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I am a cashier at a gas station in California and I recently had a customer put me in this situation. They prepaid for $50 in gas with a fifty dollar bill and filled their car. They had $19 in change. When the customer came in for their change, I gave them a ten, a five, and four singles.

The customer handed me back the ten and the five and told me she wanted all her change in singles. I told her I could not do that because that would leave me very low in singles (only three left). I said the best I could do is take the five back in exchange for five singles. She refused and told me because I had nineteen singles in my register, I was legally obligated to give her change all in singles if she wished. By then, there was a line of customers building, so I didn't want to argue any further and gave her all singles.

So was she correct? Does she have the legal right to receive her change in any denomination if the cashier has enough to cover it? Hypothetically, if she wanted all her $19 of change in pennies, do I have to give it to her in that denomination if I had $19 worth of penny rolls in my register?

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    Note that this is similar to Is it illegal to refuse US currency for a purchase but the subtly of the change tendered is likely enough to make it a different question from a legal standpoint. Off hand though, I suspect that the answer is going to be the same for slightly different legal reasons. – rjzii Oct 21 '12 at 3:38
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    Is this belief widespread? It doesn't seem so. – Sklivvz Oct 21 '12 at 7:41
  • If there was a law, would it require the cashier to collect notes from the other cashier's trays? Would someone be allowed to hold back coins to use a vending machine? Would they need to raid their numismatic collection? It's going to be tricky proving there is no such statute, and this one customer used the ole "You have to, it's the law" persuasion trick. – Oddthinking Oct 21 '12 at 13:46
  • @Sklivvz - Sadly yes the current generation seems to think that everyone is supposed to cater to their every need and properly vet everything for them... I just thank god my generation was never like that! – Chad Oct 22 '12 at 19:44
  • Every time someone tells me "this is the law" and I'm not aware of this law, I ask them which one, like the article number (so, just asking the source). Most of the time, it ends the confrontation :). – Julien N Oct 24 '12 at 10:32
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The answer is likely to be no, the customer cannot specify the form of the change.

Effectively you ended up in the position that you (or the owner of the gas station) owed the customer $19. So long as you provided legal tender of $19, that would be enough to extinguish the debt so long as you had not previously agreed anything else with the customer or had a sign saying what would happen. In some places there are specifications on what combinations are and are not legal tender (such as coins in the UK) but not as far as I am aware in the USA.

In some locations there are specifications on change, such as a Madrid rule that taxi drivers must be able to provide change up to 20 euros but not necessarily higher. Sometimes these laws create a nonsense, leading to the old sign saying "Postmasters are neither bound to give change nor authorised to demand it." By taking the pre-payment you seem to have implicitly agreed to provide change for any unused amount, presumably up to the $50. But in the absence of anything else either by law or contract, you could provide the change in whatever form you wished.

All that being said, you should remember that the customer is always right even when they are wrong. That is a matter of marketing rather than law.

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    We've established, in the related question, that the definition of legal tender applies to its acceptability in paying off debt, not simple cash transactions. – Oddthinking Oct 21 '12 at 21:54
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    fwiw that last paragraph is pure heresy, the customer is not always right and we have in the past refused to work with a client because they have come to us with that attitude. – Mark Henderson Oct 22 '12 at 1:31
  • @Oddthinking: But this situation does not describe a simple cash transaction at a cash point. The customer paid the merchant in advance, hence the merchant is in debt to the customer. The customer chose to reclaim some of the debt in form of petrol, leaving a 19$ debt, which the debtor (merchant) offered to pay with legal tender (cash in any arbitrary denominations). – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Oct 22 '12 at 8:51
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    @Chad: Not if common accepted practice is to prepay more than enough and then receive change. – Henry Oct 22 '12 at 20:05
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    Nobody who has ever worked a significant amount of time in retail believes the adage of "the customer is always right". Not after they've seen dozens upon dozens of unbelievable jerks. – RomanSt Jan 10 '13 at 20:19

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