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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Cash in Buenos Aires

Hi there, blogging buddies. I'm writing from the comfy confines of our hotel in Buenos Aires, while my beautiful wife sleeps in. The hotel is nicer than the digs we'd normally stay in, but Holly from Club Thrifty introduced us to our very first hotel travel hack about a year ago, and we're using our Starwood points to get eight free hotel nights here and in Montevideo. And because we paid with points, I think the guy at the front desk mistook us for globetrotters who stay in Sheratons all the time, as he upgraded our room, gave us free wifi (normally $10 a day here) and, best of all, gave us access to this "Sheraton Club", which may be my favorite thing at any hotel, ever. They give you free breakfast (a really decent one, with eggs, bacon, fancy espresso drinks and everything) and free snacks throughout the day. Like, whenever you want. Feeling peckish at 10 pm? Go up and grab some little appetizer sandwiches and desserts. Want to grab some fruit or a Coke midday before heading out on a walk? No problem. It's been only two days and the staff up front already know me by name. I am totally abusing this system for free food. As always, I feel no shame.


Buenos Aires, like every city we visit, has already stolen my heart. Breaking the previous record, I was here for about two hours before I told Mrs. Done by Forty that I want to move here. It's a big city, but fairly clean, with beautiful old buildings everywhere you look. Stores that sell clothing along the lines of a Forever 21 are somehow in century old buildings with 20 foot high ceilings and hand crafted wood floors. Everyone dresses so nicely and is in good shape, too. The best bit is the prices: yesterday I had my first Argentinian steak for lunch, a huge, delicious strip steak served with a side of fries, for $5.45. It came with a basket of warm delicious bread and real butter. It's like this place knows that I want to eat nothing but steak and carbs for the rest of my life: I love this country. After dinner we took home a surprisingly decent bottle of wine that was a preposterous $3.23.

The low prices are due, in part, to the currency crisis Argentina has been enduring. There are two rates of exchange here: one is the official rate, the one you'd get at a bank or when you use your credit card, and an unofficial rate, the kind you get from the somewhat shady characters shouting "Cambio! Cambio!" at anyone who seems vaguely foreign along Florida, a pedestrian street in the city center. The official rate is 8 Pesos to 1 US Dollar; the unofficial rate we got is 11 Pesos to 1 US Dollar: a 37.5% increase. With that kind of reward available, we took the risk. We ended up choosing an older gentleman to change our money, as we thought he might be less likely to scam us and, well, he had kind eyes. We later found out that we might be able to do a bit better if we negotiate a bit, so I'm hoping for 11.5 or 12 to $1 the next time we change money.

So, now we have all this cash on hand: something we never have in the states. The situation is reminding me of the benefits of using cash, and it's like we are back in our Dave Ramsey days again. We have more purchasing power with paper money: I get the feeling we can negotiate a better deal with a merchant if we use cash, and save them the transaction fees of using plastic. Of course, in this case we have an actual advantage of using cash, since the credit card has to use the lower, official rate of exchange. And cash is pretty convenient: I just hand someone the currency, and there is nothing to sign. On the down side, carrying cash is risky. It can be stolen, I can be handed fake bills and not realize it, and I lose the protections and record keeping of my credit card company. And on the whole, I personally feel like I spend more when I carry cash (though I've seen evidence on both sides of this question).

Of course, I'm not a very good judge of my own repetitive behavior. I'm not in a position to say what payment method is better for my own spending, because it's nearly impossible to set a baseline. Figuring out what you would have spent with another payment method is hard to do. While I feel like cash may burn a hole in my pocket, the fact remains that we've been here for nearly two days and have spent less than $40. Is that because we hold on tightly to our paper Pesos, or because Sheraton is giving me free food, or because everything is just cheap here? Controlling for all the variables is impossible.

I've long toyed with the idea of having a cash-only year, in an attempt to build a case study and a baseline of what we spend when we only use cash or checks. I think it would give us great data on what our own household spending would look like when we cut out plastic, but it would also be a huge pain. I'd always have to go into a gas station to pay, I'd need to keep a lot of cash on hand at all times and still would end up not having enough cash sometimes, we'd have to say goodbye to credit card rewards, and tracking my spending with receipts would be a recurring nightmare. Still, it's possible that we'd save money...maybe a lot of money. And more importantly, after another year of using only plastic, we might have some idea of what payment method was best for us.

Things to ponder for another day. I'm going to cajole my beautiful, sleeping wife out of bed, put on my flip flops, and go eat some free food.

42 comments:

  1. Hell yeah! Enjoy your hotel and I hope you have a blast!

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation on the SPG travel hack, Holly! We're loving the hotel so far.

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  2. Would love to go to Buenos Aires! Enjoy your trip. I don't know if I could go all cash for a year! Too much of a hassle.

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    1. Hey Andrew! Agreed, it would be a huge hassle. I am really intrigued about the possible results though. I think it would be a unique experience that might drive a whole year of blog posts, too.

