Money and the Economy

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I never did really get the hang of Jamaican money, especially since I had less occasion to use it than Barney and Matthew. I got just $25 changed; at the current exchange rate of J$56 to the U.S. dollar, this bought me J$1,400 (two $500 bills and four $100), which I ultimately managed to transmute into a number of small purchases and a variety of coins and bills that I kept as souvenirs. Barney and Matthew quickly figured out that J$56 = $1 meant that J$100 amounted to about US$2, but I kept unconsciously reading, say, $127 as $1.27, so everything seemed very reasonable!

The Bank of Jamaica’s currency structure policy is perhaps an indicator of the general economy. The $1000 note, which was introduced in 2000, is at present the highest-denomination note in circulation in Jamaica; it is worth about US$20! The smallest denomination is the $50 note, sometimes referred to as the “Jamaican dollar bill” because it’s worth roughly US$1. As the value of the Jamaican dollar declines, at some point it in effect costs more to make the money than it is worth (because currency has limited life compared to coins). When it becomes economically unfeasible to produce banknotes in a given denomination, the bank substitutes coins (this has already been done for the 50¢, $1, $5, $10, and $20 denominations). For the same reason, it may occasionally withdraw coins. But “the one-cent coin will continue to be an exception to this policy as its inclusion in our denominational structure is a legal requirement and it is the base unit for the entire currency structure.” Needless to say, we never saw a one-cent coin (worth less than two-thousandths of a U.S. cent, it has twelve sides and is made of aluminum), though Barney did get a ten-cent coin (copper, so it looks a lot like a penny) in change. Despite the evident poverty we saw in many parts of Jamaica, it’s hard to imagine a standard of living where a coin worth far less than a penny would have any value in exchange.

And perhaps it doesn’t. The smallest coins in ordinary use appear to be dollar coins. In Kamlyn’s Supercentre, a small grocery store in Port Antonio, I bought a box of J. F. Mills festival mix. The price was $57.48. There seems to have been $7.50 tax added, but it must have been included in the price somehow, since the total was still $57.48. I offered a $100 bill in payment and got (I later realized) only $42 in change. So it would appear that amounts are just rounded off to the nearest dollar.

We had a slightly different experience at Magic Kitchen, Ltd. Here we were welcome to pay in either U.S. or Jamaican money or any combination of the two. Although the cashier happily calculated the small cost of our purchases in U.S. money, we learned that it was not legal for her to accept or give U.S. coins. So we gave her some U.S. bills, and she calculated the difference, which we then paid in Jamaican money. When I was reluctant to relinquish a coin of which I had only one, the cashier (doubtless inured to the curious whims of U.S. tourists, to whom Jamaican money, so much more colorful and interesting than our greenbacks, is a souvenir in itself) expertly sorted out what I had and managed to make my change in such a way that I ended up with an even greater variety (it occurred to me belatedly that I should have just paid the whole amount in U.S. dollars and asked for the change in Jamaican coins and currency). The cash register had software that easily calculated all these conversions, though the resulting cash receipt does not reflect all the maneuvering that went into paying. It was here, however, that we wound up with the ten-cent piece, and Barney thinks that he tendered a five-cent piece in that transaction.

All of these transactions were in sharp contrast to our experience in Ocho Rios, where everything was targeted at tourists, primarily from the States. At many of the souvenir shops in downtown Ocho Rios and at all the “craft” stalls at Dunn’s River Falls, all prices were in U.S. dollars. Those at the former seemed fairly reasonable; those at the latter were outrageous, even after considerable haggling, and it was especially mortifying to be duped in one’s own medium of exchange!

Soaking tourists is institutionalized at some tourist attractions. At the Bob Marley Museum, the entrance fee for adults was J$400 or US$10. Barney opted to pay in Jamaican dollars (although he was using a credit card for the transaction), and the three of us got in for about $21. There was no such option at Dunn’s River Falls, where there is a separate rate structure for Jamaican residents: J$250 for adults as compared to US$10 for adult nonresidents.