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The Coffee Calculation

March 15, 2012

Directing aid toward women is the latest fashion in the development world. Women are believed to do a better job investing in their children and households than men. Think Muhammed Yunnis and the Grameen Bank in Bangledesh – small, micro-loans designed for women and organized in neighborhood support groups. The other hot buzz-project in development is to offer poor women cash to meet basic needs provided that kids are in school and get regular health check-ups (called a Conditional Cash Transfer Program). Read the article I wrote for, to learn more about examples from my community and from around Latin America.

While Panama has not treaded into the field of micro-credit, they do operate a conditional cash transfer program called the Red de Oportunidades, or Opportunity Network. Most of us just call it the Red. Sponsored by the World Bank, the program has been operating in the Comarca for five years and grants women $100 every two months to have an extra financial cushion. Whether it intended to or not, the Red has become the absolute backbone of households in this area. Hunger, already widespread, would absolutely cripple some families here, if not for the bi-monthly cash stipend.

In this area, I’ve been working alongside the local promoters for the Red to train women on financial management and organizing in groups.

One of my favorite trainings was about how to track expenses and budget in order to save. It included a colorful, yet simple and easy-to-follow chart complete with a catchy 3-step process to reach your savings dreams!

1. Track Expenses – write it down or put a check mark next to a picture.

2. Analyze Expenses – what is necessary and what isn’t.

3. Revise Expenses – set aside some money each month for savings and carefully and mindfully choose something that you can afford to cut.

I know what you are thinking – these women have $50 a month, how is it possible to cut anything?! Just, stick with me, I’ll get to my point eventually.

Much to my delight, people love to drink coffee here. There is almost nothing in this world I prefer more than visiting someone and drinking a nice, sugary cup of coffee together and talking. BUT, when I asked how much coffee they buy in a day, I was surprised to learn that they average 4 to 6 2-ounce packets. So I crunched the math on the chalkboard while they stared – eager to see the result of all their coffee consumption.

Each packet costs $0.15, so we are talking $0.75 per day (if 4 packets), totaling $5.25 per week. Over the year, they spend $273.00 on coffee – not including the sugar. If they cut one packet ($0.15*365 days), they would save $54.75 a year – a relatively big chunk for families that bring in less that $1,000 annually.

And what is my expectation? That they actually write their expenses down? That they actually drink less coffee? Nope and nope. (Especially since drinking coffee sometimes substitutes a full meal during lean months)

I just want to get them talking about it. How many times have you been advised in some financial class or credit management pamphlet to track your expenses? And how many of you actually do it? I’m guessing that few of us actually follow-through on those typical life lessons that we are given.

Half our job as live-in volunteers and window-openers to the great wide world is to be memorable. And please believe, they remembered. My neighbor volunteer said that all the women were commenting on how much they could save if they cut one coffee pack a day. They also said that I was crazy for suggesting it. One of my tía’s (aunts) always tells me, “Yessi, I can’t give you coffee anymore because I have to cut back!” and then we laugh as she inevitably serves me up a hot cup. I’m pleased that she is even thinking about it.

We are trying to deliver messages about health and wellness to people with low-education and literacy. Needless to say, retention of new concepts is low and anything we can do to increase their effect is welcome. In my case, I wanted to increase awareness about how spending can add up quickly and send the message that they can control their finances. Like a lot of Peace Corps work, it is about the fluffy, gooey feelings stuff that is difficult to measure – it is about empowerment.

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