Can You “Lend” Me a Few Pesos?

Posted on 16/11/2012

We were just talking about family relations in the Philippines. Today we get to a really bizarre and complex topic. How the locals feel about money.

Item #2 Money – Money can morph into a very unusual thing when you find yourself in a third-world country. This is a perception that I formed over a few years of observing family, friends and strangers. Of course, if you’re dealing with a seriously poor person on the street, you can certainly understand what a few bucks would mean to that person. It’s pretty much the same no matter where you go. But take all of this a few steps further and you may begin to understand what money means in a country where the majority of the people are poor, by first-world country standards. Case in point. I recently went to the local “foreigner” appliance store with my wife and brother-in-law. We were there to buy a water heater so that I could replace the one in my shower. These tank-less water heaters are rather small, economical devices and can actually save money, should they ever become the standard in the U.S. Not to mention the fact that you would never run out of hot water for the shower. Anyway, I picked out the model that I wanted and the salesman took down the sign, with the price, in order to verify the unit’s features. At that point, my brother-in-law came up behind me and, seeing only the number “4” of the price, remarked, “So, how much is that - 40,000 pesos?” (about $1,000 USD). I looked at him and said, “No, it’s only $4,000 pesos” (about $100 USD) and pointed out the rest of the sign. He looked seriously surprised.

Think about this, for a moment. Here, he had spent his whole life (over 58 years) showering and bathing in cold water and he could have had a water heater for a relatively small amount (with a slight plumbing alteration). But, in his mind, having hot water was a far-off luxury and, certainly, not affordable (by the way – he’s not nearly as poor as his neighbors). This is where you will notice something interesting about the locals. They will constantly ask how much things cost. Buy your family members anything that they are not already familiar with, and they will want to know how much it costs. Don’t be offended. My wife and I recently took a niece out for pizza and the first thing after “Thanks for the pizza” was “How much did it cost?” We told her 800 pesos (about $20). Granted, it was the most expensive pizza joint in the land (Yellow Cab Pizza) – but the “shocked” look on her face was priceless.

Now here is something that I can’t emphasize enough. If you don’t put things into perspective regarding your situation, it will be automatically assumed that you, as a foreigner, are a bottomless reservoir of endless cash. In my case, I was fortunate enough to make it clear that I’m not retired and live off my writing gigs on a weekly basis. So that takes me out of the category of “rich foreigner” and merely places me in the “spendthrift foreigner” category. In other words, I can’t afford a house, yet, but I spend WAY too much on my food. But I share – so that’s cool. Next up, some very subtle items, when it comes to money and dealing with locals (and yes, even family members).