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If I go to a drivethru, order food, get to the cash register, have I created a debt? They have already begun preparing and bagging my food? Do they have to take my 50 or $100 bill? At what point have I created a debt?

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3 Answers 3

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If you get something but have not paid for it, you are in debt.

Following your example: in the time between when you pay for the food and when you receive the food, the restaurant is in debt to you.

Likewise, in a "sit down" restaurant, you are in debt to the restaurant from the time you get the food until you pay for it.

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  • Would a sit-down restaurant still be required to take a $100 bill, though? treasury.gov/resource-center/faqs/Currency/Pages/… mentions that legal tender must be accepted by a creditor, but allows private businesses to establish their own guidelines. I'm not sure what the legal definition of "creditor" is, but I think allowing a patron to pay for their meal after eating is not sufficient.
    – chepner
    Jun 1, 2021 at 21:00
  • My guess is that it's not actually a debt unless the restaurant allows you to leave the premises and pay at a later date. (Leave without permission, and you are probably just committing theft rather than incurring a debt.)
    – chepner
    Jun 1, 2021 at 21:05
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    @chepner It's very very short term debt... :D
    – RonJohn
    Jun 1, 2021 at 21:06
  • Food on the menu is offered at a price, you accept the offer by adding items to your order; at that point there is a contract between you and the restaurant and you owe your side of the contract. I believe US law requires conspicuous published signage visible to patrons informing them of the limited scope of allowable payment which is implicitly agreed to when the item is added to their order. Cashless business have to publish that they don't accept cash, as an example. In fact, if I don't owe the restaurant payment for the food I ordered and they served to me, how could I have stolen it?
    – quid
    Jun 2, 2021 at 2:10
  • @chepner Whether it is theft or not or some other crime is irrelevant. Whether or not you are still in the restaurant, as long as you have ordered a meal (which forms a contract where you agree to pay for the meal) and not paid for it then you still owe the money for the meal. The money you owe is a debt.
    – Steve Kidd
    Jun 2, 2021 at 2:11
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General policy at American fast-food (Burger King) and fast casual (Chipotle, Panera Bread) is that they won't even send your order to the kitchen until you have paid. You can watch the screens, your order does not appear until you have paid up. This does not create a debt, obviously. But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.

Heck when I order on my phone app and prepay, some don't even start preparing until I show up and announce myself!

So what's up with drive-through? Some drive-throughs have two windows: pay at the first, collect food at the second. That's how they handle that. However, it costs money to run two windows. They certainly have the right to calculate out the various costs:

  • of building and staffing two windows, vs
  • the bad reputation of slowing the line by making people wait for their food to be made, vs
  • making the food "on spec" and risk having to throw it out.

Keeping in mind that the latter is not that weird: what practically defines fast-food is that food is pre-made in a production line. Even at Wendy's the burgers are custom built, but the patties are pre-grilled.

Fast food is all about flow, especially at busy times. So it wouldn't surprise me one bit if for that business, the calculus favors the latter option.

I would say that does not create a debt, because "get the food after you pay" is the norm in fast food.

So if you roll up with only a $100 bill, I certainly think it is within their right to say "no sale". After all, you did not damage them; it's their choice to decline the money. Again it is their right to make a business decision whether they will lose more money risking accepting counterfeits or throwing out food.

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A 'debt' under 15 U.S.C. Sec 1692a(5) is defined as:

...any obligation or alleged obligation of a consumer to pay money arising out of a transaction in which the money, property, insurance, or services which are the subject of the transaction are primarily for personal, family, or household purposes, whether or not such obligation has been reduced to judgment.

In plain language, this means that a debt is a duty to pay someone as a result of an agreement entered into.

Legal tender laws state that currency in question, if offered in payment, extinguishes the debt.

Therefore, a merchant is not required to accept your $50 bill, $100 bill, $2 bill, mutiliated bill, or bag of pennies as payment if they are willing to negate your debt by other means - such as not transacting with you in the first place.

The right to refuse service arises here from the right to contract. Only in very few industries, circumstances, is a merchant obligated to do business with you. Certain protected classes can claim discrimination if they are refused a transaction because of their class status, but "I have a $100 bill in my pocket" is not an oppressed, protected class.

Similarly, if your landlord offers you a lease for the next year, you are not required to sign it, simply because your landlord wants you to. Your friend is not required to sell you his car, simply because you want to buy it.

Your favorite burger joint is, therefore, not required to sell you a burger if you're going to make the transaction obnoxious to them. Having to make change for a $100 bill is usually enough to completely wipe out the available cash in a teller's drawer - especially these days when most transactions are by plastic, so the teller hasn't received a steady flow of smaller bills.

You are likely to have no objection to you presenting a $100 bill - even if there is a sign saying "no $100 bills" if you're asking to buy 50 hamburgers: there, the offer of the large bill isn't a nuisance to the merchant.

If, however, you sign a contract with a burger joint to supply you with a hamburger today, for which you will pay a dollar tomorrow, then yes they are required to accept the payment in legal tender, as you have entered into a debt with them. (But if you pay a $1 debt with a $100 bill, you're still an asshole.)

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  • I did ask 2 questions. Let me break down my scenario. I went through the drive-through. I placed my order for food. About 4 minutes later I got to the pay window and offered a $50 bill. I was told the owner refuses to accept anything larger than a 20. When I was a teller several decades ago I was taught that it was illegal to refuse US currency. I was also taught That a business is required to accept us currency once a debt has been created. They refused my currency. It was not posted anywhere. Were they required to either accept my money or hand me my food?
    – Kayla
    Jun 7, 2021 at 2:56
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    As stated in my answer: no, they were not required to do either. They can refuse service entirely. IF they give you the food, THEN they are required to accept US currency, but until you actually have product in hand, the implied contract is not executed, and thus there is no debt to be paid. If you were a teller at a bank, as I was, then virtually everything you did involved a legal debt, and thus acceptance of US currency was mandatory. A merchant, however, is a very different legal entity from a bank. Jun 7, 2021 at 10:55

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