About That Bulge in My Pocket

Know what convenience of life in the developed world that I miss most on a daily basis? Credit cards.

Very few places in Tanzany accept credit cards.  In fact, I have only used my credit card three times in the three months I have been here: twice at a travel agent and once at a hotel.  Everything else is done in cash.

So I spend a lot of time walking around with big Puff-Daddy-sized wads of cash in my pockets. For instance, take a look at our April rent payment.

Makes you feel like a target for muggers, frankly. 

I also spend a lot more time at ATMs than I like.  I am pulling out cash pretty much every other day.  In part this is because international credit cards limit your withdrawal to 400,000 Tanzanian Schillings (about $260) per one transaction.  Also, my US bank limits our daily withdrawls to $600.  And it’s fairly common that the ATM is out of order or low on cash so you may have to visit several before you find one that works. 

So paying for anything significant usually requires several trips to the ATMs over multiple days.

While starting up her office, Colleen used a cash card for the first few months.  When she had to make payroll she would travel around town emptying ATMs at various locations until she had enough.  You didn’t want to be behind her in the ATM line, I can tell you.

Given that almost everything happens in cash, it’s a pain in the ass that the largest bill they have is the 10,000 TSH note (US $7.50).  (I know, I know.  I dissed the Mexican NP$200 note, I may be changing my mind about that.)  That stack of April rent money is a bit under 4 million TSHs (About US $2,000, or another way to look at it, 7 trips to the ATM.)  I spent 10 minutes with the hotel staff just counting it out to make sure that we had the right amount.

All this cash also means that you have to be physically present for every transaction.  It makes me a lot more appreciative of Amazon.com and order-taking call centers.

And it makes keeping a budget tricky.  We withdrew about $5,000 from the ATM in May and I couldn’t tell you what we spent it on.    It took Colleen and a colleague several days to work their ways through the receipts to account for all of it.

If there is any upside, it’s an old personal budgeting trick that you should pay for things in cash to make yourself more aware of the money you are spending.  Pushing that pile of bills across the table to the hotel manager made me a lot more conscious of how much money we were spending to stay there.

So, in Tanzany, for rent and groceries and electric bills and gas and movies and cell phones and tuition payments and restaurants there is cash.  For NOTHING else … there’s MasterCard.