A Money Coach in Canada

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July’s posts have been chock-a-block with on-the-ground money tips for travellers to England, Russia, Thailand and today, we hear from Jean* about being money smart in Nicaragua.

(pssst: Want to become a world traveller but don’t have the money? My business helps folks set and attain those kinds of savings goals!)

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When my parents first told me they would be traveling to Nicaragua with my sister, my immediate reaction was, “Have fun with that.” But no more than a day later, my brother and I decided we would tag along for the trip.

For as long as I can remember, whenever I was asked if I would be interested to travel to the homeland, I would always say no and that it would never happen. “Not a chance in Hell!” I think I was afraid of what I would see and learn. Living in Canada, I have gotten quite used to my possessions and other things we may take for granted.

If you are going to be traveling to Nicaragua, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Do not advertise how well off you are by pulling your smartphone (or anything else of value, for that matter) out of your pocket. This is foolish because it is quite dangerous. You are likely to attract the attention of no-gooders anyway simply by being a tourist. You do not need to become a target.
2. Be prepared for the electricity and running water to cut out at the most inconvenient of times.
3. Dress lightly. Why you would even consider wearing long pants is just beyond me. They do provide great protection from the bugs though…

Now, as a super user of social media (Is saying “it consumes my life” too strong?), I usually rely heavily on Wi-Fi and for the most part (if at all), that isn’t an option in this country. So my one tip for those of you who are like me:

Turn off your mobile data. The cost of data in Nicaragua in roaming fees is astronomical. $25.60 per megabyte of data (if you are with Bell), to be exact. If you are looking to tweet or update your status on Facebook, set up the mobile texting service before your trip. The cost of sending a text is $0.75. A much better alternative. Facebook’s number is 32665 (FBOOK) and Twitter’s is 21212. You can set up these services straight from your phone or on the web. Leave all other events that would require data for cyber cafes. Cyber cafes are incredibly cheap and usually have 30min, 45min, or hourly rates for less than $2.50, maybe even $2.00. And you may want to keep phone calls short as they are $2.99/min. Don’t be a victim to the thought of “I’ll barely use the data, so I should be fine.” When they say apps run in the background, they mean it, and they consume a lot more data than you might think. Save yourself the headache and save yourself a lot of money.

Things are cheap in Nicaragua for the visitor. It was actually quite heartbreaking to see just what kind of life my family has. To bring things into perspective, I present to you some facts.

1. Beer can cost as little as $0.85, which, if you can stand to drink a beverage that will dehydrate you in the already blistering heat, I say go for it. My drink of choice during the whole trip was Coca-Cola, because water never did seem to come cold enough.
2. Food here is always fresh and local. Think about it! You are not paying to have someone bring in the food from another country. IT IS ALL THERE. And it is also cheap…for us. Twenty dollars really can get you so much. How much does the average Canadian family (say of four members) spend on groceries per week? Maybe around $150.00? Take that amount and think of it feeding your family for a whole month, if not more. Sounds great, right? Now think of how difficult that money is to come by, considering most homes are single income… Yeah…

And now for the kicker:

After speaking to one of our cousins’ wife, she was telling us how they had afforded to buy their home using the money earned by selling shoes that never quite made it to shelves, or were claimed. Think of how Winners sells brand name clothes for cheap because of defects in the stitching, missing buttons, etc. You know, the little things that don’t really matter. So a friend from the US would send down boxes of shoes, and she would sell them locally. When I asked, she told me that to buy the lot cost them 8,000 Cordobas, Nicaraguan currency. The materials to build the house cost another 8,000 Cordobas. This is in Esteli, one of the larger cities in Nicaragua. But let’s play a guessing game to see what that amount of money translates to in dollars.

For the total of 16,000 Cordobas, to buy yourself a lot and then build a home of approximately 800 square feet, what would be the equivalent cost in a consumer home electronic?

