In receipt of receipts

by Henry Farrell on August 4, 2006

Over at TAPPED, it being a Friday evening, Michael Tomasky complains about “receipts”:

bq. What bugs me is receipts. In this town, sales clerks everywhere are ceaselessly forcing sales receipts into your hand. What the hell is this about? I go into a CVS (a horrifying experience under any circumstance). I get a couple things. It comes to $4.38. Do most people really want a receipt for $4.38? Who still goes home and enters $4.38 into a checkbook? I simply cannot believe that 51 percent of consumers really want their receipts for small purchases like this.

He wouldn’t want to be “travelling to Italy”: any time soon.

bq. It was a classic stakeout: for some time government agents had the Bar Venezia in Stigliano, a small town in Italy’s deep south, under surveillance. This February, as Salvatore, oblivious of the trap about to be sprung, came out into the street the team moved in with cool efficiency. … The crime: dealing a 100-lire bag of popcorn without a scontrino (cash register receipt). The penalty: a 300,000-lire (about $240) fine for the bar owner who had sold the popcorn, and one of 33,000 lire for Salvatore – who had to be bailed out by his father, seeing that he is only 7 years old.

In Italy, if you purchase something, you need to get the receipt and keep it handy for a few minutes. Otherwise, you’re liable to be fined if a member of the Guardia di Finanzia asks you to produce your receipt and you can’t. The rationale is that shopkeepers aren’t liable to ring up purchases and provide receipts if they can get away with it; the cashflows from receiptless purchases are easier to hide from the relentless gaze of the tax inspectorate. Thus, the law tries to force the issue by pressganging citizens into demanding receipts under the threat of (admittedly not very large) fines. It’s a bit of a shock to the system for people brought up on Anglo-American notions of the law (certainly, I found it rather surprising when I found out about it myself).

Update: “Bruce Schneier”: has an interesting essay on the ways in which receipts help counter fraud.



Dan Kervick 08.04.06 at 7:31 pm

Apparently Tomaskey hasn’t yet discovered the joys of the company expense report.

When I get home from a business trip to New York, do I enter the amount for that venti iced coffee and slice of lemon pound cake at Starbuck’s on my expense report? You bet. Five bucks is five bucks. And then I staple my little receipt, along with all the other receipts I stuffed in my wallet during the week to the sheet of receipt-covered paper I am required to submit along with the report.

So thank you, New York clerks, for making my job a little easier and helping to stanch the dribbling outward flow of cash from the harried business traveler’s modest personal fund.


vivian 08.04.06 at 7:49 pm

Dan – you forgot to include the time it takes you to make copies of the receipts just in case the expense-auditors lose the originals.


blah 08.04.06 at 8:18 pm

One of the reasons these places are forcing receipts on customers is that the stores are probably requiring their employees to do so. Forcing employees to provide receipts is one way to prevent employees from skimming money from the till.


DonBoy 08.04.06 at 8:21 pm

CVS is actually a terrible example, since some of its customers, like me, need those receipts to submit to the Health Savings Account people.


Bernard Yomtov 08.04.06 at 8:37 pm

blah is correct. The store wants every sale rung up on the register. Requiring receipts is a way to do that. Ever see one of those signs that says something like,

“Five dollar discount if you are not given a receipt.”

Guess what that’s about.


t e whalen 08.04.06 at 10:25 pm

Bruce Schneier blogged about this earlier: Aligning Interest with Capability.


A poor grad student 08.04.06 at 10:45 pm

As a grad student, I can assure you that if I did not keep track of my daily coffees and whatnots, I would inevitably bounce a rent check.

I realize that Tomasky is joking, but his comments suggest he has forgotten what life is like for some people.


MikeN 08.05.06 at 1:14 am

They should try the system we have here in Taiwan.
Businesses, above a certain level have to issue a receipt- street vendors are exempted, but convenience stores have to for any purchase, down to a pack of gum. We have a low level of income tax, and the government gets a lot of revenue from sales tax.

What the government did was to require every business to buy a special cash register and use government-issued receipts, each with a unique number. Then every two months there’s a lottery based on those numbers.

