money, ecuador, salinas ecuador

Playing the “Money Game” in Ecuador

Living in Ecuador, we have a big money problem. Or rather, we have a problem with big money. The sad truth is that the cost of things like cabs, buses, fresh produce, lunches, haircuts, and so on are so low, that no one likes to break large bills. Taxis frown at anything over a $5 bill, and trying to use anything larger than a $20 anywhere but a major chain store or restaurant is almost impossible.

So here in our home of four years on the coast of the Pacific in Salinas, my wife Rita and I have become adept at playing the Money Game. The point is to use the largest bill you can get away with, and to maximize the amount of smaller change you receive. It is not always easy, as a recent trip to our local Mercado reminded me.

Usually, the Mercado is a great place to break tens and twenties. Everything is done on a strictly cash basis, and they do a high volume of business. Most shoppers are spending less than five dollars at each stall, so they tend to have a lot of ready change. We were running low on ones and fives, so I set out to the market with high hopes, carrying only a $10 bill and a $20 bill.

My first stop is almost always Celinda, our favorite produce vendor. We visit her two or three times a week, so after smiles and greetings, I start gathering today’s needs. I picked out three pounds of onions, two pounds of tomatoes, a pound of carrots (only three – the carrots are rather large), a cucumber, some green peppers, a pound of limes, a head of broccoli, a handful of peeled garlic bulbs (we’re spoiled), a half a pound of fresh-shelled peas, and a big hunk of cabbage. Celinda totals things up on her pad, and tells us cinco y cuarente – $5.40.

I think this is terrific, as I hand her the twenty. I’ll get back a five, a ten and four ones! But no, she shakes her head and tells me “No tengo cambio!” She doesn’t have change. I’m reluctant to take out the ten, still playing the game. Since we are regulars, Celinda tells me to go ahead and do my other shopping, and pay her on the way out. Great! Still in the game!

Next stop, our regular fruit man. This time I get a pound of strawberries, a large pineapple (weighed about 4 pounds), a small papaya, ten oritos (small sweet bananas), and a couple of apples. This time, the total is $5 even. Not ideal, but I’m still a winner, as I’ll get a ten and a five back from my twenty. “No tengo cambio!’, the vendor tells me. I had to resort to giving him my ten instead.

So now I have a five and a twenty, but I would still need 40 cents for Celinda, and be left with a large bill. I lose the game! Only one thing to do – go buy some shrimp! The seafood vendors are the go-to guys when it comes to change. The purchases there are higher dollar amounts than the produce, so they are the best place to break twenties. I go through the greetings and small talk with the shrimp guy I frequent, Carlos, and then ask how much for some decent size shrimp in a bowl on the counter. They are $5 a pound. I’d really like to get some ones, so that won’t do. I point to the next bowl, which has larger shrimp in it. They are $6, which is perfect! I order two pounds, and prepare to get a five and three ones back from my twenty.

No tengo cambio!”, a phrase I an really getting tired of hearing at this point. He waves over a helper, who takes the twenty and runs off to get change. After a few minutes he returns – but only with two tens. Carlos asks around at the other stalls, but no one else can break a ten either. So he decides to just hand me one of the tens, and tells me to catch up with him another time to give him the other $2.

Great, very nice, but now I owe two vendors! Undaunted, I returned to Celinda and offered her the ten. She can break the ten, so I get $4.60 back from her. I head back over to the seafood aisle, and give Carlos his $2. He gives me a big grin, as he thought he was going to have to wait until my next shopping trip. I know next time I see him, he’ll probably slip in a few extra shrimp.

So how did I do in the Money Game? Well, I left the house with a ten and a twenty, and we returned with a five, two ones, and sixty cents. That gives us change to take the bus to the SuperMaxi later today (we only need 45 cents), and the $2 to pay the cab for the ride home, with a five dollar bill left over. I rate it as a win. After all, we also are coming home with about 15 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, and better yet – looks like we’re having steamed shrimp tonight!

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  • Jim Sparks says:

    That sounds like a good problem to have.

  • Nancy McMillan says:

    Do people use local bank accounts here? Will the banks here give change in small bills?

    • Jim Santos says:

      Yes, and the banks will make change, although somewhat grudgingly at times. However, for the vendors, they may start of the day with little or no money. It also may be too far to the bank, or they may have no one to spare to make the run.

  • John says:

    I have been thinking about writing an article similar to this for some time now. My title would even be similar: The Change Game. The reason I haven’t written it is the people I would offend by calling them out for pulling the “game” on their friends; for example, handing me a twenty for their share of a $3 taxi ride. What this does is saves them from having to stand in line at the bank to get small bills and coins, and makes me do it instead.

    • Jim Santos says:

      Yes, I remember when a new expat saw that I had 4 five dollar bills, and asked if I could give her them for a twenty. She was shocked when I said “Hells no!”

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