US, you should be able to break a $20 everywhere & $50 almost everywhere; $100 may get you a hairy eyeball but you almost never receive $100 bills from banks/ATMs.

In Mexico, on the other hand, ATMs spit out $500 peso notes (currently ~$38 USD) like candy, but these bills seem to be almost universally worthless outside of spendy restaurants or gas stations. $200 peso notes are more socially acceptable, but you will still encounter plenty of scenarios where a vendor will look at you like you are trying to pay with a hamster.

This is all background to help you understand my bemusement when I received this bill from the bank this week:

My first (and hopefully last) $1000 peso bill, which seems almost as funcional here in DF as the turn signal has been on our car.

My first (and hopefully last) $1000 peso bill, which seems almost as funcional here in DF as the turn signal has been on our car.

I received this gem when I went to Bancomer this week to cash one of the checks I received as part of my finiquito (a.k.a. final settlement) from my job. In keeping with the “no one has change” theme, I was not even slightly surprised when the first bank teller I went to told me to go to the next teller because she didn’t have enough cash to cover my check. (P.S. You’re a BANK!!! Not a tamale vendor!! Is it surprising that someone may visit you desiring more than $50 pesos of cash?)

This was one of my first bank visits, since almost all of my previous paychecks were directly deposited into something that is NOT an actual bank account at Scotiabank. I don’t know what it is, because I am only able to access my salary via an ATM card (given to me by my employer). No debit card, no checks, just ATM… I once tried going to Scotiabank to do something else, and showed them my ATM card, assuming that it would correlate to an account. Nope, no such luck… my only means of interaction is via ATM machines & cold hard cash. Very odd.

The other notable financial experience I have had in Mexico is receiving food stamps for the first time! Yes, that’s right; food stamps. To be fair, they aren’t exactly the same down here… They are called vales de despensa, are given out to most employees by almost all companies who pay taxes (because they are tax-deductible for the company), and are intended to be used for your ‘basic needs’ (but in truth can be used for anything at the grocery stores where they are accepted, i.e. wine, electronics, etc.). As my classmate Alonso informed me, rather than using the vales for food as intended, he saved them up for a year and bought a big-screen TV with them… I suppose some guys could argue for that falling into the “basic need” category…? ;)

This is the most valuable food stamp I've received, $50 pesos, but mine came in stapled packs with about ~30 notes of varying values.

This is the most valuable food stamp I've received, $50 pesos, but mine came in stapled packs with about ~30 notes of varying values.

This gives you a feel for how many notes are in each pack that I received. FYI, these are the bane of the existence of counting-impaired grocery store cashiers everywhere...

This gives you a feel for how many notes are in each pack that I received. FYI, these are the bane of the existence of counting-impaired grocery store cashiers everywhere...

It is a fascinating dynamic when we break these out at our local Chedraui, because I always feel like the cashiers are thinking “Where did the gringos get these vales de despensa?” and all the people in line behind us are thinking “CRAP! We chose the line with people paying in food stamps! This is going to take forever to get these counted. Abandon ship… Find another checkout line….”  And sure enough, it usually adds 5-7 minutes onto our checkout time, as the young cashier counts/lays them in piles by value, then stares at the piles, shuffles them around, counts them again, moves some $20 peso notes into the $50 peso note pile, shuffles them again, and counts them 3 more times.

That’s it for my hot financial commentary today, but for those who have been uninterested thus far, I will end with an example of an outfit I saw in Puebla that I most certainly do not intend to buy with any of my hard-earned pesos.

As spotted in one of the fabric stores in Puebla. Like my friend Liliana alluded, you know the economic crisis is hitting Mexico hard when women can't afford to knit the rest of this outfit.

As spotted in one of the fabric stores in Puebla. Like my friend Liliana pointed out, you know the economic crisis is hitting Mexico hard when women can't afford to knit the rest of this outfit.

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8 Comments on “Play Money in Mexico”

  1. #1 Nancy
    on Jul 25th, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    What a funny post, no one who hadn’t spent a fair bit of time here would understand at all.

    I went in to Comex Friday to buy paint. A gallon of paint, 213 pesos. I opened my wallet, and trying to keep the contents hidden, gave him two 200 peso bills. Unfortunately he saw I had a couple 20 peso bills. He pleaded and cajoled (well, as close as I can tell) but I said NO, I need these for the ama de llaves en mi casa hoy. Well I think he took pity on her and sent someone who knows where for change. I mean, Comex. It’s a big chain, all over Mexico. It’s the Sherwin Williams of Mexico, and they don’t have 167 pesos change for me at 10:30 am. (That’s something like 12-13 US dollars.)

    Of course I was lying, I just wanted to keep my 20 peso bills, that’s the way it is!

    Gracias, amiga!

  2. #2 Angie
    on Jul 26th, 2009 at 7:27 am

    Hilarious and so true of Mexico! We lived there a bit over a year (Guadalajara) Julie and ran into this type of thing all of the time… seems that no one ever had enough change! I love reading your posts and was thrilled to find you’ve been living there for some time now. My husband and I chuckle reading your posts, it takes us back to so many memories we have of our time there! Thanks!

  3. #3 alice
    on Jul 27th, 2009 at 9:26 am

    tehee…oh the money problems! After going to Cabo, I finally see why they make 500 and 1000 peso bills. In Cabo (and no place else) you need bills that big. And everyone seems to have change for them, too.

  4. #4 Yucatan Living - Yucatan News: There’s No Place Like Home
    on Jul 27th, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    [...] We had the giggles by the end of the second paragraph! For your best laugh of the day, read "Play Money in Mexico." You might also like Julie’s other posts. We loved "What really constitutes a [...]

  5. #5 Susan
    on Jul 28th, 2009 at 7:29 am

    You should have bought the outfit.

  6. #6 Shelly
    on Jul 29th, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Ah, the dreaded 1000 peso bill – the new teller at the Embassy suckered me with a whole stack of these (ok, maybe just a few, but still) a few months ago (didn’t realize what he had done until after I left) and it was such a pain to get rid of them!

    My favorite is that taxi cabs never have change…mostly it irritates me because I KNOW they are lying. I mean, you drive a cab all day and you don’t have 40 pesos? Please.

  7. #7 Antonio
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    hahahaha you must have had a huge finiquito!… and I discovered that you are Lynne! =p
    and well just to be fair with our mexican vales, in some companies you would get a Card, just like a Debit Card, with electronic vales
    =)

    abrazos!

  8. #8 kno
    on May 26th, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    ahaha.. First of all, i’m a Mexican guy. Something that you guys NEED to learn is that people don’t mean when they say “i don’t have change” or “theres no restrooms in this store” or “i don’t know”. What the want to say is maybe “give me the exact change” or “i don’t want to let you use my restroom” or “i don’t give a crap about you nor i want to help you.” Mexican people never say things straight, we always use the “imply what i mean” method.” aaha.. But all this things are called Cultural Shock, believe me it is happening to me right now here in the united states (i am studying college here). Sometimes there are things that people do here that irritates the crap out of me so bad ahahah

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