Travel Cheap but Stay Charitable: How to Balance the Scales

I'm not going to tell you how to spend your money, but if you have enough cash to travel to different countries, you certainly have enough for charitable giving.

When you are living on a tight budget (e.g. $50 a day for two people, all inclusive), you quickly start living on the local currency. In the U.S., a $1.50 snack from a restaurant would have been a steal. But you're trying to tell me I have to pay 20,000 IDR in Bali just for a couple of spring rolls? No thanks!

However, most of the world never has the opportunity to make that comparison.

Many people in the world stay in their home town, often struggling to eat, to send their children to school, to buy medicine for sick relatives.

Taking $7.50 out of my daily budget might feel like a stretch, but in e.g. Bali it can pay an entire month's rent for a local shop.

You could easily just skip drinking one beer today, and pay for a child's schooling for an entire week. Seems crazy not to, right?

It's easy to forget the big picture when you're settled in, and living like a local. Imagine this: you're waiting behind a local to buy some fruit. You've learned basic numbers in the local language, so you can hear the buyer bartering with the seller over the cost of some bananas.

    Buyer: How much?
    Seller: 40,000
    Buyer: Ah, that's too much! No, I will give 20,000.
    Seller: Oh, no no, I cannot take 20,000. Give me 25,000.
    Buyer: Fine, thanks! 

OK so I'm bad a writing dialogue. You catch my drift.

Now, it's your turn to buy.

    You: How much?
    Seller: Ah! My friend! How much do you want to give me?
    You: How about 25,000?
    Seller: That is too low! I cannot feed my family if I sell these bananas for 25,000. It is 40,000.
    You: Ok, here you go! 

I know it's hard to accept, but if you just show up out of the blue, fancy foreign clothes flapping in the wind, with your $500 prescription sunglasses... yeah, you're not getting the "locals' price".

And you shouldn't. That extra 15,000 (in this example, about a dollar) IS going to feed the fruit seller's family. Are you seriously going to be a jerk over a dollar? A single dollar, which might be enough for their family to buy petrol to bring the kids to school? That dollar goes lot farther for them than it does for you.

Keep in mind that in some places, if you try to overpay by a lot (because you simply don't know any better), people will not accept it! In Rio de Janeiro, I paid a very strong man to carry my 50lb suitcase over his head through the winding concrete steps of Cantagalo favela, which would have been impossible for me. I tried to give him 15 reais (about $4) and he laughed at me and gave me back 10. He could not be convinced to take more of my money.

So, don't expect that people will always take advantage of you. The world is actually full of really nice people!

This doesn't mean you have to get swindled.

I would argue that oftentimes bartering people down to the locals' price is a good thing.

In many countries, bartering for a taxi starts at about 20x the local price. That's not OK, and it alienates tourists. If the first thing that happens in a new country is that a taxi driver lies and steals from you, you are starting off in a very defensive position. Do your research and get a fair wage, to discourage this parasitic tactic.

In Ghana, I always playfully bartered down the taxi price on principle, because the drivers shouldn't take advantage of a visitor's ignorance. However, it's not really about the $0.25 savings, so I would tip the driver (not common practice) and give him the extra money anyway.

Going above and beyond

Sometimes, you should do more than just toss in a tip, and these circumstances will definitely arise. Here's a few guidelines that won't leave you surrounded by kids grabbing at your pockets for your entire visit:

  1. In general, do not give money to begging children. This discourages their families from sending them to school, because they are worth more as beggars than students. It hurts them in the long run.
  2. Avoid buying souvenirs as an "act of giving". Go ahead and buy stuff from shops, but if you are truly trying to be charitable, research some organizations or give money for specific purposes. Buy things you want, and give money with purpose.
  3. Volunteer responsibly, and not just to make yourself feel all warm and fuzzy (or get cute pictures of schoolchildren).
  4. Give people want they need, not what you think they need. How do you know what they need? Ask them, and believe them.
    1. "Starving kids in Africa" probably don't need a pair of TOMS shoes that match yours -- they'd benefit more from the money it cost to make those shoes (or a shoe factory, which TOMS realized and started building -- nice!). A group of 30 teenagers may get lots of Instagram likes from building a school in Central America, but they could have just sent the airfare cost to a local construction company, and probably built ten schools instead of one (seriously, most mission trips are shockingly inefficient).
  5. Ask questions and help the friends that you make during your travels. This one is definitely up to you -- if you ask about local schools, and your favorite waitress tells you their kid's schooling costs $4 a week, drop her a $4 tip at the end of your meal with a note, "For school". Sure, she might spend it on hookers and coke, but at the end of the day that's her decision, right?!

Conclusion: don't be stingy

Sticking to a budget is good, but don't forget that you're lucky to have what you have, to be doing what you're doing. Stretch that budget when the right circumstance arises. Make someone's day, or change the world for the better.


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