Whenever I travel I find myself automatically converting prices to the Canadian equivalent, even though I make it a practice to always use local currency and to break down my spending ahead of time (I have been known to have an envelope for each day of a trip with that day’s spending money in it. And a spreadsheet. Don’t judge me). In fact, I have a tendency to glare at people who use their country’s currency when they travel. Whenever someone here – and this only happens in the tourist zones – tells me the price in US dollars, I let them know I’m not an American so that’s not useful information … but I digress.

Sometimes, as when I was in Ireland and it took 1.6 loonies to make a Euro, the math is tricky for a non-numbers woman like me. Other times, as here in Jamaica, the math is much easier. Since I’ve been in Jamaica the Canadian dollar has fluctuated between $102 and $97 Jamaican dollars. For simplicity’s sake (yes, I am calling myself Simplicity now) I assume that over the 6 months I’m here it will average out to 100. Simple math.

Unfortunately, it’s actually a very unhelpful habit. The Canadian dollar may be worth J$100 at the bank, but real life is not a bank. As a Jamaican acquaintance recently said to one of my Cuso colleagues, “you aren’t being paid in Canadian dollars and you aren’t paying for things in Canadian dollars so stop doing that.” In current real life my net expendable income is somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 what it was at home – not bad for a volunteer, but not great for someone who loves shopping and eating out.

To make that difference of circumstance a reality for myself I’ve been trying to develop a habit whenever I calculate a price in Canadian to then double that number to represent what the item is really costing me. I’ll give you an example: the first piece of clothing I bought here was a lovely locally designed and manufactured black linen pencil skirt  – JA$3,500 / 100 = CDN$35.00 x 2 = CDN$70 – still a great deal for me considering how often I will wear it both here and at home. Pencil skirts are my super-hero costume. Plus, the designer/shop owner gave me the locals price and I’d only been here a week, so how could I say no. 🙂

Photo credit: The Gleaner

That doubling is helpful, to some degree, but as I was spending (using those two calculations) CDN$35 for butter chicken and Haagen Dazs ice cream, I recognized that there’s a third factor. I won’t quite call it ‘I want what I want when I want it,’ but it does come down to actual experienced value.

I needed a boost and some real food; the Swiss Store, as I’ve mentioned, is a lovely peaceful spot for lunch though on the higher end price-wise. And, there was value, for me, in eating two of my very favourite things in that environment. It felt more like self-care than reckless spending – and let me just interject here to say OH MY JOY THAT WAS SOME TASTY CHICKEN!

There are things I know I will spend money on here (a piece of artwork to bring home, for example, and at least one more pair of shoes), and there are experiences here I know I will spend money on. I just thought it was an interesting lesson that all the math in the world can’t make up for a contented feeling. No, money doesn’t buy you happiness, but I think that when you stop to consider if a purchase has value for you, you’ll generally at least have peace of mind about the exchange.