Vacation Observations: on Currency

I just got back last night from a nine-day vacation trip with my sister. Yes, yes, photos will be forthcoming at some point. Meanwhile, a few observations. Tonight I'm going to focus on the currency.

  • There are some things I like about Canadian currency...
    • When you're counting it, you never worry that two bills are stuck together. That's basically impossible, because of how slick they are. I am not using the word slick for its colloquial meaning here: the bills are quite physically slippery. This feels really weird to me: they don't feel like US bills, that's for sure. But it's nice not to have to triple-check that you don't have two bills stuck together.
    • I could get used to the color coding. It looks weird at first, but it's pragmatically reasonable. You don't easily mistake a red fifty for a blue five or vice versa. Most of the colors were a bit stronger than they would really need to be, so yes, it kind of does look like Monopoly money if you're not accustomed to it (more subdued colors would still be easy to tell apart at a glance), but on the whole I think I like the coloring.
    • If you'd told me that I would like not getting pennies back (they round everything to the nearest nickel if you pay in cash), I'd have said you were crazy. But with the large pocketfuls of change that I was accumulating as it was (more on this below), I really really didn't need pennies too.
    • I didn't accumulate that many nickels and dimes either. Prices seemed to often work out to multiples of $.25. Maybe this was my imagination, but I don't think so. I think places of business deliberately set their prices so that with tax, the final price you pay comes out to a decently round number. This is in stark contrast to our American system where practially every single thing is priced to require pennies, nickels, _and_ dimes to each be involved somehow. (Our prices start at figures like $24.99, so you'd think oh, you just get one penny back, no big deal; but with tax, it doesn't work out that way.)
  • There are also a couple of things I dislike about Canadian currency.
    • Canadian currency does not stack nicely. Americans can take a big stack of bills, fold the entire stack in half down the middle, and conveniently store the whole thing in a pocket or wallet. This, as near as I can tell, is fundamentally impossible to do with Canadian bills. The slickness (mentioned above) may be a contributing factor, but I think the big issue is that the bills are so stiff, you can't fold two or more of them together and get them to fold in the same place. They won't both fold down the middle. Maybe one of them will, but then the other will fold in a different place, perhaps a third or a quarter of the bill's length from the end. So even with a small stack, say, six or eight bills, you end up with a pocket full of individual bills that are each folded differently and won't stack together well, so when you pull them out you feel like you're pulling out a fistful of random scraps of differently-shaped colored plastic, each unique. It's a big fat mess.
    • Did I mention that I accumulated huge piles of coins all the time and then proceed to say that I got no pennies and few nickels or dimes? Yes, I believe I did say both of those things, and they are both true. So yeah, I tended to accumulate a lot of quarters, but also, there are all these one- and two-dollar coins. Bazillions of them. When traveling in Canada, you must discipline yourself to spend coins on practically every transaction, out of self defense, or else your pockets will be so full of heavy coins as to pull your pants down. It's crazy. If you buy something that comes to $12.50 with tax and you hand them a twenty, you may get back six coins as your change and no bills whatsoever. They don't even have one-dollar bills, and they don't always use five-dollar bills when they could, probably because their cash drawers are all brimming with huge piles of giant two-dollar coins that they need to give out in order to make space in the drawer. This happens with every transaction, so let's say you start out with a single $50 bill. When you break it, you get back maybe a twenty, a ten, and coins. When you spend the ten, you usually just get back coins. When you break the twenty, maybe you get back a bill (maybe a five, maybe a ten) and coins. And when you spend the last bill, you certainly get back nothing but coins. So from a single $50 bill you can easily end up with more than $20 in coins. About halfway through the trip I finally got myself trained to spend the coins and divested myself, one way or another, of all of my large ones. (Have you ever paid for a more-than-ten-dollar purchase entirely in coins? I have, and the cashier didn't bat an eye. I'm sure people do it all the time up there.) Then I realized I might need a couple of coins for a parking meter at some point, so for one day I stopped spending coins, not realizing how much overkill this was. One day does not sound like that long to go without spending coins, but have a look at the result:
    • Also, you need a lot more of it, because things are very much more expensive in Canada. The exchange rate may be a contributor here (At the time of this writing, one US dollar is worth somewhere between $1.20 and $1.25 Canadian), but that does not fully explain the prices we saw everywhere, at every point along the spectrum from rural (think: population 300 and at least 30 minutes' drive from the nearest gas station) to highly urban (Yonge Street, Toronto). Even taking exchange rates into account, your money does not go as far in Canada. I am not exaggerating when I say that I paid $2.50 (Canadian) for a Sprite refill. (Pop is one of the worst things. Almost nobody in Canada has fountain pop. They use bottles and cans and mark them WAY up. We did stop at a McDonald's that had fountain pop, in Orangeville. This makes McDonald's _by far_ the most affordable place we found to buy cold drinks in Canada, and it was still more than at McDonald's in the US, where they're known for charging too much. The second-cheapest, ounce for ounce, was Freshmart in Manitowaning, where I paid something like $3 for a half gallon of chocolate milk.)
  • Finally, one observation is neither a like nor a dislike, just something I noticed: it pays to shop around a bit on exchange rates. The Duty Free in Sault Ste Marie offered me $1.14 Canadian for every $1 US, and ten minutes later at the Visitor's Center just across the border I got $1.17. Three cents on the dollar may not sound like much, but if you're changing a couple of thousand, it adds up. A few days later, the Scotia Bank in Fort Erie, where I changed my leftover money back, was paying $1.19 Canadian for $1 US. (The theoretically perfect rate at the time would have been something like $1.23, but of course you can't actually get that. Note that these numbers will not be useful for comparison if you take a trip some day in the future, because the exchange rate gradually drifts up and down over time. It pays to look up the going rates when you are preparing to go change your currency.)

So there you go, Canadian currency in a nutshell.