There are many things that have improved immeasurably in our world. We can cure diseases that stymied our elders, we carry vast libraries and music collections in our pockets, and the selection of beer has never been greater. But is there anyone alive under the age of sixty who knows how to make change?
The electronic cash register has been omnipresent since probably the early 1980’s. I know this because I still remember my stunned reaction when I found myself in an aged discount department store in a none-too-prosperous part of the city when I was a first year law student.
I remember suddenly noticing the noise. It was the noise of a dozen or more mechanical cash registers loudly recording transactions, filling the air with “Click-click-click-Chu-Chulik.” This was the best I could do for a sound that absolutely defies reproduction on a keyboard. Or you can try watching this, which gets going at about the 1:10 mark.
Anyway, there it was – overpowering the holiday music wafting from the sound system everywhere else in the store. It was at that moment that I knew that an era had passed, because I realized that I had not heard that sound in ages. That store closed not long after and I have never heard that mechanical symphony since.
The electronic cash register that replaced the old mechanical machines did one thing that the old one could never do – it automatically calculated a customer’s change. Which has caused two problems.
The first one is this: Nobody knows how to make change any more.
When I was a kid a trip to the neighborhood drug store that sold the candy, comic books and model car kits that made up the bulk of my purchases resulted in many transactions. The clerk would ring up the items (on a mechanical cash register) and say “That will be $2.31.” I would hand the clerk three of my hard-earned $1 bills and she would give me my change, counting aloud as she went. “$2.31 – 32, 33, 34, 35 (as she scooped four pennies into her palm) 40 (as a nickle was added to the pile) 50 (a dime), 75 and $3 (as the two quarters rounded out my change. How much was it? Let’s see – I have to count – it was 69 cents. But you never needed to calculate the actual amount by that method because you just started with the total, then counted up to whatever denominations the customer forked over.
Sometimes I would give the clerk $3.01 in order to avoid getting more pennies. It was easy. “$2.31 to $2.30 – 35, 40, 50, 75 and $3” as I got my 70 cents of all-silver-and-no-copper money.
But now the cash register tells the clerk to give me 69 cents. Which they count in their heads and dump into your hand in a lump. And have you tried giving a clerk the $3.01 (at least after they have rung up the transaction)? Have you noticed the blank stares?
“You don’t have to give me the extra penny.” Or “What’s this?” And the unusually frank will say “I don’t know how to do this.” When I say “just give me 70 cents” they look at me like I am an experienced quick-change artist trying to scam them out of money. How much money they do not know, because they don’t know how to calculate it.
When my kids played sports in school, parents were “encouraged” (yes, let’s go with encouraged) to staff the concession stands. I actually enjoyed it, because with nothing but an old fashioned cash box I got to make change the old-fashioned way to my little heart’s content. Some parents were younger than me and it was kind of funny to see the little pad and pencil next to the cash box which they used for the heavy duty math involved. Their children were often faster with that method, basic subtraction with decimals being something fairly fresh in their minds. I will admit to feeling a bit smug.
OK, now to the second problem caused by the modern electronic cash register: It has to do with the way your change is handed back to you. In the old days, change counting required starting with the metal change before moving on to the folding bills. Let’s say my $2.31 transaction resulted in me handing a $5 to the clerk. “$2.31 – 32, 33, 34, 35, 40, 50, 75, $3, $4 and $5.” As often as not, the store clerk would drop the coins into your cupped palm from her own, and then hand you the two $1 bills which you could grasp in your fingers.
Now? Because the register tells the person to hand you $2.69, the earnest youth grabs the two singles first, then drops the coins on top and tries to hand you a game. The game goes like this – can you keep the pile of coins from sliding from atop the slick paper bills until you get them fully under your control. Bonus points are involved at a drive-up window where falling coins end up on the pavement below (and without enough clearance to open your car door to pick them up).
There is good news, however. The computer industry is solving these problems by making cash obsolete. PayPal, Venmo, MasterCard and even the debit card that takes the $2.31 straight from your bank account have made cash transactions increasingly less common. So I suppose it is good to get this rant out in circulation before it too becomes as hard to understand as the act of counting change.
Or are we already there? I have been carrying around the same amount of change for probably two weeks or more because I have not engaged in a single cash transaction. But this next time I am ready – because the amount of change in my pocket is (I just counted it) $2.34. So with my next $2.31 transaction I won’t have to worry about getting change at all. After that, my only problem will be how to get rid of the remaining three cents.
Theodore Palser photo licensed to the public domain (CC0) via publicdomainpictures.net