Time For (A) Change


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.


Image credit:

Theodore Palser photo licensed to the public domain (CC0) via publicdomainpictures.net

21 thoughts on “Time For (A) Change

  1. One of my earliest jobs was in a Dairy Queen. We had electronic cash registers but the owner insisted we count back change anyway. Also, he strongly preferred it when our bills were all oriented the same way in the drawer so when we handed them back to customers they were oriented properly too. It was something of a throwback even then, in 1985.


    • The bills all facing the same way was never something I worried about, but I knew some people who had worked at banks and it was a definite thing for them.


      • As you know, I do accounting for a local pizza chain. This includes cash and credit reconciliations, accounts payable, the whole schmeer. Most of the managers and cashiers know how to organize their cash drawers, but regularly there are one or two who just don’t get it. And I will get cash right side up, up side down, and backwards too. This, of course, drives me insane.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have to admit that if I were still manning a cash drawer I would be tempted to put a bill in upside down and backwards every now and then – just to keep people on their toes. 🙂


  2. Years ago I worked at a burger joint. After being deemed as having sufficient IQ to work a cash register, I spent many Saturdays taking money from customers for greasy yet overcooked burgers. One day, this was 30 years ago, the young lady next to me was handed a $20 bill for a $3.xx order. She was in a dither as there was not a $10 bill in her drawer. Trying to stay professional, I politely pointed out using two of the $5 bills stacked in her drawer would suffice for a $10. She was still skeptical until the customer piped up, agreeing with me.

    The ability to make change is indeed a dying art.


    • “But the cash register didn’t say I could use two $5s . . . . ” Just wow. It would seem that you aced the IQ test and that your co-worker just scraped by.

      You remind me that I spent some time as a Domino’s Pizza delivery driver. We were each issued a “bank” at the beginning of the shift that I think may have been $20 in a set mix of coins and bill denominations. The ability to count change quickly was crucial.


  3. I first heard about that when I got an inexperienced clerk at some store, and the manager explained to them in front of me how to count the change forwards, I never forgot that lesson even though it was not intended for me.

    Of course, counting change is made more difficult in the US by your refusal to abandon pennies and paper bills that are all the same size and color.


    • Oh yeah, the US/Canadian thing. I remember getting an occasional Canadian coin as a kid – most stores took them just like normal US coins. I was always excited to get one as change. I don’t think I ever got any Canadian folding money, though.


  4. I remember working in the beer store, $2.90 for a 12 pack and $5.90 for a 24. Say someone comes in and gets one of each, hands you a twenty, and you have to make change in your head. No cash register, just a cash drawer. Just count up, and you are fine, just like you said.
    Returning empties? A nickle for cans, a dime for bottles, add it all up, in your head, give out the change. What fun. I was just a part timer. One would have gotten much faster at it doing it all day long. Nowadays they have to take liquor and wine bottles back too, 20 cents each. They just count them and punch it in to the cash computer.


    • It is funny that I did not gain the ability to do “head math” until I was an adult. With your example (and with the way I was taught) I would have struggled through trying to put the two numbers into columns, carrying ones and such and screwing up the answer half the time. It was on my own that I figured out you can take $5.90, add $3 and then subtract a dime. That made it easy.

      It’s funny how we remember costs of certain things from those early jobs. I can remember a small Domino’s cheese pizza at $4.06. It was the cheapest thing on the menu and (because we got paid 6% of the order in addition to a meager hourly wage) it was also the worst possible thing to have to deliver because we made almost nothing from it.


      • Ha! You reminded me of another early in life job of delivering pizza for cash. You’d take the bill with you, say it was $7.55, they’d hand you a ten. While you were digging around for the right change, a decent customer would say, “Aw just make it Nine bucks” or something like that. This pizza joint I worked for had a thirty minutes or it’s free guarantee. Here I was on a night where it was freezing rain, the roads were a skating rink, and I show up five minutes late. The guy refused to pay. Well I said, either I go back to my car with the money for this pizza, or what’s in this pizza box, it’s up to you. If you want it free, you gotta call the office. Reluctantly he paid, not a penny of a tip. Many years later when I drive by that house, and I’m sure he doesn’t live there any more, I still remember the interaction.


  5. Wow, I do remember those old machines, but I’m not sure from where. If the cash register isn’t working, then the deer-in-the-headlights look is common here too and some assistance is usually required from an older store employee. But we have eliminated pennies in Canada, you either round up or round down, which makes the transactions even more complicated for the youngun’s.


    • Soooo – people still price things in increments of 1 cent, but there is no 1 cent coin? I had always assumed that elimination of the penny (something that would make sense here too) would result in all transactions being in 5 cent increments automatically. I guess your store clerks are getting good practical experience and will one day be able to tell their grandchildren about all the things they used to have to do. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wondered too how they were going to implement it initially. But even if they priced it in 5cent increments, we have 13% sales tax added to everything, so it would still come out an odd number, so they have to round up or down to the nearest 5cents. So your purchase will say $2.97 on the cash register screen, but you will pay $2.95.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Well I had to smile at this post JP. I’ve seen the same thing through the years, but must add my two cents’ worth from my first job. I worked all through college at a diner and we had a rickety old cash register. It was a smaller model, so much so that twenty-dollar bills went under the “till” … unless you brought your family, most meals with a beverage went for a couple of bucks. Rarely would a takeout order tally more than $10.00 in the 70s. I “worked” the entire diner on Sundays; Saturdays and Summer/Christmas school break, the manager’s granddaughter and I each had our own horseshoe-shaped section. I worked the section nearest the register and my manager warned me to never let his granddaughter get anywhere near the register as she had no clue how to count change. It was a real conundrum if someone handed her the receipt, and some money and said they had to go, so just keep the change – she had to ask me what she would get for a tip. A high school education in my city wasn’t worth a hill of beans. Good thing they don’t need to use fractions!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes, indeed: you’ve pointed the JP laser on a dying skill. I’ve often seen the confusion on cashiers’ faces when I’ve tried to add coins to bring the change to a tidy amount.
    (I also share one of your commenter’s idiosyncrasies:liking my bills to be facing on the same side and direction. I never regarded it as an idiosyncrasy, however. My thought was: doesn’t everybody do that?)
    One of the remarkable things is how many of you and your commenters were involved in pizzas one way or another back in the day.
    Now here’s the advantage that we change-makers have. I’ve learned from older friends that one of the tests of mental acuity is to count backwards from 100–by 7s or 8s, I believe. So facile numerists can demonstrate their clarity of mind quite readily…you can even practice now to hone your skills!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ah yes. I too have experienced “that look” from a cashier. One of my jobs in high school was as a car hop. We had to know how to make change for the customers in the lot. I later worked in a bank, and from that time forward, had to have my bills facing the same direction. Now, some of the Canadian bills make it a little more difficult to determine the “right” direction in which to stack them, so I have to match the transparent stripes to each other.


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