2014-04-28 at 18-35-10 - IMG_5517

Money frustrations in Mexico


From children begging single pesos in the streets to luxury stores selling goods for tens-of-thousands, the way people change money in this country baffles me.

For good reason, street vendors deal only in cash and coin. The things they sell cost the equivalent of dollars or less. Taking credit for fifty-cent tacos would seriously eat into an already narrow profit margin.

Big shopping centers and expensive restaurants, on the other hand, usually accept credit because single transactions are large enough to justify the overhead. Still, they show copious amounts of reluctance when I present plastic for payment.

And because of this, carrying cash is a must. Getting the cash is easy; if a city has a bank, the bank probably has an ATM. The problem with taking money from an ATM is turning the 500-peso notes it gives into usable denominations.

Everyone takes cash, but no one — and I mean no one — willingly makes change for cash. And nothing I buy comes close to costing 500 pesos at a time. A plate of tacos will cost 20 pesos. A beer or cola will cost 15. The closest I get to spending 500 pesos is about 225 when filling an incredibly empty fuel tank! I try my hardest to put that kind of purchase on a credit card because the fuel stations are the likeliest of places to consistently accept credit.

Hotels and hostels in big cities are the next best option for breaking big notes or paying with credit, but even they cringe at both. When I tried to pay for a 90-peso room with a 500-peso note, the young man taking the money looked utterly bewildered. He couldn’t even make change for a 200-peso note. I told him I would pay after getting my own change, and he had the gall to point to a sign indicating a 20% fee for payments made after hours!

What am I to do? Carry exact coin for everything I want to buy? Paper bills come in 500-, 200-, 100-, 50-, and 20-peso notes. Coins, which are by far the most popular currency, are huge and heavy; they come in 10-, 5-, 2-, 1-, and 0.5-peso amounts.

It’s not as if these places are making it easy, either! They should price their stuff around the currency if they can’t or don’t want to make change! For example, the half-cent coin is a ridiculous waste of time and energy, and yet I see things like cola and water costing 14.5 pesos. If I don’t have a half-peso coin or exact change, the store rounds up at my expense or hands over a pocketful worth of small coins as change. These are probably the coins they want the least.

At tonight’s dinner, I pay for my 131-peso meal with a 200-peso note and get a math problem in return. The eighteen 1-peso coins, six 5-peso coins, and one 20-peso note don’t even add up to the 69 I’m due.

All I can do is take a deep breath and accept Mexico for Mexico. A peso here and there isn’t the end of the world after all.


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