I am learning to live on a shoestring budget after taking a walloping salary cut when I moved to Aruba. Even though my modest teacher salary was almost cut in half, my income here is actually comparable to the average income for most Arubans, so I aptly adapted and am living like the locals. In so doing, I quickly shed my American consumer mentality in order to survive. I said goodbye to a myriad of products and brands and services that were once part of my everyday life. There are things I simply cannot afford to indulge in while living in paradise. My kitchen is not equipped with every major appliance. I never did buy a toaster. I don’t read magazines anymore. And at nearly $10 a box, cereal for breakfast in the morning is no longer an option. I will admit that the hardest thing to give up has been shopping for clothes. And if flip flops do not count as real footwear, then I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes since moving here 15 months ago – now that may easily be my greatest sacrifice.
It all sounds a bit gloomy and bleak, but that is not the case at all. There is this delightful game of bartering that takes place when it comes to island living. And if you engage in the shuffling of one thing for another with creative enthusiasm, the island will lead you to discover a gleaming treasure in exchange for everything you are forced to relinquish. Since some things here are astronomically expensive, they are swapped out for other things that are surprisingly cheap. And most of the time a far more amusing, and sometimes superior, substitute is uncovered. That, or you learn that you never needed what you gave up in the first place.
Here are 7 of the trade-offs for treasures that I have discovered in my island life:
1. Seafood and take away snacks are what’s for dinner.
Buying food on an island is expensive. If it is in a glossy package with a cartoon character and catchy caption, then you are going to have to quit cold turkey because it will cost 3 to 4 times the amount that it does in the states. I’ve had to shorten my itemized grocery list significantly to make it on this new budget. Luckily, living on an island brings a fresh daily supply of seafood for next to nothing. I pay about $3-4 USD for the catch of the day, which would cost me a fortune in the landlocked city where I previously lived. When it comes to finding other staple grocery items, it pays to shop around. Some of the best deals can be found in small corner stores that advertise imported products from countries in South America. I walked to one like this around the corner from my house early this morning. I went in for eggs and left with a dozen in a simple paper carton stamped Aruba. I also bought a bag of purple Peruvian potatoes, a bunch of bananas, and a handful of chicha morada candies. All of this cost around 10 Florin, which is the equivalent of $5.59 USD.
Arubans love their snacks, and culinary influences from all over the planet merge here. At every turn, there is a take away located next to homes that doubles as a business. It’s as if mom is cooking in her kitchen for the entire island and everyone is invited to sample recipes passed down from one generation to another. She opens up the Dutch door and invites all who pass by to order up an Aruban pastechi, or a Colombian emapanada, or a Dutch croquette, or Surinamese roti, or Peruvian ceviche. And the good news is that all of these savory snacks are filling and served generously enough to double as a meal when you are on a budget. Essentially, dinner can be bought for the price of a snack, which is about 3-6 Florin, or roughly $2-3 USD.
2. Movies are cheap if you can’t afford the book.
Buying books and magazines here is costly. I’ve had to give up magazines altogether. I will sometimes stop in front of the magazine aisle at the grocery store or bookstore to casually flip through and mourn this loss. Recently, I signed up for a library card to make my way around the book dilemma. Still, it is not a perfect solution, and it can be impossible to find some authors. I’m currently looking for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s like trying to find sap to harvest from a maple tree in the dense desert island thicket. The worst is reading the name of an author perched high on a shelf, only to open it up and find the book is written in Dutch. But if you can’t find the book, the next best thing is finding out that it will be released as a movie because going to the movies here is surprisingly cheap. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, tickets are 2 for 1. And buying popcorn and soda isn’t a luxury here like it is in the states. No need to sneak a candy bar in your handbag. Basically, you can go to the movies and have the popcorn for around 12 Florin, which is about $6.70 USD.
3. Remember to ask for the local discount.
Once I officially became a working resident and obtained the much coveted AZV card, I found out that there are all kinds of discounts if you remember to ask. Any tourist destination will let you pay the USD amount with Aruban Florins, which is basically slashing the price in half. We take advantage of this hiking Arikok Park most Sundays. My favorite Florin for Dollar deal is at a luxury resort on the island, Tierra del Sol, where you can go on Sundays and pay 90 Florin (around $50 USD) for a one hour massage and gain access to the pool and other facilities for the remainder of the day. And other retail businesses often offer a decent discount on products sold to island residents. Aruba Aloe offers discounts on all of their aloe body products, so I buy all of my body lotion there. It feels good to support local businesses too.
