Making exact change purchases in Russia

Making change, exactly. Exact change is something you may often need in Russia and other parts of the FSU. If your purchase is small and you hand over a large Ruble note, you can expect dirty looks or perhaps a scolding and possibly even refusal to sell you the product.

Foreign based journalists are trained never to carry change as it attracts attention like a small cat or cow bell. In some societies the sound of change in a pocket is a sign of poverty. That notwithstanding, the average visitor really needs to learn to count and carry change as there are some places in the FSU where it will be difficult to manage without exact change or very close to it.

Russian coinage.

Most of us Westerners are used to accommodating merchants who take it as a mark of customer service to supply change and are happy to have made the sale. Not so in the FSU. You should be happy that they were willing to sell you the product. So bring the exact change.

The smaller notes are really the value of many of our Western minted coins and small ruble notes are expensive as they must be reprinted frequently as paper doesn’t last as long as coinage. Russia is trying to eliminate some of the smaller bills and move to coins but consumers aren’t always happy about the shift and small businesses are the last in line as in many cases larger businesses are given first crack at small notes for retail transactions and thus the small businesses and street kiosks are burdened with the demand for exact change.

So if exact change, or at least being close to the exact amount is important, what can you do after visiting an ATM where the machine dispensed large notes? There are some steps one can take to be proactive in more exact change making. First, withdraw smaller sums or irregular amounts from the ATM (банкомат). A $100 dollar withdrawal in rubles will yield some smaller notes. But many of us don’t wish to visit an ATM multiple times daily so instead of asking the machine for $500 in rubles, try asking for irregular amounts like $360 or $420, for example. You’ll get some large notes but this forces the machine to dish out something smaller too.

There are some instances where a Russian native might tell the cashier Сдачу оставьте себе or say Можно без сдачи or simply Не ищите and walk away without change if the amount is small. But if you’re making only a small purchase and have handed her a large note, you want the change.

Visit a real supermarket, the type large enough where you put items in a basket and stand in line to pay a cashier. Hand her a large or medium sized note for your small purchase and then play dumb as if you don’t understand her request for smaller notes. She’ll look at the line behind you, sigh in frustration and then hand over what you need–change, in smaller amounts. To be sure it is a sign of rudeness to hand over a large bill, but you’re a visitor on their home turf and change is not something you always have access to easily.

McDonald’s, KFC/Rostiks, Wendy’s, CoffeeHaus, and other Western or European stores are good places to make change. Cashiers have been trained to smile and make change without the fuss that takes place at the small Blini stand or neighborhood vegetable kiosk. These large corporations have good relations with banks and experience no problems getting access to smaller banknotes.

You’re likely to visit museums and other large tourist attractions during your stay and these represent good places to obtain change. Stand in line and slide your large note under the glass. Sure, the cashier will ask for a smaller note or exact change but as you stand there waiting while holding up the line, all the while pretending that you don’t understand, but then she’ll frown and perhaps even scold but will count your change. You’re navigating the system as a visitor and the museum got their fare.