Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Value of a Buck: The Emotional Highs and Lows of Budgeting for Travel.

The value of a buck:
Being the multi-thousandaire that I am, I was more than just pleasantly surprised to learn that the Egyptian Pound (L.E.) was one-sixth the value of the US dollar. Aside from the ego boost that came from looking at my available balance in L.E. for the first time, the strength of the USD against the L.E. has truly fantastic implications for someone with a budget as small as mine.
I have spent time in counties with currency values that have laughed so hard at the value of my dollars that I was forced to make a hasty exit with my tail between my legs. During those brief visits I would make an effort to spend as little as possible, attempting to keep my spending to under fifty dollars a day. Although fifty dollars a day sounds like a generous stipend and reasonably easy target budget to hit, if you factor in the cost of transit to and the transportation within the country as well as lodging, it is an extremely meager amount. I have spent countless hours wondering the aisles of European supermarkets looking for the cheapest bread, cheese, and sardines available to eat for consecutive meals. And instead of enjoying the cultural attractions the country has to offer, i.e. museums or shows or shopping or anything with a price tag for that matter, I have been force to find or create my own amusement, most often spending the day in a park reading and people watching or wandering around the city trying to find some obscure and quiet corner café/bar to have a cup of coffee/beer. 
            The feeling of helplessness and shame that often accompanies spending exorbitant   amounts of the monopoly money of Europe just to scrape by is absent from life in Cairo. For the first time I feel as if I can fully participate in the cultural attractions, and eat a hearty meal in the same week! I can, if I want, walk into almost any store and afford anything! I no longer have to weight he financial pros and cons of taking a taxi, ‘well it will probably cost me around fifteen Euros to get there, so I wont be able to spend anymore for the rest of the day, but I have enough cheese to last till tomorrow… but I will have to walk back to the hostel… how far away is it? How long will that take me? Will I regret it more if I go or if I don’t.’ I have to admit that I am proud to have a bank account filled[1] with dead presidents. I now understand the American dream as described by the millionaires of the world! If you work hard and save… and move to Egypt…you too can change your class status. Just by coming to Cairo I have truly transformed my financial situation, I am no longer a mulit-thousandaire, but a proud couple ten-thousandaire! However, as we know too well, with great buying power comes great fiscal responsibility. I have tried to be careful with my new found buying power, and not over reach my means, especially now that I am a student in a foreign country and have no way to refill depleted coffers.
When living in any foreign country it is very important for your sanity to put yourself into the monetary mindset of the host country. It will drive you crazy to continually convert the local prices into USD. Depending on where you are, repeatedly calculating the conversion rate will either cripple you with worry, or cause you to blown through all of your money while thinking you are richer than you are. It is best to understand what things should cost, what they do cost, how much money you need to spend each day (or week) to survive, how much money you can spend a day (or week), and understand what these value means in regards to your budget in both USD and the foreign currency. Once you have a basic understanding of your survival price tag, begin to tailor all of your habits to fit that amount.
By looking at my daily routines, I have concluded that I can live well on a ten-dollar a day budget. Though I have budgeted for ten dollars, my goal is to only spend about five or six, but I understand that some days of the week are more expensive than other. Additionally, I know that if I were to spend at a rate that exceeded one hundred dollars a week I would have to end my trip early.
After performing some complex math, I have concluded that one could survive on the streets of Cairo spending about two USD[2] a day, and an Egyptian could survive on half of that. Achieving this would mean eating only street Ful[3] or Falafel and buying, at most, three liter of water a day, totaling about eleven pounds. Thankfully I am not in a position where I have to survive on the streets of Cairo. I am, however, a student, and as such I have unique necessities that often carry inflated price tags, i.e. tuition, text books, registration fees, supplies, bus passes, and coffee.
In order to make my 8:30 A.M. class I am required to wake up at 5:45 A.M. every day, and I cannot function at that time without a cup of coffee. Even if I settled for the cheapest coffee option, which is nearly undrinkable and costs a whopping four pounds, it would be nearly impossible to achieve the daily budget of two dollars. However, with my ten-dollar budget I can fuel my coffee addiction and, as a kindness to both my taste buds and intestinal tract, I am frequently able to forgo the rotgut coffee for a slightly more palatable Americano, to the tune of twelve pounds, all the while knowing that in a lean week I may have to settle for Nescafe in order to afford lunch. In a similar way I have examined my daily caloric intake and calculated a price tag for those items that are absolutely necessary for my survival and those I can do without if I am feeling poor.

Pro Tip: Things aren’t always what they seem.
The Price fluidity of products in Cairo is real and a total pain in the ass. It is especially frustrating when you have fixed daily budget. In my experience it is quite common to pay completely different prices for the same item at the same establishment from the same employee in the same day. There is no rhyme or reason to the price fluctuations, other than I look foreign and can’t haggle or argue because of the language barrier. Not knowing the language makes it very hard understand the explanations of why a liter of water is now four pounds when it was one pound eight hours ago, and harder to argue with shop keepers about their dynamic pricing system. This is not to say that one cannot question the change in price, I myself have done so on various occasions! only to be silently laughed at by the dazed look that accompanies willful ignorance of English when it is convenient or means higher prices. I have come to the conclusion that the price scale is controlled by a very sophisticated and sensitive algorithm, which dictates the fluctuations of prices for common and necessary commodities in real-time for each district of Cairo. I just wish I had a broker who could help me navigate this complex market.

[1] HA! And by filled I mean an extremely modest sum.
[2] This number is only for food and water. I have not included the cost of clothing or housing.
[3] Pronounced fool. Ful is a seasoned bean paste served in pita bread and a staple of the Egyptian diet. It is both fairly tasty and nutritious a recipe can be found at midEATS. Other fantastic Middle Eastern recipes can be found at Sugar Street Review's Top 5 Middle Eastern Food Blogs.

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