Playing the “Money Game” in Low-Cost 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, fresh produce, lunches, and so on, is 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. Let me show you how it goes, using a recent trip to our local mercado (market).

Usually, the mercado is a great place to break 10s and 20s. Everything is done on a strictly cash basis, and they do a high volume of business. Most shoppers spend less than $5 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. 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-pound of fresh-shelled peas, and a big hunk of cabbage.

Celinda totaled things up on her pad, and told us $5.40. I think this is terrific, as I hand her the twenty. I’ll get back a five, a 10, 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 10, 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 (which weighed about four pounds), a small papaya, 10 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 10 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 20s. 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 $1 bills, so that won’t do. I point to the next bowl, which has larger shrimp in it. They are $6 a pound, which is perfect. I order two pounds, and hand over my 20.

Carlos waves over a helper, who takes the 20 and runs off to get change. After a few minutes, he returns—but only with two 10s. Carlos decides to just hand me one of the 10s, and tells me to catch up with him another time to give him the other $2

I return to Celinda and offer her the 10. She can break it, 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 shrimps.

I rate this round of the Money Game as a win. After all, starting with a $10 bill and a $20 bill, I came home with $7.60 in change, about 15 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the makings of a delicious steamed-shrimp dinner.

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