The Problem with Change

Astana has a problem with change. Not change as in a shift from one thing to another. No, I’m talking about something more mundane, something I’ve taken for granted my entire life. I’m referring to the receiving of change when you buy something. Let me outline the problem for you.

Hardly anyone seems to have change. Ever. This includes supermarkets, taxi drivers, food stands. No one. I remember when I worked retail, part of the task for the day was to organize the till to make sure there was change to start the day. But here, I’ve seen registers open and the tills literally have nothing in them. No small bills, no coins, no big bills for that matter. Nothing. Where does it all go? As laundromats in the States are plagued by sock monsters who inevitably leave you with half of a pair, I think the cash registers in Astana are ravaged daily, hourly by change-monsters. This is trying after a while. No one can ever break a big bill. Cashiers get irritated with you for not having the exact, or at least small, change.

A lack of change affects both businesses and customers in frustrating ways. Sometimes a business will refuse to sell you something because they do not have change. This is absurd, but it is true. Example: while at the train station one day, my husband attempted to buy a bottle of water for 200 or 300 tenge (about 75¢) with a 2000 tenge bill (about $6). The woman at the counter literally refused to sell it to him because she did not have change – how is that a sustainable business practice? On the flipside, we once were getting food to go at the start of the lunch hour. They took our order, we paid, and waited for our change which never came. They just apologized and said they did not have change. Granted, it was only 500 tenge (about $1.50), but was still a “what the heck?” moment for us.

These experiences start to affect how you deal with money when out in public. For one, small bills become sacred. If you go out to eat with a group and people are throwing in cash for the check and you see one 2000 and three 1000 tenge bills in the pile, you are for sure going to swap your 5000 tenge for those. If you are lucky enough to receive a 200 or 500 tenge bill, you hold on to it for dear life and have a sense of loss when you have to use it. Or, if you have these small bills and are paying for something else, you keep your wallet hidden so the cashier cannot see you have small bills when you pay with a larger one. All these little games I now play just to keep small bills in my wallet.

Another side effect is that one ends up paying more often with a credit card to avoid this trauma. I have pretty much given up on the university’s supermarket ever having change, so I pay with a credit card even if my total is 1500 tenge – it’s just easier.

A final observation about the issue of change became apparent to me (as well as some of my other Astana-based friends!) while I was in Germany over spring break. The fear about change, or the lack of, follows you wherever you go. When traveling elsewhere, one is riddled with guilt when paying someone with a 50€ or $20 bill for something which may cost a tenth of that. As I squeak out an “I’m sorry,” or “Are you able to take this?” the cashiers look at me like I’m a pitiable fool and say, “Yes, of course!” And suddenly I’m reminded of what an absurd life I have at times in Astana.

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