The Arbitrary Numbers That Run Our Lives

I’ve been in Nicaragua for two weeks. I’ll be here for another seven. I’m fortunate enough to work for myself. I set my own hours. I can work from anywhere there’s a Wi-Fi signal. I don’t make a ton of money, but I make enough to be able to do the things I love, have adventures and pay my bills. I’m frugal. I track my spending.

Even here in Granada, where I’m using a different currency, I still track my spending. It’s pretty much a cash system here. There are men standing on the street corners with stacks of Cordobas trying to get you to change your U.S. dollars. One dollar gets you about 30 Cordobas depending on the day.

I can go out on the weekend with the group of other volunteers here and spend less than $10, a night that would probably cost me upwards of $40 in most American cities. A weekend group adventure is less than $75 including accommodations and an ATV rental. Rent and groceries for a month is less than $250.

The worth of things

I’m grateful that my money goes farther here. It’s really wonderful, but it makes me question why and how we define and assign the worth of things. The average American will spend around $700 on Christmas this year. What will that $700 go toward? Mostly items made in other countries that will end up collecting dust or become outdated in six to twelve months so we can do it all over again.

Think about how far that $700 could go here in Nicaragua where most kids don’t graduate from high school or have the chance to go to college. Where hundreds of thousands go without clean, drinkable water and cook over a wood fire in their backyard… if they have a backyard.

Earlier in the year Peter wrote about the conundrum of purchasing a sunshade for his porch versus sending an orphan from the Congo to school. We can’t give all of our money away to those in need so how do we choose? How do we decipher when to spend and when to give? In my case I’m giving my time. I volunteer half time by running the marketing for the non-profit I’m working with here, but I still feel a little bit guilty about the fact that money and opportunity is so abundant and available for me compared to so many here. I didn’t choose to be born in the U.S. just like the kids here didn’t choose to be born in Nicaragua. Why was I one of the lucky ones?

Kids line up outside the new learning center constructed and operated by La Esperanza Granada
Kids line up outside the new learning center constructed and operated by La Esperanza Granada

Priorities are defined by spending

After tracking my spending for more than a year I know where my money is going. I prioritize experiences and time with others over things. I hardly ever buy “stuff.” I might make one trip to the thrift store a year to add some variety to my wardrobe. I did cave in and buy a new phone this year, but mainly to increase my work efficiency (and a little to stop pulling my hair out over my slow old iPhone 4s). Other than that my money goes toward minimal living expenses, savings, travel and weekend fun out with friends.

My experiences here in Nicaragua with the difference in lifestyle, culture, opportunity and money will shape my perceptions for the rest of my life. As Christmas and the New Year creep closer, and our country transitions to a new leader, I believe it’s more important than ever to show gratitude and attentiveness to the people we love and the opportunities and freedoms afforded to us as Americans. To remember, the price we pay for things is an arbitrary number we make up rather than being defined by what really matters in life.

-Heather P.

*Heather is a member of the Tiller team and also manages her own digital strategy consulting business.