Why do old people pay with exact change?

By | September 26, 2016

How many times have you been at the store and some old person is holding up the line because they want to count out every single nickel, dime, quarter and penny to pay the exact amount they owe? There’s nothing inherently wrong with paying with exact change but when you don’t readily have the exact change and you need to dig, search and scramble for the necessary coins, you’re just an inconvenience. After slowly writing out a check, it’s the most amount of inconvenience you can inflict on your fellow shoppers.

Why do old people do it? I asked /r/oldpeople for their thoughts. Their responses were mostly irrelevant or hostile.

I called my grandmother and asked her about this. She said that it’s because old people tend to use cash. Something about that doesn’t make sense though. “Because I use cash” is, definitely, a reason for why someone would use exact change, but it’s the type of reason that merely describes what’s happening. It’s like me asking, “Why did you stand under that tree?” and you reply,”Because I have legs.” It’s an overly simplistic answer that isn’t an answer.

Plastic is the simplest arrangement. You slide. You sign. And you’re done.

Paying with un-exact change is the second simplest arrangement. You give them five dollars. They give you change.

Paying with a check is bordering upon rude because it’s antiquated and unnecessary in this day and age, but if you truly have no other options then it’s acceptable.

Paying with exact change, especially when you can’t find that exact change or don’t have it readily available, is weird and makes me think you’re mentally ill.

People pay with cash because they don’t have a checking account or they don’t feel comfortable paying with checks or cards. Old people are the latter. Why pay with exact change though?

Maybe I was too quick to dismiss the original reddit post. People answered that they use exact change because: they have change and they want to use it. They have the change so they use it. I mean, I guess that’s a reason. Still, it’s not an answer because it’s just describing the situation.

Maybe I need to evaluate my own assumptions…

Using cash is an inconvenience and a security risk.

Old people use cash because they find it more convenient than checks and cards.

Cash takes precedence over coins for the sake of enabling a fast transaction.

If you have the choice between using coins and using cash, you choose cash because it enables a quick and speedy transaction.

A fast transaction is desirable.

A fast transaction is desirable because neither party would like to spend more time in the interaction than what is necessary. (This will be important later.) Some may argue that your transaction pays the person that is working there so if it is inconvenient for them, perhaps they don’t need to work there.

I counter that by stating that this does not entitle you to take up more of their time. They are paid to interact with you, but out of consideration for them as a human being, you should respect their time and try to minimize any unnecessary interactions with them.

Coins are only to be used for a transaction in the event of an emergency or if as relatively fast as a full cash transaction.

Again, this goes back to the importance of a fast transaction.

Paying the amount owed in exact change is obsessive and weird.

One thing I’ve noticed is if the amount is $3.43, the person will go into their wallet and I’ll see a wide assortment of cash. Ones, fives, twenties abound. Instead of grabbing a five or four ones, they grab three ones and begin digging into their change purse.  

They find a quarter and place it on the counter and look up expectantly at the cashier. They ask the amount again. The cashier tells them. They repeat the total back to the cashier, do the math in their head again and dive back in.

They find another quarter. They think to themselves,”No, that’s too much. That comes out to fifty cents, which is seven cents more than the amount.” (Heaven forbid!)

They put the quarter back. They find a dime and do the math in their head: thirty five cents. They look for a nickel but all they seem to find is dimes. They run their finger along the bottom of the change purse, trying to turn up any nickel to no avail. They briefly consider giving up and giving the cashier another dime when they find it.

That nickel brings the total to forty cents. They take the nickel and dime and place it onto the counter with the quarter from earlier.  They look up at the cashier with a gleam in their eye. Surely, the cashier appreciates the magnitude of what they’ve accomplished. The cashier returns a polite smile, holds up three fingers and reminds them they need three more cents. Someone in the line behind them sighs dramatically.

They snap their finger. “Oh, drat! Well, here I go again.”, they say with a laugh. The search begins anew. What was once a sea of nickels, pennies and quarters is now all just nickels, quarters and dimes. Every time they think they’ve found a penny, the coins in the purse shift, enveloping it in dimes and nickels. There’s no justice in this world. With all their strength and wisdom, they scrape together the three remaining pennies required to complete the transaction and place it on the counter.

“I did it”, they say as they lift their hands in the air triumphant, half-joking and mostly serious. The cashier quickly deposits the money in the till and hand them their receipt, wishing them a good day. The person behind them moves up just enough to make it clear that they’re waiting for them to move but not enough to invade their space too much.

The old person looks at the receipt in their hand. They think to themselves this is probably the only interaction they’ll have with another human being this whole week. They don’t want to be a bother though. They smile and thank the cashier and bag person as they begin pushing their cart towards the door.

(Yeah, so that took an emotional turn that I wasn’t expecting. Even though, it was mostly fictional, it really gave me some insight.)

This line from my analysis is important:

A fast transaction is desirable because neither party would like to spend more time in the interaction than what is necessary.

Old people do not care how long the transaction takes because they feel entitled to the cashier’s time. They’re <insert number> years old and they’ll take as much time as they want because of their age.

Another factor is, like the fictional character portrayed previously, this is actually a meaningful interaction to them. They don’t care how long the interaction takes because this may be the only interaction with another human being they get.

In summary, old people use  exact change because they’re:

  • afraid of technological change.
  • feel inconvenienced with storing change
  • they feel entitled to use as much of the cashier’s time as possible
  • this may be the only meaningful interaction they have with another human being


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