Money Journal: How to live like a local

Like many people, I was shocked and appalled at the recent post by Refinery29’s “Money Diaries” in which an overpaid NGO worker detailed a week of luxury living.


Not all expats cloister themselves in foreign privilege. As an NGO worker myself (my organisation translates TED Talks into Burmese for local leprosy victims), I choose to live a life of traditional modesty. I have tracked my own spending for one full Saturday.

Monthly expenses

Rent: $0 (I live in a basic flat with my local girlfriend and her mother, grandmother, sister, brother-in-law, nieces and nephews)

Insurance: $0 (local healthcare is accessible and affordable)

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Savings: Five sacks of old plastic bottles ready for recycling

Daily spending

6:45am: Wake up. My girlfriend broke up with me last night, so I slept under the building’s stairway. Fortunately, I can use a plastic cover on one of the water meters as a mirror for shaving. $0.00

7:15am: Breakfast. Rather than waste money at a Western coffee shop or cafe, I accept breakfast from a passing novice monk. He looks surprised and confused when I take the bananas from his alms bowl, but it’s probably because foreigners rarely deign to embrace his local traditions. $0.00

7:20am: Shopping. I need to move into a new place, but no expensive furniture for me! If locals can sleep on bamboo mats, an inexpensive DIY bed should be more than enough for this spoiled Westerner. I walk to the junkyard and get some old tyres from Ko “Tiger Spots” Aung in exchange for a bottle of Grand Royal whisky. I drag them back to the space under my now-ex girlfriend’s stairs. $0.76

12:45pm: Lunch time. It’s Saturday, but I have a few emails to catch up on. I don’t have a computer (why burn thousands of dollars on some stupid Apple gizmo?), so I work from an electronics store in Myanmar Plaza, rotating between six different display laptops so the staff don’t get suspicious. $0.00

2:45pm: Free time! My mates have all gone to 50th Street Bar to watch some big rugby match, but as a guest in Myanmar, I prefer to embrace traditional sports, so Tiger Spots Aung and I head to a cockfighting ring in a warehouse behind the Drug Elimination Museum. I bet on a rooster named Sonny Swe and win K1,200. $0.79

4:49pm: Drinks with Tiger Spots Aung. A local would never dream of spending thousands of kyat on fancy cocktails, so why should I? Tiger Spots and I visit the home of Gun Ja, a Kachin Independence Army veteran who makes rice wine with the same traditional techniques he used in the foxholes, despite his blindness – which I assume came from fighting in the jungle. (A great, great grandson of Irish immigrants, I can empathise with the ethnic struggle.) $0.84

5:36pm: The police raid Gun Ja’s apartment and I have to pay them off with my cockfighting winnings. $0.79

6:11pm: I head back to my now-ex girlfriend’s building, where her grandmother has prepared dinner. She technically set it out for the dogs, but I have established myself as their alpha and have first pick of the rice and chicken gizzards. I enjoy it on my balcony (it’s technically a fire escape, but has a great sunset view) with a salad of microgreens grown in the window sill. I’m not sure what the greens are (they were already growing when I moved in) but in Buddhist tradition, I take what the Earth gives me. $0.00

8:30pm: Time to hit the town! Although I’m newly single, I’ve been getting to know a cute French programme coordinator I found on Tinder. She likes waffles with Nutella, weekends in Singapore, spending time with her cat and Aperol Spritzes. I’ve been seeing her a lot lately, and hopefully soon I’ll work up the courage to introduce myself. $0.00

10:15pm: After a long night, it’s time for a little leave planning. Perhaps I’ll spend Thingyan at my family’s summer cottage in the Seychelles for a week of sailing and kite surfing from our private yacht. It’s important to treat yourself once in a while.

Daily Total: $1.60

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