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  3. Sounds like a blast!! Glad to hear you decided to use the SPG points there -- what a huge bonus to get that club floor. That has to be incredibly convenient and save a good bit of money (even at those prices).

    Have fun :)

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    1. I should have given you a shout out for helping us with where to use those points, too, Brad! My bad. Any savings are good savings too -- we love anything that's free and unlimited. Today we had a free breakfast, and came back for a couple free Cokes (in glass bottles with real sugar) and some brownies. And the night's not over!

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  4. Sounds like you are living the life there! That's crazy they gave you such awesome upgrades right off the bat. Nice! The prices seem great, too. I do carry some cash on hand, but for the most part, I use credit. When I used cash, I wasn't amazing at tracking my spending, which is important! My spending tends to stay the same regardless, though. Have fun!!

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    1. I wish I could take credit for negotiating the upgrades but they just gave them too us. I don't know why: we looked super broke with our hiking backpacks.

      That's great that your spending stays static with either method, so you can use whichever is more convenient or gives better payoffs via rewards. The tracking of spending will really be the tough part. Lose one receipt and that's it.

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  5. BA has always been at the tops of my list of places to visit. Glad you are back with the wife again...I didn't even know you were going! Man a cash only year would be tough. I could see the benefit of it, but then I'd hate to miss out on rewards points for things like flights and hotels. Enjoy some more steak, and the rest of your trip!

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    1. Thanks for the well wishes, Tonya. We've been here 48 hours and already thinking about how we can raise our future kids here. It's a tourist cliche, but we're embracing it.

      The travel hacking is definitely something that would be hard to give up. Brad has shown us how to get thousands out of that per year...I don't see how cash could possibly make that up.

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  6. Sounds like a great vacation, enjoy enjoy!

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  7. Sounds like a great time. It was an amazing place to visit. You will enjoy the food in Uruguay too. I was in both places about 5 years ago and had a blast. Will you be going to Iguazu as well. That is something that cannot be missed. Enjoy your time!

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    1. Thanks for the tips, DivHut! Iguazu was one thing we had to skip, unfortunately. We are usually city folk when we travel, and will be hitting up Montevideo and Colonia, too. The falls will have to wait until next time. :)

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    2. Another tip if you go back, check out a Soccer match, or if you are of a nervous disposition maybe try the horse racing track. We did a soccer match in Rio and it was completely bonkers and a little bit scary (BA will be similar if not more so, especially if there is a local derby match on).

      The race track in BA is very nice, but again the people go crazy there when the races are on, it's really a spectacle to watch. We couldn't work out how to actually put a bet on though as it was a lot different to our race tracks over here! Great fun though just watching!

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  8. So glad you're with your wife and having fun! :) I definitely could not do a cash only year. I burn through cash because I hate carrying it around.

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    1. Thanks, Amanda! It's great to be with my wife again. I feel the exact same way about cash, too!

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  9. Wow DB40, it sounds incredible! I heard food was great value there, but can't believe just how cheap! And nice work on your travel hack! Sounds like your 'experience to cost' ratio is absolutely sky high - I don't know how you could ever get better than this! Have a fantastic time!

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    1. Thank you for the well wishes, Jason. The prices are pretty good, though we're still trying our best to find cheap eats and whatnot. If you wanted to live it up and spend a lot, you could certainly do so. It's a pretty cool city.

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  10. Aww, you sound so happy with the wife by your side exploring a new city. =)

    While I'm pretty traveled out at the moment, your trip sounds lovely. I've always heard amazing things about Argentina, and I LOVE the Starwood Clubs. My sister used to work for Starwood (they own Sheraton) and I enjoyed that perk whenever we booked under her employee code, but alas, no more. =(

    Enjoy the rest of your trip!

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    1. Thanks, Mrs. Pop! It's our first time (and maybe our last?) enjoying the baller status of the Club level.

      We're having a great time together...on Saturday, we're going to brave the ferry (I hate boats) and head over to Uruguay. :)

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  11. Holy crap that hotel setup sounds freaking amazing! Buenos Aires is a place I would love to visit some day - definitely on my bucket list. As far as your "cash-only year" that would be pretty epic, but I think I'd be lucky to last more than a few weeks. Credit cards are too dang convenient. It would be interesting to see an actual study done on the cash versus credit debate, though. I'd read it.

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    1. Thanks, David. Like it is with most of my grandiose plans, I wouldn't be surprised if I fizzled out after a few weeks. I'm great with planning but crap on the follow through.

      Here's an old blog post I wrote on a good cash vs. credit study: one of the few that tried to account for liquidity concerns (i.e. - credit card users only SEEM to spend more because people don't typically carry huge amounts of cash):

      http://www.donebyforty.com/2013/10/do-credit-cards-actually-increase.html



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  12. Not that I had any doubts, but it's good to hear you're safe and kickin' ass down South. Also, I know it was a minor, throw-away point in your article, but many gas stations now have bill acceptors at the pump as well. Win.

