Can you spare some change?

We went to E-mart tonight to have dinner and buy a sled.  My wife heard that it will snow this week and wanted to buy a sled for our son.  Unfortunately, E-mart doesn’t carry any sleds this time of year.  Dear Reader, can you believe that?  No sleds in February?  Seasonal items apparently only appear at the beginning of the season in Korea.  If you don’t buy your sled in October, you’re out of luck. 
When I ordered and paid for food tonight at the food court, I paid in Korean won.  Cashiers seem perplexed whenever I try to round up payment to get back fewer bills.  Tonight I bought a dish for 6,000 won (about $6.00) and gave the cashier 11,000 won–one 10,000 note and one 1,000 won note.  She looked at me, puzzled as to why I gave her a 1,000 won bill.  I explained to her in Korean that I wanted her to give me back a 5,000 bill in change.  At first she didn’t understand when I wanted.  Then, it finally clicked, and she gave me a 5,000 won bill.  I may be over-generalizing.  This is not the first time getting back fewer bills in change has been a problem.  My previous attempts have all been thwarted, and I end up withdrawing the extra 1,000 bill each time I try to round up.  Tonight, it worked for the first time. 
I surmise that Koreans don’t worry about changing money for smaller bills because they’re used to carrying around a big wad of cash.  The largest bill Korea issues is the 10,000 won bill (about $10.00).  Someone told me that this serves an anti-bribery and anti-counterfeiting purpose.  After all, it’s hard to offer a discreet bribe using a huge stack of small bills.  Plus, small bills take more effort to counterfeit.  (Most counterfeit bills are in demoninations of $100 or greater.)  I found another great Korea blog, Here in Korea, that mentioned another possible reason for limiting cash to small bills–namely, it discourages consumer spending.  South Korea has a long history of encouraging public savings and discouraging consumption.  Widespread consumer spending in South Korea is a relatively new phenonmenon, and it’s only been in the past decade that the average Korean has had to worry about carrying around a large wad of bills. 
For the past two years, some Korean politicians have called on the Bank of Korea to issue 50,000 and 100,000 won banknotes, and the Bank of Korea responded that it is ready to issue them.  The Korean National Assembly has not yet taken action.  The Bank of Korea recently redesigned the won notes to discourage counterfeiting.  Ironically, it is now fielding many complaints from people who are angry because the ink on the new 5,000 banknote comes off when you accidentally launder (wash) it, ruining clothing.  Ultimately, larger won banknotes might not be necessary, because more Koreans are using alternative payment methods in lieu of cash, including credit cards, funds wiring, cell phones, and debit cards.  My wife has a Korean bank account, and her paycheck is directly deposited into it.  Not only can she withdraw cash at bank branches, but she can use her cash card virtually anywhere and wire money simply by giving her bank account transfer information.  If she has the right kind of cell phone, she can also draw from it if she pays by cell phone.  It’s a very efficient banking system.
  1. Unknown

    Great piece!  I spent three years in and out of Korea and I am fortunate enough to say that my wife is coming from the region and will be in the US in just a couple weeks.  While there I noticed many differences than the US, one of which I see everywhere and that is the absence of the term "cost effectiveness."  Restaurants and grocery stores are "stacked" with workers everywhere, Koreans go out of their way (no matter the cost) to ensure they represent their country well and it’s my opinion that the reason they don’t usually think about giving back change of that nature is that for them it’s not really a part of their thought process.  I have to say that, besides the fact my fiancee is Korean and I spent much time there over the past few years, it is a place I cherish greatly and would definitely consider living.  With all of its subtle nuances and differences from the US, it serves as a breathe of fresh air (minus the Seoul smog) and a place where I truly love the people!
    Happy trails in a land I love !
    Take care,
    Jeffrey Wright

  2. Isaelee

    I went to Korea a few years ago for a job. I really enjoyed my time there. Made some nice Korean friends. One I have seen again while at another job in Japan, but the other in Korea I have lost touch with. I think he changed his email address. Anyway, I would love to visit Korea again, and hope to someday.   Fun blog!

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