Built on Facts

Vote for Change

Today I bought a sandwich at Subway. 12″ ham on “Italian herbs and cheese” bread, American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, sweet onion sauce. After tax, the cost was $5.41. I handed a $10 bill to the young guy behind the register. By young I’m guessing 18ish.

As such I was going to get $4.59 in change. His change drawer was pretty much empty, and so while he was getting more change I fished around in my pocket for another penny so as to keep the number of coins to a more manageable 3 total. I offered the penny.

By now you’ve heard the story before. He apologetically said he’d already entered the figure, and I didn’t press the issue. Now you and I (and probably him once he thinks about it) know that it doesn’t matter what’s entered. If he gives me 59 cents or I give him 1 cent and he gives me 60, the value of money in the register is the same and that’s all that matters. Just because the machine says $4.59 doesn’t mean he has to stick with that if I give him more money. Now I’m a pretty easygoing guy so it didn’t bother me in the slightest. Small change will just go in the bowl at home. Still, it would have been nice to have 3 coins instead of 7.

On the other hand I can also defend him because I’ve been there. I’ve worked in the fast food industry at the register. Altering change on the fly is not as easy as the arithmetic makes it seem. Any distraction that causes an error is a potential angry customer, angry manager, and unbalanced register at the end of the shift. Bringing arithmetic into a high-speed high-stress environment is just not something that’s fun to deal with. Much preferred is (in this case) for me to have handed over $10.01 in the first place. That way I get my efficient change and the cashier doesn’t have to do math.

The other issue is scammers. There’s a well-known scam in which a person will pay with a large bill, ask to have it broken into smaller bills, the give some of those bills back for more changing, and go back and forth until the cashier is snowed into giving out much more money than was originally handed over. Generally the rule given by business handbooks is that if the exchanging goes more than one level deep, shut the cash drawer and call for a manager. So modifying the change is itself additionally stressful since it can (but usually doesn’t) portend a theft attempt.

Neither of these is really an issue in my particular case today. I was the only customer in the store, so there’s plenty of time and very little stress. And I was only handing a penny, so a scam would have been pretty darn difficult to run. Still, I can see things from his perspective at least a little bit.

So what do you think, is it better that I let it slide or should I have politely walked him through it in a friendly way? Yeah, I know that in the grand scheme of things this matters about as much as which sock to put on first. But I also know that this is the internet and the cosmic purpose of the internet is to beat trivialities to death.


  1. #1 george.w
    August 15, 2009

    I normally try to be a nice guy and let it slide, but if there’s nobody in line behind me, sometimes I just can’t help walking them through the numbers. Dagnabbit, I used to sell cokes in the stands at the rodeo back in ’71, and we didn’t have any fancy computers…

  2. #2 RayInDallas
    August 16, 2009

    If I were a retail manager, I would probably make it store policy that cashiers can’t give any change other than what’s shown on the register. The kids who are working those jobs just don’t have the math skills for it.

    But I agree with you in his defense. It’s not “just math” in play working the register. And, especially these days as so many people pay with debit or credit cards — ring up total, swipe, transaction complete — there just isn’t as much opportunity for practice counting change.

  3. #3 Lassi Hippeläinen
    August 16, 2009

    #2: The kids who are working those jobs just don’t have the math skills for it.

    Arithmetics, not mathematics. And if the kids can’t do basic add/sub, your school system has a problem. Those skills are needed also outside the fast food joint.

  4. #4 Thony C.
    August 16, 2009

    A good cashier would have asked you, as you handed over your $10 note, “do you have one cent or even better 41 cents?”

  5. #5 Stephen P
    August 16, 2009

    Given there was no-one else in the store I would probably have tried to walk him through it. After all, if no-one ever tries to help him, he’ll never learn.

  6. #6 Luke Shingles
    August 16, 2009

    Stephen P: You can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn. How many fast food workers do you think would want a listen to a customer tell them how to do their job?

    The arithmetic involved in taking extra coins from a customer is simple but it takes some practice before it can be done without any thought. When it is done in a noisy, stressful environment, even these calculations can be hard to get right. I’m a second year physics student who works at a McDonalds and I notice a big difference in my math speed and ability when moving between a fast food restaurant and a quiet library.

  7. #7 Carl Brannen
    August 16, 2009

    You got your meal. The guy behind the counter got his paycheck and the company got another $5.41 to report on Wall Street. This was a happy transaction.

    To allow only those capable of adding 1 cent to 59 cents to work as cashiers would mean that some percentage of the population wouldn’t have jobs. You’d pay for their welfare one way or another.

    To explain things is not always possible. Sure you can explain how to give change properly in this case but the “same” explanations are how fast change artists steal money. It’s better to leave things the way they are.

    After 10 years working that job, I would bet that he has a more intuitive understanding of how change works and will be able to do that sort of thing. But when you’re new, and not necessarily the sharpest tool in the shed, you’ve got enough on your plate trying to learn the job.

    I end up explaining which keys to press to the new cashiers at Taco Time because I want a natural soft taco but with the flour shell. After years of this, a very experienced cashier explained I could get the same thing by ordering a soft taco with beans added. Maybe that is more normal and the new cashiers won’t need training in it. But if you look on their register it has about 200 keys on it; cashiering is easy, but cashiering quickly and accurately is not.

