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The Psychology of Money: How a T-Shirt Equals a Taco

Photo: othermore (other)

Recently, I took a big bag of clothes to a consignment store. Out of the 20 garments I brought in, the store buyer took exactly one shirt.

My payout? $2.18 in cash or $4.00 in store credit.

Since I did not have time to shop around with the $4.00 store credit windfall, I decided to cash out. “I’ll take the whopping two dollars and change,” I told the cashier dryly.

“Well, that’ll buy you a taco,” she answered. We both laughed. (See also: The Best 5 Deals in Every Thrift Store)

Other Alternative Currencies

On the way home, I started thinking about the cashier’s $2.00 taco. I’d never heard of a taco being used as a unit of measurement before. Which is weird, because I live in Los Angeles where Mexican food as currency seems like a no-brainer.

I started wondering if the cashier is one of those brave bike activists in Los Angeles who doesn’t own a car, because the standard Angeleno alternative monetary unit is a Tank of Gas. As in, “Oh, you only made $50.00 at the school bake sale? Well, at least that’s a tank of gas.”

Then again, it is more likely that the cashier is actually a starving student who is too young to remember when coffee, which has become the new Pizza and Beer of college budgeting, didn’t cost $5.00.

On a side note, out of all the alternative monetary units, a Cup of Coffee seems to be the hardest hit by inflation. How many personal finance stories refer to the Latte Factor or use Starbucks’ coffee as a budgeting gauge?

A Personal Exchange Rate Is Personal

Everyone has his or her own personal exchange rate. Thinking back on my life as a consumer, my default monetary unit has always been shoe based. (I think Cute Shoes is a common monetary unit with us ladies).

However, when I was furnishing my first house, every single luxury purchase was measured against the Mohair Sofa exchange rate.

I think the reason why I was so taken by the Taco as monetary unit is because it legitimized the value of the $2.18 I had received in exchange for a shirt. I was annoyed that I’d driven down to the consignment store only to return home $2.18 richer. However, because I love tacos, the idea that I could get a quickie snack in exchange for a shirt I no longer liked took the sting from the original cash transaction.

Alternative Currencies as a Budgeting Tool

I suspect that I use alternative monetary units to talk to myself about spending and saving money, because it’s somehow easier than just thinking of my expenses without the context of a reward. For example, I used to think of $20.00 as a Bag of Groceries. Since it depresses me that I can no longer buy the same amount of food for one twenty dollar bill, as I once did, I’ve stopped using a Bag of Groceries as a method of tracking my spending.

Personal Exchange Rates Reflect Personal Values

I wonder what people choose as their alternative monetary unit says about their worldview. For example, my maternal grandmother, who was famous for never having a nice word to say about anyone, had an equally negative monetary unit, the BASSITE. Parking meter eats all your money? “Beats a sharp stick in the eye.” Boss promised you a 15% raise at the end of the year but then just gives you a $50.00 gift certificate to Sports Chalet instead? “Beats a sharp stick in the eye.”

As if a sharp stick in the eye has any value, to anyone, whatsoever.

Do you have an alternative monetary unit? What do you think your alternative monetary unit says about you? Does your alternative monetary unit help you save money or spend money? Please share your personal exchange rate in the comments section.

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