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.