Monday, January 20, 2014


Using cash for most purchases means piling up lots of change.
Before we moved to Costa Rica, the only time I ever had cash in my wallet was when our school was having a fundraiser and I knew I needed money to buy candy bars, frozen pastry, coupon books (which I never, ever used), raffle tickets, and once, I contributed to the group lottery ticket purchase (as a group, we won 20 cents each). I used my debit card for every other purchase, paid most of my bills online and wrote checks at the doctor’s office. If I ever had spare chance (e.g. my 20 cent lottery win) it went into the big change jar in the bedroom.
Using my debit card also helped me avoid handling anything with nickel, because I have contact dermatitis. Handling nickel (including costume jewelry) causes my hands to break out in itchy, oozy disgusting welts. Because I rarely had to use coins and knew better to own any jewelry with nickel, I’d basically forgotten about the contact dermatitis issue. That is, until I moved to Costa Rica.
We’d only been here for about two weeks, taking the bus downtown, shopping at the Central Market and the Farmer’s Market and using colones for all transactions. My palm started itching. Madly. Then the watery welts popped up. I hit the cortisone cream hard. Colones!!! That must be it. I’d been making change willy-nilly for two weeks and now I was paying for it, in a matter of speaking.
Grrrr! The cause of my contact dermatitis
(except for the aluminum ones)
As soon as I realized the colones problem, I made it a policy to bring Paul along whenever I knew I’d be using coins. One day he had so many coins in his shorts pocket that his pants started to hang down like some of our former high school students. I almost sent him to detention. At home, we kept the spare colones in a little glass box on the dining room table. For some reason, Paul became obsessed with sorting them, putting them into piles, and complaining about how useless the little aluminum ones (5 and 10 colones) were.

It seemed that many of the merchants weren’t so thrilled about handling colones either. If, for example, the vegetables we just purchased came to, say, c2565 (2 thousand, five hundred sixty-five colones, or about $5.00), I would pull out a 2 mil note (paper money starts at 1 thousand colones – 1 mil) and Paul would dig in his pocket for the remaining coins. As he would start counting out the coins and dumping them into the merchant’s hand, if he came anywhere close, the guy would wave him off. “Okay, okay … no mas!”

Sometimes a deal isn't that great of a deal. I thought
 these were sandwich bags. I'd never heard of snack size.
Now it came to pass that the week before we left Phoenix, I had one of those $5.00 “bonus bucks” from Walgreens. I hate wasting bonus bucks, but we really didn’t need anything, especially anything that couldn’t be easily packed for our move. So I cruised the aisles looking for a way to spend $5.00. There was a big buy-one-get-one free sale on baggies. I could get two of a couple of sizes of the store brand for my bonus bucks. Deal! I brought the boxes of baggies home and stuffed them into one of the suitcases. It wasn’t until we unpacked here in Costa Rica that I discovered that I’d purchased two of something called “snack sized.” They were these little bitty bags that I’m guessing were for people on diets who had to count out seven Cheetos for their permitted “snack.” That’s about all that would fit into these useless baggies. And now I had 100 of them. Try to squeeze half of a tomato or onion into one. Impossible.
Until one day when Paul and I were having lunch. There on the table was the box of colones. “Don’t we have a lot of those pointless little bags?” Paul asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“I have a great idea,” Paul said. He often has great ideas. Paul is a very interesting guy to live with. “I’m going to make 1 mil bags of these colones,” he said. “Then instead of digging through a pile of random colones from my pocket, I’ll know exactly how much I have in each bag.” He set about his task. At first he put all the big coins, the 500s and the 100s, in one bag. But then he was left with all the 50s, 25s, 10s, and 5s. So he evened things out a bit until he was satisfied.
Paul's 1 mil baggies of colones
The next task was to try out his new system. We drove down to the Farmer’s Market. It was to be my first foray out after 10 days of battling an ugly virus, so I was not planning to meander. Get in. Get out. The baggies of colones would help.
At our first stop, we bought a lot of greens. They came to exactly 1 mil. Oh boy! Paul pulled out a baggie and dumped the coins into the vendor’s hand. “One mil, exactamente!” Paul exclaimed. “Sistema por colones,” he added. The vendor smiled. But he still counted the change.
As we continued through the Farmer’s Market, Paul pulled out baggie after baggie. Usually what I was purchasing cost less than 1 mil, so he had to start juggling baggies. But he was still happy with his system. After finishing up at the Farmer’s Market, I had to stop at the regular grocery store. “How are we doing with the colones?” I asked.
“We have about 350 left,” Paul said, peering into his last baggie.
A week's worth of Farmer's Market provisions for under c10,000 ($20) includes a half-kilo of FRESH shrimp, fish filets, a kilo of tomatoes, a kilo of carrots, two kilos of onions, bananas, ginger and a variety of greens. 
“Perfect,” I said. “Just enough to tip the bag boy.” I had recently read on somebody’s blog (probably Vicki's extremely helpful blog) that most grocery store bag boys work for tips alone. Seems pretty sad. But maybe that put them at the head of the line when a paying job came up. I hope so. If I were getting more than three items, I might have thought that 350 (about 75 cents) was a little slim. But how hard do you have to work to bag butter, grated cheese and a bottle of wine?

So now we have no spare colones in the house, but when we do, I know the snack-sized baggies will emerge once again.