How Much Does That Money Cost?

Posted on 23/11/2012

When I first arrived in the Philippines, one of the mistakes that I made was not understanding the value of money. It’s a pretty subtle point – one that nearly all newbies to third world countries will make, at one time or another. Here’s the deal. Money amounts for purchases, handouts, you name it are relatively specific to the region you happen to be in. A good analogy would be my childhood. I was a kid back in the 60s. That meant I could buy a small bag of potato chips, during 3rd grade lunchtime for five cents. I could get a coke for ten cents. So if a relative gave me a dollar, it was a lot of money. Of course, things are vastly different these days. The weird part is that if somehow I was able to get into a time machine and head on back to the early 60s, I would instantly know the difference between the value of money there and the value of money back in my own era. Somehow, this simple concept escaped me when I arrived in the Philippines.

This meant that I was spending waaaay too much on things and, of course, you know that the only person who would ever point that out was my wife – if she happened to be with me. For example, if I took a tricycle ride to the store and back, inevitably I was going to end up paying about twice as much as I should have. The same holds true for just about everything that I bought. This began the moment I got off the plane and paid $1.00 for a bottle of cold purified water. In reality, I should have paid a fraction of that amount.

I was doing weird things like handing out 50 pesos (about $1.20) to kids asking me for money. Not so much, you say? Well, consider this. You can buy a kilo (2.2 lbs.) of rice for about 30 pesos. Here, we have a kid asking for basically 2 or 3 pesos for some candy (we’re not talking starving children here – trust me) and I’m handing him 16 – 25 times what he was expecting! Seriously, why didn’t I just paint a target on my back? Can you imagine what the locals observing this event thought? Obviously, I had access to more money than I could ever possibly need. And, of course, I made it a point to stupidly do this in the marketplace (!) Do you think I got any “bargains” that day?

So, here’s my point. Before you start buying things and handing out stuff to the locals – make sure you know exactly what “decade” you happen to be living in. Hey, if a woman with a small child approaches me for a handout and I give her 50 pesos (or 100, if it happens to be a holiday), she is more than thrilled. The locals would usually give her a couple of pesos. But if a kid hits you up for some change, don’t start a college fund for him or her. It’s really not a question of generosity. It’s more a question of working within the expected cultural limits and not waving a sign that says “Hey – I have NO idea what the money is worth over here – so get it while you can!!” Next up, how I arranged for a maid – and looked like a total rube doing it…