Would it be:
a. Nintendo Wii – $149.99
b. XBOX 360 250GB Kinect Bundle – $399.99
c. iPhone 4 32GB – $779.00
d. iMac 27-inch: 2.7GHz – $1,699.00

You might be shocked that I didn’t go any higher. Well, truth be told, I wouldn’t want to attract that much attention to my own home, depending on the location. But if you picked “c”, the iPhone 4 32GB model, you would be slightly over. The exchange rate that stuck with me the whole trip was 22.3:1. So for 8,000 Cordobas, that was around $360.00. So you could either own a vacation home in Nicaragua for the price of two XBOX 360’s for one of your LAN parties, or one iPhone 4, from which you might even be reading this very blog post. Kind of makes you think, hey?

Now, this entry is not meant to guilt you, but rather expose you to the reality of the kind of life you’ll be seeing if you take a trip down there. I have heard that one can spend nights in some cheap hostels for about $8.00, and transportation itself is very cheap and there are many options: mini-taxi, tricycle, motorized bike, motorcycle, mini-bus, you name it. Souvenirs are also very cheap, so you really won’t need to worry about how much you’re spending on gifts to bring back home to family and friends. Just don’t get too comfortable with how inexpensive most things are. Spend only for what you need, and if you feel you have some to spare, donate to the locals. You have no idea how much a little bit for us means a lot for them.

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Jean, aka Jeryes, is a long time Yellowknifer with bucket loads of ambition but with absolutely no direction. Dreaming of one day becoming either a musician, a designer, a writer, or a teacher (to name a few), he spends most of his days in the online universe correcting people for their misuse of punctuation and spelling errors. He is also allergic to cats.

Photo Credit: Damon_Torgeson

When I was debating between a month in England or in Halifax, on a whim I checked to see what train prices would be. Being a good money coach, I clicked the “deals” link and nearly fell off my seat.

$350 (instead of the usual $1200+ or so) for a late-June ride from Edmonton to Halifax (actually, it may have been Toronto, but still!)
First Class
Private cabin
All meals (legendarily gourmet) included
Private washroom; access to shower
Sleeper berth at night

My point is: Via Rail continuously offers fantastic deals. You can find them here. Why fly when you can sit back and glide through the Rocky Mountains, or across the Prairies and into the lush land of Southern Ontario or further?

Photo Credit: Madbuster77

We’ve covered the UK, Russia, and today it’s Thailand with some on-the-ground money advice by folks who know whereof they speak.  Check back on Saturday for a post about being savvy with your money in Nicaragua!

How to keep your wallet happy in Thailand – “The Land of Smiles” is brought to you by a former colleague, Heidi.  She is a teacher-turned-banker-turned-teacher and is currently teaching primary school at the British Columbia International School of Bangkok.

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Probably the most expensive part of your trip to Thailand will be the airfare over here, but once you land, here are a few tips to help you save some Baht along the way.

Cash is King

Before you fly over here, order some Thai Baht and ask for a mixture of denominations (20’s, 50’s, 100’s). The exchange hovers around 30 Baht to the Dollar, so about $100 worth of small bills will be plenty – otherwise you’ll need a briefcase to carry away all the Baht!

7-11 the Unofficial Bank of Thailand

There is no problem using your ATM or Credit Card in ATM machines in Thailand, but the problem occurs in that they only spit out 1,000 Baht bills, and you’ll be hard pressed to get 970 Baht change from the streetvendor who just cooked up some Pad Thai for you. So “Oh Thank Heaven” there’s 7-11, where I believe it is their unspoken duty to change a 1,000 baht note for that 7 baht bottle of water you just bought (yes, only 25 cents for bottled water!) Not only will you appreciate the sub-arctic temperature they keep the store at, but you won’t get a deathly stare when you present them with a 1,000 baht bill. And 7-11 over here truly is like a bank – you can pay your cable, internet and electricity bills or even pay for a flight that you booked online, all while you buy your slurpee!

