Brazil Mystery #1: Where have all the R$ 2 bills gone?

I’m starting a new series called Brazil Mysteries – they are things I don’t (or didn’t used to) understand about life in this country. Some have been solved, some are as yet unsolved – but maybe one of my readers knows the answer! We’ll begin with a constant thorn in my side: the national R$ bill shortage.

Don’t let the low denomination fool you. These are like gold.

Anyone who has spent at least 3 days in Brazil has probably encountered the following situation:

You purchase something costing R$ 2.50, such as bus fare or a snack, and hand the vendor a R$ 10 bill.

The vendor then gets a distressed expression on his or her face and says, “Iiiiih, tem troco não.”
(“There’s no change.”) 
If you try to use a R$ 20 or (God forbid) R$ 50, the chances of this happening increase exponentially.

The weird thing is that this doesn’t only happen with the guy selling mints on the bus. No, the small bills shortage hits even medium-sized retailers with multiple employees, which you’re pretty sure have had more than R$ 17.50 worth of transactions so far that day. I once tried to order a sandwich and juice totaling R$ 6 in a cafe in a well-to-do neighborhood, but when I flashed a R$ 20, the guy was like, “I can’t change a R$ 20!” Since I had no smaller bills, he lost a sale.

The two worst things are:

1. When the vendor glares at you as if it was YOUR fault that THEIR cash register is short the change.

Sorry, but the customer is always right. If you’re running a commercial establishment, you should stock your register or change bills at the bank or do whatever is needed to provide the extremely basic service of giving customers their change.

2. When they say “Wait here! I’ll go see if I can break it,” and run your large bill over to a neighboring business to see if they can break it.

But they may leave you hanging in the checkout for up to 15 minutes, because none of the other businesses have small bills either. Of course, this only happens on days when you’re in a hurry.

So I ask: Where have all the small bills gone?

My coping strategy: I take my R$ 50 bill (or, worse, a R$ 100) to the nearest large supermarket (“hypermarkets,” as some of them are called) and buy something small whose value is calculated to result in the largest possible number of lesser bills in change.

Sometimes the cashier still asks, looking at me suspiciously as I hand her a R$ 100 for a R$ 13 purchase, “Tem miúdo?” (“Have you got small bills?”)

“No,” I say icily, keeping the treasured R$ 2s and R$ 5s in my wallet out of her sight.

She sighs and hands me my R$ 87 in change – a 50, a 20, a 10, a 5, and a 2 – and I go merrily on my way. SCORE!

  • I have not experienced this…very interesting.

    • Shayna

      Aha! Maybe all of Bahia’s R$ 2s and 5s are being smuggled to Rondonia! :-p

  • I haven’t encountered this problem with 20s. Sometimes with 50s but I usually save those for a bigger purchase at a newsstand, the fish or chicken guy at the feira, or a taxi. Maybe I have a Brazilian change fairy getting my back 😉

    • Shayna

      Does your Brazilian change fairy have a colleague who’d like to work in Bahia? 😉

  • Interesting. I have not found this to be a problem at all. Perhaps it’s just luck. Yet I don’t think so since I actually like helping people make change. I should point out though that I keep a piggy bank – Dr.Oinkmints – and he is fed coins daily. So when my wallet is moeda challenged I turn to this reserve. Yet usually this does not happen, and when the piggy bank is full I exchange 75% of those coins for bills and start to build up again from the 25% which remained. It turns out that I always have change.

    • Shayna

      Dr. Oinkmints – I love it!

      We actually have a piggy bank too, but it’s made out of clay and there’s no way to open it except to break it – so our spare change is untouchable. I probably shouldn’t give ours a name… since I know eventually he’ll have to be sacrificed :-/

  • Hmmm, I definitely get it in the supermarket. They seem to keep hardly any money in the tills (cash registers) and so if I’m paying with anything that requires more than R$10 change, they will, more often than not, sigh and then call over to some money person to bring some more change over. Kind of annoying. In fact I find the entire lack of urgency when paying in supermarkets quite annoying. But then I heard that urgency is 100% lacking in all situations in Bahia, so maybe I should stop complaining! 🙂

    • Shayna

      Yes – moving to Bahia from New York City was quite a shock for me! In snack bars and convenience stores in NY – particularly during the morning rush hour – I’d often see people open their purses while in line and take out the correct or near-correct change from their purse/wallet, so that as soon as they got to the cashier they’d just hand off the money and go. People would start to grumble if anyone at the front of the line took more than 30 seconds for their transaction. Here… not so much!

      • Yes! NYC is for me! I still do this today, a hangover from my London days I guess. I’m getting used to it now, but seriously, at the beginning it used to drive me crazy. People queue for 10 minutes or more, then act surprised when they have to pay! “Oh, you need payment for these items? Now where did I leave my wallet? [starts rummaging in bag while I shoot daggers with my eyes!] I know it’s in here somewhere…”

        • Shayna

          My first job was at an ice-cream place (hard life, I know 😉 ) and I was always amazed by the people who stood in line staring at the menu for 10 minutes, then seemed completely flabbergasted when I asked them what size and flavor they wanted. “Ummm… ummm… let me think…” – seriously?!

  • Peg

    This is a constant problem where we are! The bakery, the farmer’s market, the grocery stores, everywhere. Gah. At least the bakery guy knows us well now, and if he can’t break our bills he’ll just let us pay the next time.

    We put our coins in a ‘bank’ too (sadly, it’s not a cute pig) and I try to spend them now that they’re piling up. The frozen yogurt and acai shops love me because I bring them hand-fulls of change once a week or so.

    Most places seem to have R$1 coins in full supply, just not the R$2 bills and sometimes no R$5’s either. It’s not uncommon to be handed R$8 in single coins in change. I try to see it as more money for frozen yogurt!

    • Shayna

      I try to see it as more money for frozen yogurt!

      I like your perspective! 😉

  • Good idea. I try to do the same thing, or just use my debit card as much as possible. One day I was able to pay for a pack of gum (about R$1) with a R$50 bill (at a pharmacy no less!). And another day a friend of mine paid for a R$3 desert with a R$100 bill at the lanche at a hospital. I almost crapped my pants!

  • I have discovered that I am so used to breaking large bills whenever I get the chance that when I go back to the States for a visit, I end up with a huge wad of small bills :). In my store, I have so far managed to always have the change I need, even to change 50’s and 100’s. Here’s hoping none of the neighboring businesses catch on or they’ll start showing up with big bills. I am amazed that some of your readers have not experienced this problem.

  • Wow! I haven’t encountered this yet, but I’ll plan on being ready for it. That’s very mathematical of you to calculate the purchase that will result in the most amount of change. I’m impressed!