Meraba, can you break a 5?
April 11, 2010 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Why do businesses in Turkey never seem able to make change?

My fiancee and I are in the middle traveling through Turkey for a few weeks. We're having a blast btw: great people, food, historical sites--if you've never been, come.

However, we've run across a phenomenon that has left us intrigued and bemused: nobody ever has change!

Pay for your tea and pastry in the airport cafe with anything but exact change, and the slightly embarrassed cashier will ask you if, by any chance, you wouldn't happen to have 50 cents. Hand the street vendor a 5 TL bill for a book of post cards, and he'll canvas his neighbors for 1 lira coins to give back to you. Waiters will make change out of their own pockets. At museum gift shops, restaurants, bus stations, ticket offices for archeological sites, we're always scrounging through our pockets trying to find smaller bills or coins. So far we've visited Istanbul, the Aegean, and Cappadocia, and the hunt for change has been a running joke throughout. We've both worked retail (in the States), and the impression left is that businesses here don't seem to start out with a till.

To us it's funny, but we're curious: is this really some kind of nationwide cultural quirk? Is it unique to Turkey? Can anyone explain it for us?

posted by theDTs to Travel & Transportation around Turkey (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I encountered similar in Egypt, though not nearly that bad. I have a memory of someone telling me it was because there are a severe shortage of small bills and coins. Not sure if this applies to your situation.

Have a great trip! Turkey's so awesome.
posted by emkelley at 7:06 AM on April 11, 2010

You're (presumably) from a culture where you consistently carry around more money than you need, dealing with people in a culture where you have to save up to the cost of what you want to buy.

Also, many times the "no change" thing is a ploy to get you to buy more stuff. When I was in India, nobody wanted to give me change. They'd take my larger bill, and then say, "How about some X to go with that Y?" instead of giving me my change back right away.
posted by Rykey at 7:15 AM on April 11, 2010

This happened to me, too, when I was in Turkey. I chalked it up to the fact that they figured out I was an American, and so they figured that I could afford the extra payment.
posted by dfriedman at 7:19 AM on April 11, 2010

Argentina was the same way. I could never tell if it was really a shortage of small bills and coins, or if people could tell I was American. I think it was the former, since my Spanish was pretty good and I think I moved from turista status to extranjero.
posted by Aizkolari at 7:28 AM on April 11, 2010

Best answer: Despite comments above, most aren't trying to take extra money - I'm not sure why tourists always sorry assume that behaviour that is different than they know means they are being ripped off (and I say that after working with tourists for 2 years in that part of the world - the assumptions that people make when travelling can be incredibly frustrating to deal with).

Part of it is that there is a shortage of small bills/change. There is a lot in circulation, but there are also a lot of people who save (or spend) their money one small bill or coin at a time.

Plus they don't start the day with a 'till', nor do they in Egypt. Some can't afford to, but it's also not the norm. When your level of income hovers as low as it does for most of these shop keepers, why would you have that much money locked up in change, when you know that you can ask around and find it when you need it. People living there think nothing of being asked if they have change at random points during the day, or of asking random strangers for change.

I used to encourage the tourists with me to hoard a little. No matter where you go, the vendor will ask you if you have the change, even if he can make it. When paying in larger stores or supermarkets, always pay with a big bill and take the change. And watch where you keep the change you do have - If you're trying to break a big bill, and the vendor sees smaller bills in your wallet, they will tell you they have no change even if they do.

I found it helped to just think of it all as a game.

Have a great time - Turkey is fantastic!
posted by scrute at 8:16 AM on April 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

This happened in to me all the time in Moldova and especially in the major markets in Chișinău like Piața Centrală and Calea Basarabiei, but also in places like Andy’s Pizza and Délice d’Ange.

I held my ground and refused to be taken in! I noticed that if I spoke in Romanian to a Russian seller, I usually got the run-around in the markets with regard to change.
posted by vkxmai at 8:44 AM on April 11, 2010

I was in Turkey last summer (Istanbul, Cappadocia, and the east) and I don't remember this sticking out to me as something that happened unusually often. I would have definitely noticed if it happened to me with the frequency that you describe.

Now that I think of it, there may have been one time where the shopkeeper at a corner store in Kars had to run next door to get change. But on the whole I don't remember this happening much - if anything, I often tried to pay with exact change to use up the mass of 1 lira and .50 lira coins accumulating in my pocket. I always got my money from ATMs, so my bills would definitely have been broken down many times.

I'm from the US and my usage of coins changed a lot after moving to Canada where we only have coins for $1 and $2 (like Turkey). I never used my change in the US, but now I've really gotten into the habit of using my loonies and toonies, and even the smaller coins - in the US if I got charged $5.09, I would hand over a 10 and think nothing of it, but in Canada I'm scrambling to find a dime so I don't end up getting a stack of coins back. Not sure what country you're from, but something similar might be going on if you try to pay with bills when most people in Turkey would use coins.

