Change we can believe in

In the last real post we covered change as in small bills and change (change for a 20, for example), and in this one we’ll look at the change you get back after paying for something. Or not–the accuracy of your change not infrequently depends on the “size” of the bills you paid with, at least in Colombia. Here’s some vocabulary so that if you have to be short-changed, at least you can be sure it has nothing to do with you speaking unfluent Spanish.

Far and away, the most all-purpose and universal word for this kind of change is cambio. Super easy.

Then there’s vuelta and vuelto. Vuelta is said in Spain; vuelto is said in most of Latin America.

As I read about vuelta and vuelto, beads of sweat started forming on my forehead, and I felt mildly ill. Vuelta? Vuelto? I’d never heard the words before. How could I be a Spanish blogger and be utterly unfamiliar with these basic words? Because, me? I’ve always said vueltas. I was starting to feel like a crock.

And then I confirmed that vueltas is how you say change in Colombia. Whew! Just one more reminder of how Colombian my Spanish is. Here, we say vueltas, even devueltas. Also devuelta. As well as vueltos. (They obviously delight in being contrarians.) I’ll do my best to drop the s in other countries, but I can’t make any promises. I just don’t see decolombianization in my cards.

If you want to tell someone to keep the change, the most common verb to use is quedarse, followed by guardar.

Quédese con la vuelta. Quédate con el cambio.

Guardá el cambio. Guarda el vuelto.

While researching this, I learned that, at least in Spain, the preposition in the phrase quedarse con algo is often dropped. So, quédate con la vuelta can become quédate la vuelta, or quédatela. Is this construction used anywhere else? (For all I know, it’s used everywhere, and I’ve simply never noticed.) I’m on the case.

Quédate con tus monedas, quiero cambio.

Quédate con tus monedas, quiero cambio.

As I wrote about in the last post on change, it can be somewhat problematic here in Colombia. An article in yesterday’s El Tiempo stated that Colombians prefer cash as much as they did 70 years ago, at a rate of 48%. Plastic just hasn’t caught on like it has in other developed countries. From the article, I learned the phrase dinero contante (y sonante), which means cold hard cash.

The article mentions piggy banks as a common mode of saving money, and my experience bears that one out. They’re a rather common sight here in homes, so alcancía is a surprisingly useful word to know. If someone doesn’t have enough money for something, they might half-joke about having to romper el alcancía or romper el chanchito. Like many Spanish words that begin with al-, alcancía comes from Arabic. From what I read, the word alcancía has disappeared in most parts of Spain, replaced by hucha. (Hucha means butt crack in many countries, and se te ve la hucha or even se te ve la alcancía means, I can see your crack. Daily parlance for plomeros.) Alcancía is the only word used in Latin America, though. The piggy banks here, at least the ones I’ve seen, tend to be made of clay. I’ve never been so indiscreet so as to turn one over and contemplate its underbelly, but my impression is that they don’t have a plug; you have to smash them to access your money, so it doesn’t make sense to do so before you’ve got a nice little stockpile of funds accumulated. Poor piggies.

alcancías de barro colombia

I have an update on the last post’s story about me going head to head with an Éxito cashier about my change. Last week, I had another run-in with her. I think I paid in sencillo, but not with exact change. She asked if I had the 400 pesos or whatever, and I said that I didn’t. (I’m kind of fuzzy, but I think I genuinely didn’t have it this time.) And, then, what do you know, she actually gave me my vueltas in such a way that I was given 110 pesos or so above what I was owed. It’s common knowledge that it’s always the customer who gets the short end of the stick in these complicated sencillo situations, but now I see that it’s tit for tat in the larger stores. At least with steely-eyed Lady of the long braids. (Lady is her name–common here.)

Change or no change, at least Colombian money is relatively pretty to look at. I’ll blog about it at some point. And, rich or impecunious, at least you’re now loaded with Spanish vocabulary for talking about change. Don’t forget: BESO! (Billetes en sencillo, ¡obtuso!) That is, don’t forget your change at home. Hell hath no fury like a Colombian taxi driver scorned, i.e., paid with a large bill.

9 responses to “Change we can believe in

  1. Hello Vocabat, funny article, but just one question. Isn’t “quédese con el vuelto” de right expression?

    I mean, “el vuelto” instead of “la vueltas”?
    I don’t know if colombians really have the word “el vueltas” or “la vueltas” meaning “pocket money” you get back after paying something (anyway, just a little observation since I noticed how expats learn some words that natives say incorrectly, and in 42 years speaking Spanish, I’ve never heard such term “el vueltas” used for “el cambio”)
    I enjoyed your article!


    • Hi, thanks for your comment! Where are you from?

