The Culture (and Economics) of Living Day to Day

Boy, that title sounds like the name of a college course or something. Don’t worry, I’m not that technical, even if I tried. It doesn’t stop me from hearing the voice of my college Econ professor though when I read it. 

In the States, we worry about living “paycheck to paycheck”, hoping our money will stretch for a few weeks. In many areas of the world, the Philippines included, many workers are paid on a daily basis. Sounds awesome, right? While there’s an up side to having a bit of money come in every day, most of these workers are taxi or jeepney drivers, domestic helpers, scrap sellers/recyclers, and work in other service jobs. So, the money that comes in daily is just that; a “bit”. Usually to the tune of about $10 a day if things are good. So how do you buy food, pay for transportation, housing, and bills on $10 a day? By living and surviving one day at a time.

We have a tendency to plan days, months, even years into the future. It can be obsessive. Retirement, college, stocking up for emergencies, we constantly live in the future. Not a bad thing by any means, it’s necessary and important. But, when you only have enough to make it through “today”, the future will be dealt with when it comes. In Visayan, the local language, “wala na” means “there is no more, and there won’t be in the future”. “Wala pa” means “there is no more now, but there will be later”. But, if you walk into a bread shop, and they are sold out for today, they will tell you “wala na”. Now, common sense tells you tomorrow morning there will be more bread, but the mindset doesn’t think about tomorrow. Brings new meaning to “seize the day”, doesn’t it?

So, on $10 or so a day, how do you grocery shop? The culture has adapted to this very well. Almost everything can be purchased in single servings. From personal care items like toothpaste, shampoo and soap, to laundry soap, to condiments, spices, coffee, rice, eggs, snacks, and miniature cans of meat, all your daily needs can be bought in very tiny quantities. In the United States, the bigger you buy, the more money you save. Not the case here. We have discovered a lot of items are actually cheaper per gram when bought individually. This is great for things like shampoo, we can ration a day’s amount to clean-obsessed teenage girls who otherwise empty half a bottle per shower. 😉

Snacks, sauces, and spices. And no, your eyes do not deceive you...I got that sarsa sauce for FREE! I'm saving it for a special occasion, once I find out what it actually is.
Snacks, sauces, and spices. And no, your eyes do not deceive you…I got that sarsa sauce for FREE! I’m saving it for a special occasion, once I find out what it actually is. For scale is a one peso coin, which is very close to the size of an American quarter. Rumor has it they even work in some vending machines…or so I’ve heard…
Drinks to go
Drinks to go

One thing I’ve noticed, and it’s been pointed out to me by others, is the high level of hygiene here. Even in the most humble neighborhoods, people are very clean. Where we have our kids ministry classes, in a very low end neighborhood, the kids are usually clean (let’s face it, no matter where you are in the world, kids love getting dirty, so it’s not a 100% success rate). We pack 30 to 40 hot, sweaty kids in a small room every Saturday, and it never smells. I think a big part of this is the availability of personal care items at a very cheap price. This culture takes great pride in their appearances, and when you can do so for about 5 cents a day, why wouldn’t you?

Cleaning supplies, each packet costs just pennies
Cleaning supplies, each packet costs just pennies

As far as food, it may not be a 5 star gourmet meal, but you can put something together for under $1 from scratch. I have literally bought a tablespoon of spice, a couple individual eggs, and a single pound of flour. Individual serving sizes of coffee (granted, it’s instant…), juice, chips, and other snacks line the aisles at the grocery store, as well as at sari saris.

Snack aisle at a larger grocery store, nothing but individual portions of chips.
Snack aisle at a larger grocery store, nothing but individual portions of chips.

What’s a sari sari you may ask? Pronounced “sorry sorry” (which yes, elicits giggles from anyone who doesn’t live here), a sari sari is a small neighborhood store, usually in front of someone’s house. They carry a little bit of everything, some are more stocked than others, but they not only save you from schlepping down to the major grocery store every single day to do your shopping, they provide a small “home business” for so many. They carry the small sachets (individual serving pouches) of everything, as well as snacks, soda, occasionally produce, and so on. Most neighborhoods have several, at one point I counted about 10 within a 6 block radius of our house. I am still a bit baffled as to how they all stay in business, but I think demand is just that high. And, another added plus, they are a major lifesaver when you discover you’re missing that one ingredient while fixing dinner!

Typical sari sari store
Typical sari sari store
And maybe pick up a kitten or two... :)
And maybe pick up a kitten or two… 🙂

A big question. What is the environmental impact of allllll this packaging? It litters the street, fills the oceans, and just makes a mess. I think this is more of an educational issue than an environmental issue. People still use way less packaging overall than many areas of the world, there just needs to be more diligence in dealing with it. We have friends who make a point of teaching the younger generations about how their small, seemingly insignificant choices, such as pitching a plastic wrapper in the water, affect everyone. Overall though, the concept allows people to survive an already difficult environment. And, I can tell you, this “rich westerner” has been thankful on multiple occasions that she can buy a single sachet of shampoo or a tablespoon of cumin when times get tight.

Individual snacks, hundreds of varieties, just pennies each. Lots and lots of packaging.
Individual snacks, hundreds of varieties, just pennies each. Lots and lots of packaging.
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