  8. #8 Stephen P
    August 16, 2009

    You can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn.

    Obviously, and if the person concerned didn’t want to listen, I wouldn’t push it.

    How many fast food workers do you think would want a listen to a customer tell them how to do their job?

    (a)I haven’t the slightest idea, and you haven’t the slightest idea either.

    (b) There is a difference between “tell them how to do” and “help them with”.

    (c) On the occasions I have tried something similar I have more often received a willing response than an unwilling one.

  9. #9 Uncle Al
    August 16, 2009

    You should never be given change – HIV and AIDS are caused by lack of funding.

    “If you are a citizen, if you pay taxes, if you earn your way in the world by your own efforts, your continued sacrifices will support America. Yes we can!”

  10. #10 R E G
    August 16, 2009

    Store policy may require that all money handed to him is passed to management in the same format. Mistakes get made when cashiers provide coin for parking meters or whatever, and there is not even a sale to offset the loss.

    If the cash register tape says he took in 5 $100 bills in a shift, he better have those bills in the till or it’s a violation. Yes I know we are discussing a penny, but if you are numerically illiterate you really cannot be trusted to make a judgement.

    My pet peeve is when you point out that 2 $ 5.00 items plus tax cannot possible add to $ 18.61, and the clerk cannot follow your reasoning.

    And then there was the bill for 10 items at $15.00 each that added to $ 78.75….

    Some of these kids really have no image of how much a transaction should be. I’m sure they go through life constantly surprised at their credit card total.

  11. #11 daginikkafa
    August 17, 2009

    Next time after the transaction is complete give him the 9+1 cents and ask for a dime.

  12. #12 Laura
    August 20, 2009

    Interesting cultural difference between the States and continental Europe: they’ll frequently ask you for smaller – if not exact – change when you pay. The math is quick, too. It didn’t matter whether I was buying a coffee or a train ticket – they’d look at what I was handing over and ask if I had an extra 2 Euro coin and then just give me back a 5, etc. I got so accustomed to having my attempted transactions rejected that I find myself counting out exact change back here in the U.S., usually to the mild annoyance of the line behind me. Anyway, I think part of it is just the coinage breakdown of a dollar. The Euro system seems much more efficient.

  13. #13 jim
    August 21, 2009

    Dilbert does exactly that once. It involved giving the clerk a quarter, but I can’t find the strip now.

    I used to do it occasionally, but got such a reaction from one lady once that I reclassified it into the “not-worth-it” bin.

  14. #14 Wayne
    August 21, 2009

    Back before there were computerized cash registers (all of 20 years ago), most stores relied on a simple counting method that only required addition. You start with the amount charged and count out change until it adds up to the amount given by the customer. It’s simple and just about everyone can do it. It’s pretty much the same skill used to count out the change today, and it’s easy to adapt to situations where more money is added as you wanted to do.

    You’ll have to search for a small shop run by an old person to see this in action today. I don’t think I’ve seen it more than twice in the past 10 years.

  15. #15 Zach
    August 23, 2009

    I had a similar experience, at a Subway the other day, the bill was $6.01 so I handed over a penny, then I handed over a dollar, and then (knowing I did not have a five) fumbled around as if I did and handed him a $20.00 saying, “So sorry I thought I had a five.” When he said, “Don’t you want the $1.00 back?” I responded, “No, just ring up $21.01 and I’ll take $15.00 in change.” He did that and seemed mildly surprised that the register responded that I was to get exactly $15.00 in change. I think one of the things that may be missing is that folks running the registers are not instructed to enter even odd amounts that folks give them since even such an event will produce the correct change.

    Additionally I know that some ‘auto-attended’ checkout lines at super markets will frustrate your attempts to get the minimum coins/bills back if you feed them in the wrong order. I find that feeding the smallest amounts first followed finally by the largest bills/coins last usually satisfies the algorithm and you get your expected results.

  16. #16 Ubiquitous Che
    September 3, 2009

    Let it slide. Definitely.

    And for everyone here who is tempted towards the ‘if they can’t handle arithmetic, there’s a problem’ line of reasoning.

    Arithmetic, and mathematics in general, are languages. Is it important that people learn to ‘speak’ these languages? Of course.

    But many people don’t. Much of the time, there will be kids working behind counters who are there while they’re doing their degress, or studying, or are saving to move onto bigger and better things. But lets face it. It makes me a snob to say this, but working behind a register is a shit job. I worked behind registers for about six years in total. It sucks balls.

    However, for many people the sad reality is that they just don’t have the skills to do anything better. There’s no need to sneer down at them, or put on airs. Trying to help sounds nice in principle, but also a teensy bit condescending.

    Maybe offer to help, then let them do things their way if they say no – they probably will. So long as they give the correct actual amount of change, just let them be.

    Incidentally, my usual complaint about change is that I’m not given enough. EFTPOS is becoming so prevalent in the areas I live that stores carry very little small change. I used to break a $20 into $2 coins and keep them in my glove-compartment for parking. Convenience stores don’t like that so much any more, because they just don’t carry the change. They even resent breaking a $5 into two $2’s and a $1 unless I buy something – and nothing really costs under $1 anymore.

  17. #17 karlo pinar
    February 11, 2010

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