"We accept nothing larger than a $20 bill"

Question on the legality of setting limits on the largest denomination accepted by a store:

I was taking a drive with my kids yesterday. I stopped to buy gas and drinks. The bill was around $26. I handed the clerk a $100 bill. He said, “I’m sorry, we don’t take anything larger than a $20. Do you have anything smaller?” Well, as it happened, I didn’t have anything smaller. I had the hundred and a five. The guy said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t accept this.” I said, “This is legal tender in the U.S. Why can’t you accept it?” He said it was company policy, then asked me if I had a credit card. I did, but I didn’t want to put this purchase on there. Since I had my kids with me, though, and because I didn’t want to make a scene with them around, I handed over the card. The clerk then said it was “common sense” to ask if a bill would be accepted. That made me mad, and I shot back “No, common sense would tell me that American money could be used to pay a bill in an American store.”

Anyway, legally, could I have insisted that the clerk honor the $100 bill? Can a company insist that it won’t accept a bill larger than a twenty? I understand not wanting to give out a lot of money in change, but sheesh. This wasn’t a mom-n-pop operation; I could understand if that were the case. It was a franchise with at least 17 stores (that was the store number printed on my receipt).

IANAL, but I think that any merchant can accept or refuse any form of payment they want. As a practical manner, most stores don’t give their cashiers enough change to handle something like a hundred-dollar bill. They like to keep all of the money in the main offic, away from sticky fingers.

Exactly. The Drivers’ License place near me will NOT take cash-only checks-in case of a robbery.
Sometimes, I’ve just started my shift, and customers will give me a hundred dollar bill for a five dollar order. Then they get pissed when I have to go over to the service desk to get change.
It is common courtesy to say, “Do you have change for a hundred dollar bill?”

I would think that if you wanted to, you could make someone pay you in chocolate chip cookies.

It says on our money “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private”. This doesn’t mean “You must accept this as payment”, it means “This is acceptable as payment”.

Okay, but here’s my point: I offered payment in a form that was legal and approved by the U.S. government. Not a check, which I can understand being refused; not a buttload of pennies, which would be hard to handle; a bill that is in common circulation. The establishment refused that payment. Could I have said, “Fine, then, I’ll enjoy the gift of free gas you just gave me” and motored away?

Sure, any store in the US can refuse to accept cash of any type if they want. It’s the american way.

Most stores display a sign that says they won’t take anything bigger than a 20, maybe you didn’t see the sign?

Yes, you could have said it, but your next words would have been something along the lines of “guilty, your honor.”

I think Unca Cecil has address this, when asked about paying for things with just coins.

The phrasing of this prohibition is misleading. They should say, “We cannot provide more than $20 in change.” That way, they’d have a valid reason to give you for not taking the $100.

If you’d bought $85 worth of stuff, they would’ve take the $100 and dropped it in their safe.

In my days of pizza delivery, we tried to keep $20 or less on us between the store and any deliveries. (Naturally, we’d have more after the delivery.) If we happened to be delivering $80-100 of pizza, we would take the $100, but drop it back at the store.

The store figures that few people buy more than $20-40, so the prohibition as stated covers most situations, and has the sound of law.

I was mistaken. UC only talked about coins as legal tender.

From the treasury dept. FAQ:

The franchise is probably LESS likely to take it. They probably issued a blanket policy to all their locations saying “no bill larger than a $20”. An independent owner might look at their till and take it if they have adequate change. I believe some places are hesitant on $100 bills because, IIRC, it is the most counterfeited bill as well.

Thanks for the replies, folks. Good info.

Here’s a followup, though: What if I hadn’t had a credit card? What if the only bill I’d had on me was the hundred? I’ve already pumped the gas. I can put the drinks back, but the gas is in my tank. What would the store have done at that point? Drained my tank of the gas I’d just pumped in?

I guess I don’t see where I could be charged with a crime if I’m offering cash payment and they’re refusing it.

As info, they did have a sign reading “We accept no bills larger than $20”, but it wasn’t visible from the pump I was using. I saw it as I was leaving.

