The Value of Utility vs. the Utility of Value
Take a look at the photo above. Which of these three things would you most want if you were in Buenos Aires? If you’re like me, you might find your American value system is often contradicted by the Argentine market, but that could be because I tend to measure all prices in terms of how much steak I could purchase instead. (As the price of beef is controlled domestically, it’s relatively cheap in comparison to other less popular sundries, like shampoo.)
While keeping inflation in check and the fragile economic situation under control seems like a complex game to the Argentine government, next to fútbol, the most competitive sport in Buenos Aires is the most excellent and ruthless game of hoarding small bills and change. This is a game that everyone must play, and while some play very fair (most bartenders and waiters), many people play dirty (kiosk owners, certain taxi drivers). But visitors or future residents looking for a general rule, it is this: nobody here has change.
Or at least nobody wants to admit it. It’s like the card game Bullshit where you’re trying to get rid of your hand by lying about your discards while retaining your possible assets. While we have the opposite instinct in the States – how many of us think, “Woohoo! Exact change! Take these damn coins!” – the biggest cause of coinage hoarding here is the bus system, which transports the majority of Buenos Aires (much more than the metro system), and only accepts coins. Kiosks and delis discourage large bills by posting signs reading, “We have no coins.” Even major grocery stores won’t change your big bills, especially if it’s early in the day and they might actually be telling the truth. I have no idea why people don’t admit to having small bills, but it must be a trickle-down effect from the coin shortage. I’ve asked friends here who have studied everything from economic development to microfinance to real estate development how this happens to a country. Nobody knows.
To be able to survive in Buenos Aires as an honest consumer who uses monetary currency as a means of legal tender, you have to be sneaky, cunning, and guileless. You have to lie through your teeth, making someone change a $50 peso bill, swearing you don’t have anything smaller whilst hiding your $5s and $10s from the cashier in your other hand. You have to plan how many bus rides you might take and grab a number of coins from your assiduously accrued stash. Even rookies here know the most basic trick to get a clean start out of the blocks is to withdraw amounts like $190 or $290 pesos from ATMs to avoid being saddled with all those hundreds. The worst thing that could happen would be to be stuck in a time of mundane need with a $100 peso bill.
Case in point: this Sunday morning, I was on my way to the music school to practice. I had a $20 peso note, and a $1 peso coin in my pocket. I spent my $1 coin on the bus, and received $.20 centavos in change. After reaching the school, I was dying of thirst and stopped into a kiosk to buy a $2 bottle of water. All I had was my $20 peso note. The kiosk owner firmly refused, and would not sell me the bottle unless I had something smaller. (This is the only country I’ve been to where people will refuse to do business with you because you have too much money.) After my practice session, I still couldn’t get anyone to take the $20, and without $.80 centavos in coins, I couldn’t take the bus home, and had to resort to a taxi. After an $8 peso ride, the driver gave me $12 in change (a $10 bill and a $2 bill), allowing me to finally quench my thirst with my newly acquired $2 peso note. The moral of the story? I should have planned better. How? By thinking ahead – as in the night before, when I had carelessly surrendered multiple $10 peso notes without considering how thirsty I might be the next morning.
I also always carry a bottle of water with me now.