Planning on traveling or living abroad? Then get your calculator out (or start reviewing your third grade math homework), because it’s time to use foreign currency!
Using the local currency is one of my favorite things about visiting other countries. Maybe it’s because I don’t handle cash a lot in my home country, or maybe it’s simply because I enjoy getting to see the country’s culture reflected in their currency. When I was a kid, I also enjoyed collecting stamps from foreign countries, so maybe I just have a weird fascination with foreign things in general!
Before I moved to Asia four years ago, I didn’t really have to think too hard about money. Oh sure, I had a budget and tried my best to stay within that budget…but there wasn’t too much else to consider. Either I had enough money to spend or I didn’t. Then I made the leap to this side of the globe and quickly realized things were a little different.
As foreigners, there are a couple obvious, yet important adjustments we need to make when it comes to money.
For instance, we need to know the exchange rate. I remember walking into a Hong Kong grocery store for the very first time and wondering why a bag of chips cost $20. I was thinking in USD as opposed to HKD. It took me a few days before I started converting prices automatically in my head. (In case you’re wondering, that bag of chips would have cost less than 3 USD).
When traveling to a country where the local currency is weaker than your own country, the first thing that we foreigners need to realize is that things do not cost as much as they appear. Seeing a 6 RMB price tag here in China, for instance, is actually only 1 USD.
But the longer we live in that foreign country, the easier it is to assume that something is “cheap” when in fact it is not. This is a really easy assumption that we expats living in China can make because so many things are comparatively inexpensive here. From food to rent, we often feel that we’re getting a bargain deal.
But if we stop making the mental calculations, we will forget that for many items we’ll pay the same (or even greater) amount that we’d pay in our home countries. For instances, vegetables here are relatively cheap, but fruit costs about the same as it does the U.S. or Canada.
One thing we don’t necessarily anticipate is that we may have to make most of our purchases with cash. In most Western nations, we’re used to cashless transactions. For some of us, we only use our debit or credit cards. But when traveling abroad, you can easily run into international transaction fees when using your bank cards.
In China, I pay for almost everything with cash.
For the most part, paying with cash is no problem. You may have no idea whose hands have been all over the bills and coins you’re handling, but the good thing is that you’re eventually going to exchange it all for something better anyway!
However, when it comes to bigger expenses (such as one semester’s worth of tuition or one year’s worth of rent), a slight problem arises. China’s largest banknote is 100 RMB (currently worth about 16 USD). As a result, it’s often a necessity to carry large wads of bills whenever you have to make a big payment. It’s during those moments that you sometimes wish you had a bodyguard with you!
Because I don’t use bank cards here, it requires some forethought before I step out the door. If I plan to buy groceries or pay for our utility bills, I need to make sure I bring enough cash with me. Also, if I plan on taking a bus or a taxi, I must have (or acquire via a small convenience store) some 零钱 (ling qian – small change).
Though I sometimes miss the convenience of paying with my debit or credit card (and will probably use them exclusively the next time I’m back in North America), I think it makes my life here more interesting overall. If nothing else, it’s a great opportunity to practice my numbers with the local market sellers…it certainly gives them something to laugh about when I hand over way too much money.
Do you like using foreign currency when traveling or living abroad? What have you experienced when buying things in a foreign country?