      I’ve heard it over and over here- here in Colombia, people say las vueltas instead of el vuelto or la vuelta. They also say la devuelta, las devueltas, and los vueltos. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they say one or a few of these variants in other countries, but as far as I know it’s strictly a Colombian thing. I will make sure to not use it in other areas, as you are confirming for me that it just sounds wrong wrong wrong! The safest bet, in any case, seems to be cambio. Rest assured, we don’t say cambios in Colombia :)


  2. Yes, those alcacías made of clay don’t usually have a removable plug in their belly; I’ve never seen one with one. Some of the plastic ones might have it. So if you need money you either break the thing or spend a few hours with one of those common hairpins (a bobby pin, I see that it is called) trying to get a few coins out of the thing. With a plastic one, at least you can deform the slit and get a better shot at it.

    Are you sure that the cashier’s name is Lady? Unless you are reading it on her name tag, I would bet all my sencillo that it is spelled Leidy :)


    • Good to know! It sounds so violent. Do you throw it against the floor, or smash it with a hammer? I can easily imagine smashed piggy bank-induced injuries what with all those shards. But I like the idea because having a rubber plug where you can easily remove the money kind of defeats the purpose. Maybe one day I’ll be invited to a piggy bank-smashing ceremony :)

      In the picture, you can tell by the piggies’ sad, anxious faces that they are already dreading their violent demise.

      You are right that it’s usually Leidy, but I read it on her name tag. We’re not exactly on friendly terms yet- our relationship is strictly mercenary ;)


      • Oddly, I never saw anybody smashing a piggy bank. Never thought about it. Maybe, any money that goes into one of those things is lost forever. A variation of El Pozo de Donato, so to speak (when you say that somebody is “un Pozo de Donato” you mean is that if you lend this person money you will never see that money again. “Ese tipo es mala paga.”)


        • Nah, I don’t think it’s lost forever. You’d think that once they were bursting the seams, the piggies would practically be asking to be smashed, that being preferable to death by overfeeding. Or starving. El pozo de Donato- I had no idea! Thank you. I read this long legend on Wikipedia, but it didn’t really help me in figuring out the meaning. I guess the well (lagoon?) was endlessly deep.

          Here are some examples of pozo de Donato that I could find online:

          Los piratas, y muchos de los que saben que el DAPD es un pozo de Donato donde naufragan todas las gestiones, no tramitan allá, hacen lo que se les da la gana y no les pasa nada.

          La Universidad no puede convertirse en un Pozo de Donato, sin sufrir el trauma que implica el desgobierno en materia fiscal.

          No cabe duda que al partido conservador le corresponde ahora hacer la oposición, jugarse esa carta que ya tenía olvidada en el pozo de Donato al convertirse en un partido alimentador, como esos buses de Metrolínea que surten de pasajeros a los buses grandes.

          Esos reales habían caído en el pozo de Donato. Los bancos seguían jugando al alza, empleando un gran capital en valores bursátiles.

          Los criadores no somos una caja de pandora ni el pozo de Donato y la irresponsabilidad con que se manejan los destinos de la federada deben hacer un alto en el camino.


          • Yes, that’s right. Those are great examples that you found, and it is not just about money, as I originally said. A pozo de Donato is somebody to whom you cannot lend anything, a book, a tool, anything. You’ll never see your stuff again.

            I didn’t know the legend of the Pozo de Hunzahúa, thank you. It has some similarities to the Laguna de Guatavita, in that gold and valuable things are supposed to lie at their bottoms (and through history, people have attempted to recover them).


  3. These posts on “change” have been very interesting and I think that they are helpful for Central America too, for the most part.
    Here in Costa Rica, the ATMs usually dispense in bills of 10,000 colones which is roughly $20.00. Taxi drivers and small vendors often cannot change these bills for short rides or small purchases. Worse yet, in the past couple of years, the government has introduced bills of 20,000 colones (or $40.00). Since I do no banking in Costa Rica, I am connected to my income only by a bank card; thus I use the ATMs frequently, and over time, I have devised schemes to exchange the bills of 10,000 and 20,000 colonies to smaller bills. Now, the solution is rather simple–I use an ATM in a gambling casino and go to the payout windows for change without charge. Supermarkets also are always able to cash large bills; so, I pay for small, necessary items with large bills. Then, I can do the rest of my shopping by supporting small “mom and pop” stores (pulperías) using the change I have gotten from the casino or supermarket. .


    • Thanks, Harlan! Yep, it’s all about devising schemes… but it becomes second nature very quickly. Your casino solution is brilliant! Also, I like your translation of mom and pop stores- I had never thought to call the little tienditas that way, but that’s a really good way of capturing their nature and feel. Saludos!


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