Transportation

Getting around Thailand is pretty cheap, but you can make some costly mistakes. Let’s start with when you first step off the plane in Bangkok – they’ve just completed a high-speed train directly from the International airport, so now it’s cheap, easy and fast to get into downtown Bangkok. If you’ve been flying for hours on end though you may just want to hop in a cab – just make sure you follow the signs outside to the official “Meter Taxi” stand – you do not need to negotiate this fare as the meter taxis are on a fixed rate per kilometer.

Getting around Bangkok you’ve got multiple modes of cheap transport: skytrain, bus, taxi, tuk tuk, or if you’re really brave – a motorcycle taxi! One of my favourite modes of transport though is the water taxi. For about 50 cents you can get an hour-long river boat “cruise” on one of the traditional Thai longboats. No need to pay a huge amount for a river cruise when you can hop on their water-transit system for 14 baht!

Everything is Negotiable

I’ve never really been much of a haggler myself, but I’ve had to get into the game here, because I quickly realized that if there’s no sticker price on something (which there rarely is!) then the price is open for debate. Many foreigners come here and feel like they are constantly being “ripped off” because they see the Thais paying a different price, and I felt that way too until I put a few things into perspective, namely that the Thai minimum wage is 300 baht per day (about $10 a DAY!) As a foreigner living in Thailand we would never be paid that low, and as a traveler, you would have brought money with you for your trip, so in their eyes we get paid more, so we should pay more. Saying that though, there’s a difference between paying the “farang* tax” as I like to call it and being taken for a ride.

My advice on making sure that you are paying a fair price is to shop around a bit to get a sense of what the item is worth before making your final purchase. And when it comes to taxis or tuk tuks, either make sure they turn their meter on, or you negotiate the price of the ride before you drive away – otherwise they literally will take you for a ride…like to their cousin’s restaurant or brother’s gift shop!

Overall, your money will go a long way…it’s just a matter of saving up so that you can buy yourself that plane ticket here!

*farang (or sometimes pronounced falang) is the Thai term for a foreigner. The term derives from the word Francais, as the French were some of the first foreigners to come to Thailand. And Francais in Thai is Farang-set…hence anyone who doesn’t look like they come from Thailand is instantly referred to as a farang.

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Want to travel to Thailand but need the money?   My business helps folks get organized and in control of their day-to-day finances to obtain such goals!

Guest poster and adventuress Amanda Steele has been living and teaching in Moscow since November. Here are some savvy money tips she’s learned!
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Moscow is expensive. Period. But, don’t let that little known fact get in your way. It has a lot to offer. With a little street sense, your roubles will go a long way!

1. McDonald’s!
Did you know McDonald’s was invented in Russia? Actually no, but that’s the running myth. Don’t ever over look a McDonald’s in Moscow because they are golden (pardon the pun). McDonald’s has free and clean washrooms. Sadly, more often than not, you pay your 20 roubles to use a washroom and you’re left dealing with a stinky hole in the ground. McDonald’s to the rescue! The key to using the free Wi-Fi without being harassed is to look like you’re eating. A friend of mine entered McDonald’s, collected some random trash off of tables, and then sat in the restaurant for an hour surfing the web. McDonald’s of Russia is nothing like the ones you find in North America. They are well-kept dining experiences.

2. Collect those Flyers!
I spent my first six months in Moscow turning my nose up at people trying to hand me flyers on the street. Finally, my roommate asked me why I wasn’t taking advantage of the great deals. Unlike the street flyers I found in North America or Britain, these flyers actually offered deals- no 10% off your second latte ridiculousness. Always grab a flyer from someone standing outside one of Moscow’s coffee chains (Шоколадница or Кофе Хауз) because they give away two-for-one coffees and sandwiches.

3. Count your Roubles!
Russia is not and I repeat not a plastic society! You will be expected to pay in cash for everything. If you’re paying by credit card then chances are you’re paying for some inflated foreigner benefits. When exchanging money, ensure that you receive small banknotes. You’re expected to pay in cash and to give exact change. If you try to buy a can of cola with a 1,000 rouble note you might be out of luck. It’s wiser to count out your money in coins then risk having to purchase extra items to make the cashier happy.

