The “Loose Change” Issue

One of the convenient things about being a U.S. citizen living in Ecuador is that there is not foreign money exchange.  The same dollar bills used in the U.S. are also used in Ecuador.  According to Business Insider, there are over twenty countries that use the U.S. Dollar as national currency in some form. Some countries adopted this change of currency after their own money lost its value.

For the small country of Ecuador, this happened in January of 1999.  The president announced on January 7, 1999, that they would discontinue using the “sucre” and adopt the U.S. dollar for all monetary transactions.

The first minting of the Sacagewa dollar coin also happened the same year, although it was first dated as 2000.  Perhaps it was the familiar face of a woman carrying her small child on her back that made this coin so popular among Ecuadorians.  This coin was part of an effort to memorialize the contributions of individual tribes and peoples in  native American history in the U.S. However, the people in Ecuador just see a lady who looks like their next door neighbor as she tries to make a living cooking local food or selling items she has made in a local marketplace.    I personally never saw this coin in the U.S., but saw it used everywhere I went shopping in Quito and other cities in Ecuador.

sacagewa coin 2000

The Sacagewa dollar coin used by Ecuadorians as spare change were first minted in 2000 but rarely circulated within the U.S. (Image from – treehugger.com)

Although the transition from the sucre to the dollar was painful, especially those in poor communities, the country was able to stabilize its economic situation within a few years. Perhaps this transition was also a reason that so many were able to accept the coin with the Sacagawea image as their own currency.   It is, by far, the most popular coin used in daily transactions.

It makes sense that these coins are especially used by those in the lower economic strata.  For these citizens and entrepreneurial business people with small businesses, cash is king.  Having a bank account is a mark of luxury.  Very few have credit cards or handle checks of any kind.

One prime example is the lady who cares for our sons while I’m teaching.  Her name is Marina Hernandez. She’s in her late 50’s and she’s never had a bank account in her life.

“I need $100 to start a bank account,” she told me once. “I just don’t have that kind of money.”

Therefore, I must pay her in cash.  Her payday is on Friday.  Without disclosing the exact amount that I pay her on a weekly basis, I will tell you that the final two digits end with 10. One particular Friday, I found that I did not have change for that final $10 bill that I needed to give her.  I had a $20, but I needed to break it down to give Marina half of it.  So, I put Jared and Luke in a stroller and took off down the street near our home.

I stopped at a pharmacy to buy something.  They didn’t have change, so I used the last few coins in my wallet  to purchase something I needed and continued on to another store.  I stopped at a corner bakery and tried to buy a few bread rolls that were less than $2 total.  When I presented my $20, the lady shook her head.  She had no change.  I was about to leave the store without buying the bread, when she said something that shocked me.

“Oh, that’s O.K.  Just take the bread.  You can pay me back later.”

When I asked her if she was sure about that, she said, “Oh, I know you’ll be coming back.  Just pay me the next time you are here.”

Well, I left the store feeling a little amazed at her trust, but still needing to get some change.  So, I stopped at another street vendor to buy two pints of strawberries that were worth $2.  The lady also gave me the same response.

She said she had no change, but I could pay her back later. Wow, at this rate, I’m going to be owing everyone money all the way down the street!

Finally, I came to a little stationary store and bought a ball for Jared and a few other items.  The purchase was going to be about $5.  I pulled out my $20, and to my dismay, the lady said she had no change.

However, she looked to a customer who was purchasing something behind me and managed to get the change I needed, from him, to give to me.

Finally, I had my change.  I was able to go back and pay everyone else that I owed money to, and get back home to give the $10 to Marina. I had learned two valuable lessons that day.  First, street vendors are very trusting and generous to their regular customers.  Second, never leave the house without some loose change handy (especially those Sacagewa dollars)!

*********************************************************************************

Author Note: This post was initially written in October of 2009.  Besides updating some of the history behind the use of the U.S. dollar in Ecuador, I have not lived there since June of 2011.

Research shows that there is current questioning among governing authorities as to whether or not the dollarization in Ecuador was the right choice.  There is evidence that there could be a possible de-dollarizing of the economy through the use of electronic currency.  Time will tell how or when these changes might come.

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35 Comments

  1. In today’s climate it is unusual to find so many trusting business owners. That’s a very frustrating story with a positive ending. Marina can use $100.00 to open the account and then withdrawal $90.00 the next business day.

    Reply

    1. Yes, that is true. But I don’t think Marina understands how the whole banking system works. I hope she’ll open a bank account some day and find out. =)

      Reply

  2. Ha-ha!
    Great post. I learned about Ecuador’s use of the US Dollar only yesterday in geography class, and I was able to use your piece in a presentation.