FWIW, I am American but I am of Asian descent and everybody in Turkey thought I was Japanese.
posted by pravit at 8:53 AM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

On preview, I'm with scrute above in having a hard time believing the "they think you're a rich foreigner who can afford being stiffed change" theory. It just doesn't jibe with the experience I had of people in Turkey trying to give me free stuff all the time. Pastry shop owners would wave me over, give me a free tea and pastry, and sit me down for a chat. One of my favorite memories is swigging cherry juice from a big bottle in the Batman bus station, and a shopkeeper running over to give me a cup to drink from.

And now that I think about it, I do remember being asked, from time to time, bir lira var mi? when I paid for stuff. I just didn't think much of it because, hey, making change is a pain in the ass. Cashiers in Toronto sometimes ask me if I have extra change whenever we run into the dreaded "your purchase was just above a $5 increment" situation.
posted by pravit at 9:21 AM on April 11, 2010

This is a big issue in Egypt too--there's simply not enough small change. One pound, roughly 20-25 US cents, goes a long way. Poor folks are probably not carrying around 20 pound notes like we do. This isn't just for tourists and expats--it's an issue for Egyptians, too.

I lived in Egypt for two years and learned to hoard small change. It became like a battle of wills--would the buyer give up their change or would the store owner cop to having it?

It's taken me a while, now that I'm back in the States, to get used to using my change.

Remember the laundromat days when you used to hoard quarters, when four quarters felt more valuable than one dollar? It's like that, but with actual shortages.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:35 AM on April 11, 2010

On a side note, seeing Argentina mentioned above, I remember reading somewhere that there is a severe shortage of coins, even a black market, that is thought to be related to inflation. The copper and aluminium seem to be more valuable than their denomination.
posted by varoa at 10:01 AM on April 11, 2010

Uhhh...there's plenty of evidence that its not a 'ploy'. Here's an article about the Argentine situation mentioned above. Every so often, there are stories on the news about cities like Buenos Aires having to make the subways free for a day because the coin shortage is so bad (and the subways only take coins), so its not a ploy to fleece tourists in at least that case.

The interesting thing about the article is that it says that a large driver of coin shortages may be hoarding behavior: basically, fearing a shortage of coins, the population starts hoarding coins, thus causing a shortage of coins in actual circulation (and leading to the behavior you described above on behalf of shopkeepers, vendors, etc.).
posted by jeb at 12:34 PM on April 11, 2010

I ran into something similar in Italy 30 or so years ago, in the pre-Euro era. The lira was something like 1800 to the US$, and yet prices were still to the 10's place in lira. There were basically no 10 lira coins, and few 50 lira notes or coins, so I'd sometimes get penny candy in my change.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 12:53 PM on April 11, 2010

Never been to Turkey, but if a shopkeeper pegged you for a dumb foreigner and wanted to cheat you, couldn't he just lie about the prices? That's generally how it's done in China, I think.
posted by d. z. wang at 1:00 PM on April 11, 2010

I've experienced this in Egypt and Morocco. In both countries you need small change to give as tips to bathroom attendants and for other small services so we were always looking to get change. Often a merchant will encourage you to just take the item and come back later with the change balance. I chalked up the behavior to locals needing small change for the same reasons as tourists do; visitors are not the only people who need to offer these small tips. Sometimes a merchant will accept small change in euros or American money and sometimes after a regular transaction they will show you foreign money in the till and ask if you will change it for the local currency.
posted by Morrigan at 4:43 PM on April 11, 2010

True in Armenia and Georgia too.

Change is more valuable than big bills.
posted by k8t at 8:51 PM on April 11, 2010

I can confirm the same phenomenon in roughly 20 sub-saharan African countries. I live in Kenya right now and when I use a 1,000 shilling note (roughly 15 USD) to pay for a 200 shilling bundle of flowers, the seller has to run to 3-4 other booths to find people with enough bills to give me change. How they keep track of who owes whom what is beyond me. But then, me rolling up in an SUV and not having any bills as small as the ones that they operate in day-in and day-out is probably a bit beyond them, too.

Zimbabwe's an interesting case at the moment - they've moved almost completely onto the US dollar (and yet for some reason the federal reserve building still operates in business-as-usual mode from all I could tell). Since they have no ability to print USD in the country, all of the cash in circulation is either *imported* USD - thus raggedy and brown in most cases, or huge bundles of the virtually worthless local bills. The latter are usually given out in stacks of 50 bills, each of them 50,000,000,000 (that's 50 billion, times 50 in a stack) - typically as change for 1 USD when paying for a ride in a combi (taxi mini-bus). So anyway, when you go to a grocery store or a burger shop or something, if you don't have exact change in USD (well, roughly, there's no actual coin in operation there, just bills), its customary for the cashier to swipe the closest piece of candy or something and just toss it in your bag without asking you...or to ask you if you want extra cheese on the burger or a drink to go along with it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:36 AM on April 12, 2010

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