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 –

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.