4. Watch what you eat!
When dining, keep a menu with you. More often than not, the menu will have photos to help you identify your meal. When you receive the bill, review the items on it. Not every restaurant is out to rip you off but it does happen. Some restaurants take advantage of foreigners who can’t read Russian and add extra hoping you won’t notice. Quickly scan your bill for any extra items and compare any unknowns to the menu.

5. Service with a Smile!
Tipping your waiter is still customary in Moscow but you don’t need to go all out. Handing over only 10% is normal and expected. You’re not going to get an overwhelming ‘thank-you’ if you leave 25% nor will you be accosted if you leave 10%. Don’t worry about it.
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July features a series of posts on being smart with your money while travelling. Pop by previous posts:

Photo Credit: Neil1877

Here’s the second in this month’s series on saving money while travelling.

Looking for affordable accommodations when you travel this summer without giving up comfort? My pal Gregg saved hundreds on his European tour by using an online site.
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I’m 48 years old, and having just returned from a 3 week/9 city whirlwind tour through Europe, I’ve been joking that it was my two decade late ‘post university tour’. For this trip, however, I wasn’t quite up to the thought of lugging a backpack around and sleeping in less-than-private hostels. I wanted a bit more peace-of-mind knowing I had a room reservation and, if at all possible, a private bathroom.

As I went online to research hotel prices in Europe my naiveté became apparent. I was making my plans only two to three weeks from my departure date and WOW are hotel rooms expensive – those ain’t dollars, they’re Euros, worth 40% more! As I contemplated delaying my trip, I decided to look at more affordable options having recently heard there were web services connecting travellers with people renting out rooms and apartments. So I started my search and came across AirBnB.com

Airbnb lets anyone search and book rooms, apartments and unique spaces from people around the world. Membership is free and the only fee you pay is a small booking fee charged on top of the rental once you commit to a reservation. For my trip I was looking for a room for two people for two nights in cities like London, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Florence, Rome and Barcelona and found great convenient places for each of them. Prices ($CDN) ranged from $58/night for a room in someone’s London apartment near Canary Warf, to $77 for a full flat/apartment in Prague, to $90 for rooms in Paris and Amsterdam, to $93/$98 for Florence/Rome, and $88 in Barcelona for a full funky place in the centre of town that I booked last-minute using the Airbnb iPhone app.

Everything worked out great with all our reservations, and the best part was meeting local people who were more than happy to chat and provide insider tips and tourist information. Of course you can’t always tell exactly what a place will be like from a website photo (our Rome apartment was fine but the street and entranceway were not appealing), but Airbnb features like testimonials, photos and Google Street View minimize any uncertainty. And although you submit your credit card information when you book, the charge is held ‘in-trust’ until you arrive and find everything is suitable. This gave me great peace of mind knowing that I wasn’t handing out my credit card, or cash, to strangers, and that I could call Airbnb to cancel and receive a refund if the space was unavailable or not suitable.

The trip was great and staying with locals in each city really helped us feel connected to the cities and countries we were visiting. Although I found Airbnb to be the only site I needed to use, you can also check out Crashpadder.com, Couchsurfing.org, For Rent by Owners,and Vacation Rentals By Owners . I didn’t use these as the latter two focused more on apartments and homes for rent for longer stays, and the first two didn’t seem as feature-rich, but they may be worth a look too. To check out how Airbnb works go to: www.airbnb.com/info/how_it_works.

Bon Voyage!
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Gregg Taylor is a career coach and consultant who loves life, travel, and supporting people through life and career transitions. He can be reached at gregg at visionpath.ca

Readers: any tips for comfortable accommodations at affordable prices while travelling? Anyone use any other sites?

Featured Image photo credit: Jessamyn

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