Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Things I Learned About Money from the Thais

Attitudes about money in Thailand and America are not all that different. I think we'd all agree that it's good to have it and we'd like to have more of it. I must say though that living in Thailand taught me (or at least reinforced) a few lessons on money. Here are a few of my reflections on money from my experiences in Thailand.

1. It’s only worth what someone will pay for it.

Forget price tags in Thailand. Prices are “liquid,” meaning that they can change the price whenever they want. If it’s the end of a slow day, you are more likely to get a better deal. Then again, if you are a farang,” you’re more likely to get charged 5 times more than a local. You’ve got to be willing to practice the art of haggling; the buyer starts low while the seller starts high. Hopefully, you can meet somewhere in the middle. Then again, I’ve seen some tourists get totally taken by a merchant. They start at such a high price that by the time you’ve gotten them to drop their price in half, you are still paying double what a local would pay for the item. It just goes to show that prices are relative. Only pay what the item is worth to you and you’ll limit the amount of buyer’s remorse you feel.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask people how much they paid for something.

One of the most popular questions asked in Thailand is “How much did you pay for that?” Practically everything I had, they asked me how much I paid for it. “Nice bag. How much? 500 baht! Ohhh too much!” “New phone? How much? Oh really, you paid that much?” At first, I was really put off by this. I thought they were trying to size me up or something. It didn’t help that they were usually telling me I overpaid for stuff. It got me thinking though. In a market where prices are liquid, one HAS to ask how much people paid for stuff to know what a fair price is. By the end of my stay, I started asking everyone how much they paid for stuff and I became much better at negotiating prices. Now, you may not want to try to go into Target tomorrow and try to see if they’ll lower the price for you, but by asking around you can get a good idea of how much things costs and where to find the good deals.

3. Cash is king.

Thais haven’t really caught on to the whole credit card thing yet. We even got paid all in cash. Imagine getting paid 38,000 baht in 1,000 baht bills. That’s a whole wad of cash! It was funny too because they’d put your salary in an envelope, but before you left the office you had to give them the envelope back. You’d be stuck having to put the money in your pocket, leaving you with a huge, bulging mass shooting out of your hip. Hmmm, good times. :’)

In the States you can pretty much get away with not carrying any cash, but you can’t do that in Thailand. I think one day they will get there, but for now, most shopping is done in a small market setting where it wouldn’t necessarily be advantageous for merchants to accept credit cards. This has obvious advantages because the fewer credit cards you have, the less credit card debt you have! After all, you can’t spend cash that you don’t have!

4. A smile can go a long way.

Thailand is not known as the “Land of Smiles” for nothing. Everybody smiles, even when they’re mad at you and especially when they’re taking you for a ride. You hardly ever see anyone yelling or getting mad in Thailand because doing so causes both parties involved to lose face. You look stupid and the other person looks stupid so they are definitely not going to help you. I learned that when I felt like I was being taken advantage of, it would be useless to demand to speak to the manager (most likely them) or complain about bad customer service. It was much smarter to fight smiles with smiles. Using a calm and pleasant demeanor is much more efficient at getting what you want than a hostile one.

5. Waste not, want not.

Frugality is a way of life in Thailand. They were hilariously frugal. Things that we take for granted are guarded very closely in Thailand. Let’s take for example, paper. At the school I was teaching at you actually had to sign out each piece of paper. They didn’t actually keep paper in the printer. If you wanted to print something from the computer, you would have to walk all the way to the library to sign out a piece of paper. If you wanted to print out a worksheet you had to make sure that you used every bit of paper, including the back. No one-sided copies! I don’t know how many times I decided to not use paper just because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of it. I compare this to the wanton paper use in American schools and I wonder how much of the budget actually goes to paper? Surely we could save a lot of tax dollars by adopting some frugal practices in government institutions. Seriously though, was it totally necessary to send a notice that I’m going to receive a tax refund? I think if the IRS had to sign out each piece of paper that they had to send in the mail, they’d think twice about it and save some tax dollars.

What about you? Have you traveled or lived in a place with much different attitudes about money? What things can we learn about money from other cultures?

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1 comment:

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