In general, "exact change" policies are legal.

The Department of Treasury provides this helpful explanation:

The Coinage Act of 1965, specifically Section 31 U.S.C. 5103, entitled "Legal tender," ... states: "United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues."

This statute means that all United States money as identified above are a valid and legal offer of payment for debts when tendered to a creditor. There is, however, no Federal statute mandating that a private business, a person or an organization must accept currency or coins as for payment for goods and/or services. Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash unless there is a State law which says otherwise. For example, a bus line may prohibit payment of fares in pennies or dollar bills. In addition, movie theaters, convenience stores and gas stations may refuse to accept large denomination currency (usually notes above $20) as a matter of policy.

But in practice doesn't this mean that "exact change" policies can only be enforced when payment is required before a good or service is provided? Because I can incur a debt in most commercial situations. E.g.:

  1. I drive into a parking garage that lists rates on a sign that also warns, "Exact change required." Later when I go to leave I am asked for exact change at the exit. I say, "Well, I don't have exact change, but I do owe you money for parking here. Federal law says I can satisfy this debt with legal tender. So start counting the pennies, or just let me out!"

  2. I go into a store that says, "No bills larger than $20 accepted." While shopping I drink a soda and eat a few snacks. I go to check out and all I have is a $100 bill. Once again I say, "All I have is this $100 bill. I am in debt to you for the food I've already consumed, and this bill is legal tender for satisfaction of that debt. Either make change or thank you for the free snack."

I get in a taxi, enjoy a meal in a restaurant, etc. All of these are paid after the service has been consumed. Are they not then debts that must be discharged if I offer legal tender?

  • 2
    Why does the debt have to be settled on the spot or you get the goods or services for free? Could the creditor settle the debt with your proffered legal tender at their headquarters or by their accounts receivable officer at a later time?
    – user662852
    Sep 23, 2016 at 3:36
  • 2
    @user662852 - I assumed that any debt is discharged at the moment I present legal tender. But yes, I suppose they could say, "Well we can't make change for this, but we'll accept your legal tender and discharge your debt, and thereby incur a debt to you for the difference, which we'll settle at our convenience." Which means that exact change policies can be enforced in practice because they can refuse to make change on the spot, and then make the process of obtaining change so onerous nobody wants to pursue them.
    – feetwet
    Sep 23, 2016 at 13:13
  • @feetwet I would flip it around and find it perhaps acceptable to have the company invoice the customer and allow the customer to pay using exact change at his or her leisure. This wouldn't be a customary way to pay for your groceries but nothing would make this particularly problematic.
    – Patrick87
    Sep 23, 2016 at 16:06
  • @Patrick87 on the contrary, it has customarily been quite common for shops to offer credit to their customers. Only with the advent of bank-issued credit cards has that become uncommon.
    – phoog
    Sep 23, 2016 at 17:49
  • 4
    I think consuming items in shops before paying is generally not officially permitted, and may be technically theft. The shop creates a contract of sale only when they decide to accept your payment at the checkout.
    – bdsl
    Aug 14, 2019 at 11:17

3 Answers 3


If a business literally has an "exact change only" policy, that can't be enforced in post-pay situations. But if they have a "you are free to overpay, but we won't give you change back", that's different, especially if it's communicated from the beginning. If they tell you they don't give change, then you're taking their goods/services implicitly agreeing to their terms.


I provided an answer to a similar question regarding paying with pennies here. I touch on what I think is a conceptually related issue related to restrictions on methods of payment after service is rendered in an answer here.

Perhaps a fully generalized answer might be as follows: unless the payee can demonstrate that the payer knew, or that the payer reasonably should have known (that is, it would have been unreasonable for the payer to have believed differently), about the restrictions, the payer must inevitably be allowed to satisfy the obligation without regard to the restrictions on the method of payment.

It would be unreasonable to expect to be able to pay in seashells, but not in pennies; it would be unreasonable to expect to be able to pay a $5 bill by signing over a car title and expecting change, but not by paying with a $10 bill and expecting change; etc. Unless the restriction is material to the agreement, reasonable and explicit, ultimately it would seem like it has to be unenforceable. Not that the payer has to pay, of course, but that the payee can demand payment in a specific form.

Consider cases where this is not true. Specific performance may be requested in some cases, and perhaps if method of payment is material and reasonable in some context one could sue for specific performance by the payer. I am not a lawyer and I don't know if it is even possible to legally distinguish between the act of delivering specific kinds of tender and the act of paying an equivalent amount in any tender, especially where paper money and coins are concerned. But these are interesting questions.


Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash unless there is a State law which says otherwise.

Your contract with the parking garage is that you will tender exact change. Similarly, your contract with the store is that you will not tender bills larger than $20. If you breach your contract then the other party has available all the normal remedies.

Alternatively, in consideration for waiving your breach they could agree to vary the contract for, say, the consideration of not giving you change.

  • 2
    You beg the question of whether a posted sign of the type described forms a "contract" with a patron. Presumably if it's my first visit to the establishment I could reasonably claim to have failed to notice the sign.
    – feetwet
    Sep 22, 2016 at 20:51
  • 2
    Well that's the question: Is it enforceable? From the linked questions we are taught that they can refuse to provide service if payment is not rendered in advance in compliance with whatever terms they stipulate. The question is whether merchants that provide goods or services before demanding payment have any stronger claim than a "debt" that must be legally satisfied with legal tender. My hunch is that the answer is "no" unless they get an enforceable agreement on terms of payment in advance, and that a sign does not constitute such an agreement. But I ask hoping for a good answer.
    – feetwet
    Sep 22, 2016 at 21:01
  • 1
    I realize this is a US provision but in Australia there is plenty of case law that TaC displayed by a garage at the entry are binding.
    – Dale M
    Sep 22, 2016 at 21:04
  • 1
    This contract isn't in any form "negotiated" by the parties: the lot states its conditions in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. The terms are mostly implicit, and all they have to say is what the rate is. A special condition like "exact change only" needs to be displayed prominently prior to "acceptance" (entry). Otherwise, there wasn't a contract in the first place.
    – user6726
    Sep 22, 2016 at 21:50
  • 3
    Uh, the point is if there isn't a meeting of the minds, there isn't a contract.
    – user6726
    Sep 22, 2016 at 23:49

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