Talking Finance


Headfirst into the Taboo

Without fail, we’re put under the financial spotlight at least once per conversation when we’re chatting with the locals. We’re used to it, because no matter how modestly dressed we are, we’re gringos on bicycles. At first, we’d hem and haw, but after six weeks of practice here in Bolivia, we’ve honed diplomatic responses that satisfy curiosities without delving too deep into uncomfortable political and cultural truths. Here’s how a typical conversation might unfold…

Question #1: How much do your bikes cost?
A: $800 (half the actual cost of the basic bike, and we don’t include gear costs)

Question #2: How much does your trip cost?
A: $450 per month (again roughly half the true amount)

Question #3: How much is rent in California?
A: $800 for a room in a shared house in San Francisco, and that we can’t afford to live alone. We quickly follow with ”but in Indiana, a state in the middle of our country, you can find rent for $350.”

Question #4: How much do you earn annually?
A: People our age generally make roughly $30,000, but it depends on the type of work and the cost of living is also higher.

Question #5: How much does a plate of food cost in the US?
A: $8-10 for lunch and $15-20 for dinner

There’s an obvious trend in our responses. We continually try to reel in the Hollywood impression that everyone in the US is a privileged millionaire, which is a difficult and delicate an issue, when in a relative sense, we are.

Our Coin Purse, and Theirs

No doubt, we feel conflicted about our newfound purchasing power in Bolivia. We’re relieved to be saving money as long-term travelers, but not accustomed to the status of high-rolling Americans. For context, here’s a glimpse into the cost of living in Bolivia, prices we’ve encountered first hand and those we’ve learned from asking point blank, as the locals do. All prices are given in US dollars, converted at the current rate of 6.87 Bolivianos per dollar.

At the market…

  • Bananas, 3 for $0.15
  • Mandarins, 5 for $0.30
  • Avocado (large and glorious), 1 for $0.60 
  • Bread roll size of tea plate, 1 for $0.07 (national rate based on a flour subsidy)
  • Water crackers, one sleeve for $0.21
  • 2 liter bottle of water, $0.90
  • 2 liter bottle of Coca Cola, $1.75
  • 2 liter bottle of Coka Quina, $1.02
  • 660ml pilsner, $1.89
  • Potatoes, 3 for $0.15
  • 2 onions, 2 carrots, and a hot pepper, totals $0.30
  • Corn cobs, 8 for $1.50
  • Whole chicken, $1.05 per pound

Typical Meals:

  • Breakfast that includes a fried dough and a glass of warm api (made from white corn meal, cinnamon, sugar, and lemon juice), $0.45
  • Lunch and dinner follow the general formula of a soup and a plate of rice topped with a fried chicken breast and side of fries, $1.75-2.18

Miscellaneous:

  • Internet, $0.90 per hour
  • Toilet paper, $0.15 per roll
  • Electric heater shower head (terrifying), $11.35
  • Coca leaves, $5.09 per pound
  • Bar of soap, $0.60
  • Rent, small shop in tourist town of Coroico, $291 per month (terribly expensive, according to the tenant)
  • Bed for a night, $2.90
  • Four hour bus trip, $4.36
  • Four hour hitch in a dump truck, $1.45
  • Electricity for small apartment, $36.00 per month (incredibly expensive)

Four Figure Living

We’ve been able to live comfortably in Bolivia for roughly $11 per person, per day. That comes to $4,015 per year, including accommodations, transportation, food for cooking breakfast and dinner, snacks for lunch, internet time, James’s Coca Cola addiction, and Katie’s sweet tooth. Our bus costs can be heavy in one day, but over time they average out. (Yes, as unexpected as it may seem, we’ve found ourselves being transported, instead of transporting, in Bolivia, a necessary evil in this muddy mountainous paradise.)

So there it is, a piece of our financial story -and theirs- laid out. With it all in words, the US really does sound astronomical, but as we’ve learned, it’s complicated to take it at face value.