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    1. That's true: I see those at Arcos a lot (and they go the extra step of not even allowing for credit card use, only debit). Thanks for the well wishes (and Mrs. DB40 says thank you so much for the card & candy, too!).

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  13. Huge score on the upgraded room and the free food, DB40!! We have been routinely going over budget on food, and it has gotten way out of hand this month, so we are going to a cash only deal as of June 1st. Can't wait to see the results! Have a fabulous time with your wife, my friend!

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    1. Cool! I'm glad you guys will be trying cash only soon. I may see how your experiment goes and use that as a primer for our own household.

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  14. I've found that I think more about my purchases when I use the CC - because then there's a record of the stupid stuff I could spend money on (lunch out at McDs?). I'm more likely to frivolously spend cash and not know what I spent it on. So, for me, the CC is the way to go.

    Enjoy your time in South America and the Sheraton Club floor!

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    1. Ha! Yes, the credit card gives us an all-too-clear record of where our money is going. It's one of those ancillary benefits that ends up being really helpful in analysis.

      Thanks for the well wishes, Three is Plenty!

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  15. Enjoy Buenos Aires! I loved it there too. I wish we were as good here about preserving beautiful architecture, even when making room for new stores. Love the concept of putting new retail like forever 21 in old buildings. Saw a lot of that in Europe.

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    1. I agree about preserving our old architecture, Stefanie. I think that's catching on in the states as well. There's a little movement to save the warehouses in Phoenix.

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  16. I really need to learn Spanish. I'm hoping that they speak Spanish and not Portuguese so that I'm not looking like an idiot here. I keep hearing such amazing things about Buenos Aires. Would love to experience it. And the Sheraton. With points. Because I, too, love free food.

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    1. Hey Femme Frugality! You're right, it's Spanish here (and Portuguese up in Brazil). Check out the link I included to Holly's travel hack, and you can definitely get the same free nights that we did.

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  17. I just read your comment on my previous post, so before I begin - Happy Belated Anniversary!!! I hope you had a wonderful and well-deserved date night eating delicious steak and drinking great wine! I thought the exchange rates were pretty interesting, as well -we had a friend who happened to be in town that helped us with cash, but it was interesting to see how much farther our dollars really went! We usually use cc's at gas stations, too, but the one I frequent is offering less ten cents per gallon by going to cash - that's worth using cash in my book! I hope you enjoy the rest of your vacay, and so jealous of your free breakfast - I remember that was the hardest thing to find since there's mostly cafes and we're such big breakfast eaters. Enjoy and don't forget to look on the ground when walking! ;)

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    1. Thanks, Anna! Dollars really do go far in Argentina. We ended up spending only like $150 American over five days in Buenos Aires, and that includes buying eight bottles of wine. The lesson is that dollars are the currency to bring...or, maybe the lesson is that we have a slight drinking problem.

      So far we haven't seen any dog poo, but we saw a ton in Montevideo. Go figure. Here's to hoping we can keep the soles of our shoes clean.

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  18. It sounds like you are having an amazing time! Enjoy Buenos Aires, I hope I get to visit it one day soon. The architecture in BA is very similar to Europe and I've even heard it looks a bit like Paris or Madrid :)

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    1. I've not yet been to Paris or Madrid (though Mrs. Done by Forty has), and she says that BA is a bit like a smaller Madrid. She remembers that city being huge.

      We met some guys from England today at our AirBNB, and they definitely recommended buying some dollars before heading to Buenos Aires. The exchange rate works out better that way.

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    2. BA is very much like a European city! Pick any large city in Spain really yea. It is a stark contrast to most of the rest of South America, from what I saw anyway.

      Loved it though, I would move there as well, let's set up a blogging community and eat steak all day?!?!

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  19. Very interesting info and link to the currency crisis, I had no idea that was happening!

    The steaks were around $10 when we were over there in 2008 so the prices definitely seem to have got better for foreigners, and I am assuming the taste is still as amazing as ever!

    I would do the travel hacking thing without hesitation if I could but they don't really do hotel points over here and the air miles deals are also a bit rubbish, but.... (a very small but) I kinda don't really like staying in chain hotels when you are in somewhere as foreign as South America. Again don't get me wrong, the hotel looks amazing and the free food as well, I would totally do that! But also I like to stay at some random places and feel like I was getting more of a local experience (even though it was probably still very fake and touristy anyway). :)
    Sounds like you might be mixing it up with some other places to stay anyway so looking forward to hear about those.

    Totally jealous of you are well btw! Buen Dia!

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  20. Awesome! Hope you had a great time! I love Sheraton lounges, free wi-fi and the complimentary upgrades... usually you need platinum status to get all that ;)

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  22. Your trip to BA sounds amazing. I have the same problem as you where I want to move to almost every place I visit; most currently, my "future home" is Rio de Janiero. Rio, unlike BA is expensive though and I'm already contemplating BA despite never having visited- your posts have solidified by desire.

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