Got any spare change?

When you read “do you have change?”, are you picturing a beggar asking for some spare coins?  Italy has more than its fair share of those, but think again – the person most likely to ask you for change in Italy is the person working the cash register at a supermarket.

I don’t know for sure why this is, but Italian stores love their spare change.  It’s one of those little things you notice only after having been here a while, that starts to get to you.  In supermarkets in the US, they push a button and ding ding ding out comes the spare change from a little machine that you can scoop up and dump in your wallet.  Impersonal, but nice and fast.

Here in Italy, there’s a more involved process:

  • The total price is calculated, and you can start to ascertain your ability to pay down to the cent by digging around in your wallet.
  • If you don’t have exact change or aren’t in the mood to count it out, you can take out something and offer it to the cashier.
  • They may make a counter-offer or ask if you have change.  Say you pull out a 20 euro note, and the item costs 12 euros, they may ask if you have a 2 euro coin, so they can give you 10 euros back.
  • You can accept, and spend time fishing out the requested change.
  • Or, if you don’t have it, or really don’t feel like playing the game, you can declare that you have no change.
  • At this point, the cards are all on the table, so to speak, and the cashier has to play the hand they were dealt and give change, or not, depending on what you’ve handed them.

Mostly, this doesn’t take too much time, but occasionally you are in line behind an elderly person who wants to do the “polite” thing and give the cashier the exact change on their 27.13 Euro purchase.  Due to the fact that they grew up with the Lira, and given their failing eyesight, this can be a slow process at times.  You can’t get frustrated – we’ll all be there some day – but you do wish that people were more inclined to hand over some money and just let the cashier do their job.  If you think about 20 seconds wasted all over Italy, day after day, the time involved starts to add up.  There are many ‘slow’ interactions in Italy that are quite pleasant and worth emulating – stopping to chat with someone, or otherwise taking the time to enjoy your day as much as possible.  But counting out change isn’t one of them.

3 thoughts on “Got any spare change?

  1. Hey David, saw one of your posts on hackernews and was quite surprised to discover that American programmers living in Padova do exist! (I’m also a programmer from Padova, but Italian)

    I think the difference in the way we treat change has more to do with the fact that our whole society strongly pushes you to never ever throw money away, as every cent matters. Compare this with people throwing pennies in the trash in the US (saw that with my own eyes and was left speechless), and you get the picture.

    That, and old people. The “never throw money away” principle is of course stronger in them (because war, poverty, and all of that), and as you probably have noticed, there’s lots of old people around here.. But you can always use the automated cashiers at the mall… they work so well! /s

    By the way, nice blog! I always enjoy seeing us Italians from different perspectives 🙂


    • Hi, I would never throw pennies away myself, and don’t believe in throwing money away, but there are also times when I really don’t feel like counting out change, and wish the people at the store would simply do their jobs and give me change for a 10/20/whatever. I also really wish they would do this for some elderly people, who instead stand there dutifully, but oh-so-slowly counting it out.

      If you saved 10 seconds for each transaction at each supermarket in Italy, that starts adding up to a lot of time pretty quickly.


      • I just wished they dropped cash altogether and use debit/credit cards exclusively instead, but then how is grandma supposed to spend her mornings? 🙂


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