The system is self-policing- people demand receipts to increase their chances in the lottery, and for those like me who are too lazy to check, there are charity boxes where you can deposit your receipt- the recipients of the charity scan them.


Fiona 08.05.06 at 2:36 am

What Dan Kervick said: it’s all about tax claims. I took two trips this year that I was paying the full cost for, and a couple of dollars, yen or Euros here and there adds up quickly.

I appreciate getting reciepts without having to ask in Japan and Europe since, at home, Australians rarely give receipts expecially if the dollar value isn’t high or for meals.

I keep a paper planner with a receipt envelope for every trip at the back. At tax or reimbursement time, all the amounts are written on the front so I just staple the envelope to forms. Easy!

vivian: It only takes a couple of A4 pages, and a couple of minutes, to copy a trip’s worth of receipts if you lay them all out on one sheet.


Ben 08.05.06 at 3:27 am

I was going to mention the Taiwan lottery thing too. Seems a pretty good diea, though I guess it may hit Camelot profits. (And surely if it’s one ticket per receipt it encourages lots of smaller purchases?)


Maynard Handley 08.05.06 at 8:00 am

Regarding (1) something I have never understood is why it is considered completely moral to charge to a company expense account something that has nothing to do with the trip and that one would have bought anyway, for example coffee. If you’re away from home, I’d consider it reasonable to charge a cheap meal to the expense account, but treating this as an occasion to visit the grandest restaurant in town strikes me as completely unjustified.

But I guess that’s my old-fashioned 20th century morality talking, not the brave new whatever you can get away with morality of the modern world.


Barry 08.05.06 at 9:27 am

Bruce’s article was excellent; If I’m ever in a position to deal with security in a business, I’ll hire him as a consultant.


Ray 08.05.06 at 10:44 am

Re. 3 and 5 – as far as I can see (and I was on the other side of the till for a while) most tills in Ireland have a dual-roll system. Every purchase is rung up on the internal roll, and there’s a second roll where receipts may or may not be printed. In a bookshop, they’re printed by default, but you can choose not to. In a newsagent, they’re not printed, except on request.


etat 08.05.06 at 11:31 am

Receipts are a way of life, particularly for expenditures related to informal work. When it’s my word against a client’s, having a receipt comes in very handy.


Bernard Yomtov 08.05.06 at 11:39 am

Regarding #11:

I think that, within reason, this sort of thing is rough compensation for the business traveller.

Contrary to perception among those who don’t do it, most business trips are not luxurious journeys, with stays at 5-star hotels in exotic cities.

They are tedious visits to uninteresting and unfamiliar places. Get off the plane (economy class flight – often late and crowded, with layovers, that extends past the normal workday) and get the rental car. Try to figure out how to get to the run-of-the-mill hotel. Sleep badly. Go to some meetings which are often quite stressful. Race to the airport for the trip home.

In the midst of all this you are very likely to spend some money that you lose a receipt for, or forget about.

So I don’t think the occasional trip to a good restaurant at company expense is such an outrage.


fred lapides 08.05.06 at 11:59 am

…and furthermore, there is also global warming and terrorism and war in middle east to consider. But first things first, right?


abb1 08.05.06 at 12:19 pm

Here is Geneva I noticed when you buy something at a gas station convenient store, they ask you: “do you want a receipt?” In French, of course; the bastards stubbornly insist on speaking their dead language. Otherwise they are nearly perfect.


Adam Kotsko 08.05.06 at 12:58 pm

In terms of a company expense account, I think that in a world where there’s an even chance that the CEO will run the company into the ground and abscond with funds intended for the pension plan, ripping off your company at every step is completely wise and moral, provided you don’t get caught.


Peter 08.05.06 at 1:52 pm

The newsstands at Penn Station in Manhattan provide receipts for even the most trivial purchases, with the sole exception of newspapers. It’s odd, because most small stores, delis etc. in Manhattan never give them.