4. Laundry service is one of the best deals around.
There are laundry services on every corner all over the island where you can plop down a bag of dirty laundry and just walk away. They will wash it, dry it, and then professionally fold everything and pack it up for pick up. It always feels and smells like angels have cleaned your laundry. All of this for 12 Florin a load. It may sound like a hefty amount, but when you factor in that you live on an island and only wear one summer season wardrobe and that laundry detergent could easily cost you almost the same amount since it is one of those ridiculously expensive items, then paying for laundry service just makes economic sense. Throughout my first year, I stubbornly insisted on doing laundry at home and hanging it on the line to dry while lizards darted between my feet. The novelty soon wore off, and after my washing machine quit working, I realized I was just wasting my time with the line and lizards. Now I take two bags every two weeks and pay about $24 USD a month. And nothing compares to not having to do laundry. I remind myself of this everyday while routinely washing a never-ending stack of dishes by hand.
5. Let go of brand loyalty and look for the Dutch equivalent.
Aruba is part of the Dutch Caribbean, so the influence from the Netherlands is felt all over the island. I discovered early on that the Dutch stuff is cheaper than the American product next to it on the shelf, yet the quality is always the same, or sometimes even better. So when I am out shopping for just about anything, I veer my cart towards the Dutch products. I have no idea what any of the stuff is since I don’t speak the language and can’t read the labels. I decipher what I am buying through the picture on the package. Some American products are sold in disguise in the Netherlands, like Mr. Clean who is Mr. Proper. One of the best things about buying Dutch is that there is always some new quirky discovery to make. I sometimes take my native friend shopping with me and have her introduce me to new products at the grocery store. “Show me something that you would buy,” I dramatically plead. A few weeks ago, she taught me about hagelslag. These are sprinkles like the kind on top of donuts and cupcakes that cause kids to squeal and clap their hands simultaneously, but in the Netherlands, adults pour them over bread and butter. Who needs breakfast cereal when you have hagelslag? Another perk to living under the Dutch influence is the ubiquitous, inexpensive, never-ending supply of gourmet cheese. They sell it in bulk, giant blocks of it are on the shelves in every store, including the gas station.
6. The best beaches in life are free.
Most of the things I do here that bring joy are absolutely free. Going to the beach tops the list. It is the go-to replacement for anything that seems to be missing. I have also taken up hiking because I can’t get enough of the natural setting here after living in a cement city for so long. And the water that fills my bottle to keep me hydrated is some of the best water in the world. It is delicious and also costs next to nothing because of the superior desalination system here in Aruba: it flows right out of the tap. Most entertainment on the island is free of cost as well since entertainment here consists of one festival after another, month after month. The islanders do like to celebrate. The biggest celebration on the island takes place during the season of Carnival; it doesn’t cost a dime and all of the events held for over a month leading up to it are also free of charge. Basically, you bring your own chair, take a seat on the street, mix yourself a drink, and enjoy the show.
7. Say goodbye to a grueling commute.
The best kind of trade offs are the things from your previous life that needed to go. Cold weather comes to mind. Grueling commutes are another. Nearly two years ago when I was considering the move to Aruba, I remember thinking I could never make it if my salary was nearly cut in half. But so much of my hard-earned money was spent just maintaining life working in the city. One of the biggest expenses was my commute to work. Sometimes my trip home would take over an hour because of gridlock traffic on freeways. Nothing eased the pain of that daily back and forth, no amount of audiobooks, or NPR, or Spanish language lessons. I no longer drive on freeways. Nowadays, my commute is ten minutes on winding roads, lined with towering cacti. If there is a traffic jam, it is usually because the goats have gathered for a meeting in the roundabout. And like the beach, my new commute to work more than makes up for any sacrifices I have made – it may even be a fair trade off for all the shoes I haven’t bought since moving to this rock. Of course, if you ask any island girl, flip-flops do count as actual footwear.
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What are some trade-offs you’ve made on your rock that have ended up being a surprising benefit of island living?
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