    Keep writing – and drop by my blog sometime.
    immigrantheretic.wordpress.com

    – your newest subscriber.

    Reply

  3. This was an interesting read, thanks for sharing 🙂

    I am assuming that these vendors who allowed you to take in trust, “fiao” was what it was called when i was a kid, were of the indigenous or native culture. Being an indigenous person myself (I’m from the Caribbean, a Taino indian) I can say that the trusting nature is cultural. One assumes several things from another person: 1) that they honor reciprocality (tit for tat) 2) that they are as good as their word 3) and they wouldn’t take what wasn’t needed 4) you had you children with you and it takes a village

    Again this is based on assumption, but it was the values that I grew up with.

    Reply

  4. very interesting. I had a similar experience in Italy. I bought a bottle of mineral water and had nothing smaller than a 500. lira bill. The cashier just told me to forget the cost.

    Reply

  5. This was really interesting. Thanks! I had no idea that the dollar was Ecuador’s currency, even though I have friends originally from Ecuador. In Honduras, stores will accept U.S. dollars, in addition to the Honduran currency, the Lempira, or Lemps as we called them.

    Reply

    1. I lived in Honduras for nine years as a child and all my siblings were born there. So, I’m very familiar with the lempira. =) Ecuador used their own currency “the sucre” until their economy bottomed out at the turn of the century. Actually, they still use their own coins as 50 cent peices, because they don’t have any US equivelancy used down here for that. Also, they use interchangeably the 10 cent peice and the 5 cent peice along with the U.S. equivelants of that.

      Reply

  6. Um, not to be a jerk or anything, but that’s a Sacagawea gold dollar. Susan B Anthonies are silver and a lot older. Sorry, but I’m a coin collector and that kind of thing drives me crazy.

    Reply

  7. Wow, I’m surprised they are that trustworthy. That’s cool you get to spend time in Ecuador. I’ve always wanted to travel to some part of South America.

    Reply

  8. Interesting post! I never knew Ecuador used the dollar. Here in Japan it is mostly cashed based too. Lots of coins and paper, but almost no credit cards. It’s wonderful that the people you bought from are so trusting. The world could use more of that!

    Reply

    1. Yes, it is. I am sure it is because I am a regular customer with these people and I’ve always tried to be respectful and greet them when I come by…even when I don’t buy anything.

      Reply

  9. I used to work with street vendors in Harlem and realized the same thing with a lot of my clients. Also, its not rare for women, especially, in developing countries to struggle with opening bank accounts. You should look at Grameen Bank and Dr. Yunus’ analysis on how the banking system has not been created to accommodate those living in poverty.

    Reply

  10. Nice story and it is good to hear such trust is still out there. I don’t want to sound critical but there is a small error in your post. I came to your blog because of the photo in this post as I am an avid collector of this coin and I thought it would have some new info for me to read. The coin is not a Susan B. Anthony but is a Sacagawea Golden Dollar 2000 and the mint mark is hard to make out but looks like a San Francisco which would make sense. These coins were last released into circulation in 2000 although they still are minted for mint and proof sets for collectors. Starting this year they are changing the reverse designed to start a new series and they will now have edge lettering of motto mint and date. You can check the web site of the US Mint and there should be some great photos of the Susan B Anthony. Thank you for the great read. It was a very up lifting to be reminded that there are “home town people” everywhere!

    Reply

    1. I made the correction already and changed the picture caption as well as what I had written in my post. You should notice the “change” by now. (Pardon the pun.)

      -Cristina

      Reply

  11. I heard on NPR yesterday that Disney World is going to for a specific amount of time only give dollar change in coins in order to make another attempt at making Americans use them because it is more cost effective than paper money. I hope it works out, when traveling abroad I find it so nifty to have 1 and 2 amounted coins.

    Reply

  12. i am sorry, but i have an impression that you communicate with yourself here, in comments. lol! does it mean you want to have more comments? or you have the second personality inside and it also want to say something?

    Reply

    1. I was responding to people’s comments. Perhaps those original comments were deleted or I forgot to approve them. This is the first time I’ve received so many comments for a particular post, so I haven’t really gotten the hang of the whole approval system yet. =)

      Reply

  13. I remember on my first trip to Ecuador my husband purchased some gifts for the family at a rather large store and tried to pay with a $50. Even though his purchase was almost $30, they would not accept his money, because they thought his fifty dollar bill was a fake. From my experience, most people never see anything over a $20. After that, I always travel with a lot of $5s and $10s.

    Reply

    1. Also, there is a lot of problems with counterfeit money…especially in the denominations of $20 or above. Some people have decided just to refuse these bills because they can’t tell if it is real or fake.

      Reply

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