Stuart 08.05.06 at 2:03 pm

Re 11: So when a company asks an employee to compromise of their personal life and sacrifice some of their off-work hours in a location not of their chosing to try and benefit their employer, they should also ensure to accrue only the minimum expenses possible in doing so then? You dont think that when most employers inconvenience their staff they should be willing to accept some financial cost in the bargain?


julia 08.05.06 at 5:52 pm

Requiring the staff to give receipts is also a way to make sure that staff don’t get to pull Claude Allen-style return scams.


Christopher M 08.05.06 at 5:52 pm

Here’s the real question. When handing back your change and a receipt, why do cashiers place the bills in your palm, then dump the coins on top of the bills? It’s quite awkward, as you then have to somehow pour the coins off the bills into your other hand before pocketing them (or putting them in your change purse or whatnot).


Dave 08.05.06 at 5:55 pm

The real crime here is using lire instead euros…when were these anecdotes from? 1999? Last I was in italy the only mention of lire I saw was occasionally on the receipt when the price would be quoted in both lire and euros…presumably for the vecchios who still needed time to adjust


p king 08.05.06 at 9:03 pm

Re #22 I believe this is because of cash registers which calculate the change as $5.35 when $10 is tendered for a $4.65 purchase. It is easier for the clerk to pay out in the order they read from the display ie $5 bill followed by quarter and dime. Back in the day, the cash register would have read $4.65 and the clerk would have counted up to $10 ie 10 cents makes $4.75, 25 cents to make $5 and the a $5 bill.


mythago 08.05.06 at 10:22 pm

Shorter Michael Tomasky: I make so much money that I don’t ever need to balance a checkbook, look to see if I were overcharged, or submit to an employer or a health-savings account for a reimbursement.


bad Jim 08.06.06 at 2:04 am

For those of us who carry pens but not PDA’s, receipts are sometimes handy for making notes, so long as they weren’t printed on thermal paper.

That being said, when I buy an espresso, I resent being handed a paper receipt along with a cup with a lid, two items to be thrown away before I can get to my little dollop of coffee.


Uncle Kvetch 08.06.06 at 3:50 pm

What Mythago (#25) said.


Christopher M 08.06.06 at 7:54 pm

Kvetch & Mythago: Did you misread Tomasky to be arguing that you shouldn’t be able to get a receipt if you want one? Most of the time, when people buy a few little things at a convenience store or pharmacy, they aren’t going to need to balance a checkbook, check for overcharging, or submit the purchase for reimbursement.

You don’t have to be rich not to bother with balancing your checkbook — anyone who’s confident that there’s a buffer of $50 or so in their account can just glance through the bank statement each month to make sure nothing looks ridiculous. And how much of what you buy do you submit for reimbursement? A Coke and a couple of pens at CVS? A batch of photos developed at Walgreens? Receipts for that kind of thing are a waste of paper and just clutter things up, if they don’t go straight into the garbage. Maybe there are good reasons to require them (like avoiding cashier fraud) but fellow-feeling with the poor and overworked isn’t one of them.


Adam 08.07.06 at 9:03 am

You get 25 receipts/coupons at any blockbuster but you can’t get one at electronic voting machines.


glenn 08.07.06 at 9:07 am

As an “Anglo” who’s lived in Italy for more than 6 years now – or has it been a lifetime? – the real crime is that while, yes, technically you MUST be given (and leave with) a receipt for every piddling purchase of a coffee, or brioche, or I guess a bag of popcorn (though, personally, I have enver witnessed the authorities baring their teeth by upholding this law), EVERY single time I’ve gone to a dentist, they have flat out asked me if I’d like a receipt. If not, I’d get a 20% discount on the work just completed! It’s out there in the open for everyone. My father in law had a massive amount of work done and was able to reduce his bill by several thousand euro.

Dentists, as a general rule, are some of the richest people in Italy. It seems I’m the only idiot who pays full prices …


Spoon 08.07.06 at 10:45 am

Am I the only one here recalling the Mitch Hedburg bit about buying a donut?

“I bought a donut and they gave me a receipt for the donut… I don’t need a receipt for the donut. I give you money and you give me the donut, end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this. I can’t imagine a scenario that I would have to prove that I bought a donut. To some skeptical friend, Don’t even act like I didn’t buy a donut, I’ve got the documentation right here… It’s in my file at home. …Under “D”.

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