Can I use a twenty at the dollar store?

I stopped by my local dollar store yesterday because I was tired of submerging my hand in boiling oil to retrieve home-made chicken nuggets. I found a lovely wire ladle thingy that somehow came to $4.50 total.

I usually do not carry cash but I happened to have three bills in my wallet: a fifty and two twenties. Knowing that retailers pay fees when shoppers use credit, I thought highly of myself for pulling out a twenty. Maybe this self-satisfiedness is what set me up to feel a sting at what came next.

The sixty-something-year-old woman who said “four fifty!” looked at me like I’d handed her a 1990s hundred and kicked her dog when I gave her the twenty. In a knee-jerk reaction I said “sorry, it’s all I have” and she gave me an “OK, just this time I’ll make a huge exception—only for you—and you’d better be appreciating this” look as she opened her till and pulled out fifteen dollars in change from among the many, many fives and tens in her till.

Did she do me a favour? Should I feel both badly about myself and grateful to her that my audacity to pay with a twenty dollar bill did not end in expulsion, disappointment, and continued hand burns during my ongoing culinary experimentation?

–Austin

What you have described is madness. You would have been right to react instead by loudly demanding “how dare you employ unjustified emotional manipulation over a question of the purchase of goods with legal tender!”, throwing the product to the ground, and leaving to spend your twenty at an establishment that respects you.

Many would claim that any legal tender must be accepted and this woman had no leg to stand on, and these same folks might choose to make a 30-Rockian fuss at the register on that point. Unfortunately, in Canada, retailers may refuse certain bills to mitigate loss from counterfeiting. While this would be a stupid argument for a dollar store to make, it is a leg of sorts. The problem here is not the policy of the twenty being accepted, it is the behaviour of this woman while enforcing a policy that flies in the face of what a reasonable person would expect at a dollar store.

Had she been low on fives and tens, or out completely, she might have requested a change in your behaviour for her (or her employer’s) benefit. Perhaps she might apologetically explain the situation and assure you that normally the business was run with sufficient basic retail skill to keep an appropriate float, but at this extraordinary moment there was an unforeseen and unforeseeable situation that meant providing change would either lead to a negative situation you could reasonably except to feel sympathy about, or was outright impossible. Given this information you may have paid by credit card or postponed your purchase to a later date, but would probably not feel the uncomfortable, squirmy feeling that you were somehow wronged without being able to identify the exact cause.

This woman is a monster in her own life. The desire to make others feel that they are being unreasonable while being the one who is imposing unreasonable restrictions is not a universal foible that we all occasionally share as a guilty habit; it is a mark of a career manipulator with a twisted world-view. Her family must be miserable, her friends—those that can manage to keep—must constantly seek ways to avoid her without really understanding why. I prefer an open scowl to a smile with malice behind it. It is freeing to dislike someone openly, it is torture to misapprehend narcissistic manipulation as friendship or goodwill.

You were right to feel something was off. You would be right to shop elsewhere. You should feel free to use the lowest denomination bill that an ATM will provide at any retail outlet, and to do so without attack.

The utensil you purchased is most often called a spider strainer or a skimmer, by the way. Happy frying.