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:
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…?
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.