I think I would’ve demanded that they remove THEIR gas from MY tank, but not a drop more than I took from them (if they take more gas from me than I took from them, they’re stealing, right?). Then again, I’ve got a big chip on my shoulder about asinine policies like that.

It’s very common for convenience stores and the like to have no more than $20 in change. They have a safe that the clerks can deposit excess money into. In fact, the clerks can get reprimanded or fired if they’re caught with a lot of money in their till.

Stores aren’t banks, and most won’t carry a large amount of cash in their tills any more, particularly chains and franchises.

Basically, the store would accept a hundred dollar bill, but might not be able to give you change for it. I, personally, don’t carry hundreds or fifties. I simply don’t see the need to carry that much cash money on me, when I could be carrying twenties (and stashing them in more than one location about my person).

Just stupid enough to be true

I am a lawyer, and I had a case very similar to yours once. My client had a $100 with which he tried to pay for a meal at the Waffle House. They refused to take his $100, and that’s all he had, so he walked out without paying and was promptly arrested. We had a bench trial (just the judge, no jury) and the judge not only found him not guilty but yelled at the DA for bringing the case in the first place. The judge’s position was that once you offer payment, if it’s refused, the merchant has to take whatever consequences befall him for refusing payment.
Of course, I can’t say that any other judge or a jury would agree with his assesment of Georgia law, and I wouldn’t advise you to make a test case out of it, but I thought the judge’s reasoning was great (I’m sure the DA disagrees).

In the early 90’s I worked at a convenience store and often I had people come in with large bills that I could not break immediately. So I would just have them wait around until someone came in who could help them break it or until I had enough cash in my register to break it. Often I had people in there for hours. We didn’t have more than enough to break a $20 at any given time because of the very real fear of robberies. If you only have a large bill ask first because these places rarely have enough cash on hand to break it. If you go ahead and buy without asking first then make sure you have a credit card or enough time to wait around until the clerk has enough money to break it.

Hi, Lynn! Wow! A mod is responding to my post!

Just as clarification, I only had the hundred because my mother gave it to me. I don’t typically carry around bills that size.

What gets me is that this was three in the afternoon – actually, about a quarter till. I’d be willing to bet that the store could have made change if they’d so desired.

katie1341 – that’s exactly the type of response I was hoping for when I posted the question. I live in Alabama, so perhaps Georgia law wouldn’t be so different. I have no idea. I feel as though I’ve been vicariously vindicated through your post, though. Thanks!

Two people have already mentioned the column, but I feel an innate urge to provide the link.

Cecil’s column can be found on-line at this link:
Is it legal to pay a big debt in small change?

The column (including Slug Signorino’s illustration) can also be found on pages 330-331 of Cecil Adams’ book «The Straight Dope».

There is a previous discussion of the issue here:
Can You Legally Turn Down a $50 Bill?

IANAL, but isn’t a sale is bound by contractual law, and thus you need offer and acceptance? A price on an item is interpreted as an invitation to make an offer, not an outright offer. So if you take a $2.00 gallon of milk to the cashier and give a $100 bill, that’s an implied offer, and the merchant has the right to reject that offer.

I do not claim to know how this works in the case of the restaurant (you certainly can’t give the meal back), but I would think this happens frequently enough for there to be at least some case law associated with it.

Whatever you might think as a matter of principle, I wonder why people are carrying around $100’s in the first place. It seems to me to be an inconveniently large denomination for most daily transactions. If, like me, you get your waliking around money almost exclusively from ATM’s, you never get anything but $20’s. If you actually cash your paycheck at your bank, I would imagine it to be more convenient to take the part you want to carry away in $20’s.

I can only see $100’s being taken by people who don’t have bank accounts, and get their whole paycheck cashed to carry away with them in a big lump, by somebody headed for a weekend in Vegas, or somebody wishing to make a large cash payment to somebody (not always an illegal deal of some type, per se, though often a case of somebody wanting to cheat on their income tax).

I know a lot of people who have credit cards and bank accounts cart around $100’s. Your business, of course, but I just don’t understand why.