Day 1 — January 13, 2022
About two years ago I started saving my pocket change. I thought that plunking coins into a jar would be a great way to build up the down payment on a nice new guitar.
Now, in societies where the banks have optional savings plans and credit card companies have links to applications like Acorns and Stash, there would be better options. But here in the Balkans, a classic mason jar brimming with dirty coins is as good as it gets.
About a year ago the jar was full so I cleaned out a pickle jar and kept saving. Last week, I got tired of looking at my growing coin collection, which was taking up a bit too much space on my dresser, and I decided it would be a good idea to take it to the bank.
As banks are the distribution centers of currency, one would think this would be a normal transaction. However, this being Bulgaria, I knew it would not be so easy. Nothing is. But, it’s my bank, how hard could it be. Surely, they have to take it or know what I can do with it
So I lugged a purple crown royal bag across town.
“Would it be possible to deposit a bag of coins into my account?”
“We don’t do that here.” and she suggested taking it to another larger, more central branch nearby.
Walking there, 10 kilos of coins sloshing around in my bag. By the time I got there, I had removed my jacket. It was strangely hot for January. Wiping sweat from my neck as I entered the guard looked at me.
“What’s your business here?” the security guard asked me. (in Bulgarian)
I explained my situation, “I have a bag of coins I want to change,” and that I had been told to bring it here by so-n-so.
He looked perplexed and told me to wait at the door while he asked one of the clerks. He passed into a nook and I heard him ask the question. Waiting for the answer — already knowing what the answer was — I was not surprised by the clerk’s shotgun response of “NE.”
By the time the guard came back around the corner his finger was already wagging at me. The guard must have understood my frustration because he put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Take it to the shops in your neighborhood. They will appreciate it and you won’t have to pay any taxes on it like with a bank.”
Taxes?! On my savings? Deposited into my account? WTF?
I thanked him and walked out. Annoyed. My story hadn’t even begun and I was tired of carrying coins around. Knowing this process was going to take a while, I ended up giving a handful (about 1-2 euros) to an old man holding out a well-used paper cup.
Day 2 — January 14
That’s how this project started; not because I’m broke nor trying to prove some political or economic point. There’s no particular agenda motivating my exploration of using this pocket change other than getting rid of it without being screwed over.
I’m not going to claim, “I’m spending X-country’s daily national average” or compare myself to those in poverty. (Not like those posers who flew to South America and made a shitty documentary about living on a dollar a day.) Let’s be honest, you and I probably don’t understand poverty half as well as we think we do. I’m curious and saying, “Well, let’s see what happens.”
I’m going to see just how long I can live off this bag of change. I’m not going to use my credit cards or cash for any of my daily or weekly expenses until this change is completely gone. I’d like to be careful about spending it. I’d like to see how much I can save compared to the same months of ‘20 and ‘21. (I’ve kept a detailed record of my expenses.) Maybe I’m buying useless stuff? Maybe, deep down, I’m a glutton and I take my cornucopia for granted. Perhaps this experience will teach me some moderation or gratitude. Or maybe I’ll learn I’m getting ripped off or something.
I have plenty of food in my pantry, but I’m not going to price every item collecting dust on my cabinet shelves so we won’t worry about exact figures or trying to establish some kind of daily limit.
There are just some things people avoid eating. Dried soy chunks I bought back before the pandemic started. A tin of red herring a colleague gave me before he left the country 2 years ago. Seaweed wraps I bought intending to have a sushi night. Mung beans because I saw a joke about them on the Office (US). And a bag of caviar flavored croutons I have had since my trip to Kazakhstan in 2017. Souvenirs, right? These are just a few of my foolish purchases.
I’ll have to come up with some creative recipes to eat it all. So perhaps an unintended goal and benefit of this project will be to clean out the pantry. Maybe that’s the reason for keeping this journal.
I spent 2.44 on water and wafers. Bottled water isn’t something I usually buy so why did I waste so much on it today. I can drink what comes from the tap, right? Granted it tastes awful and is cloudy, but it’s water. I won’t be buying bottled water again. My meal for the day was mainly snacking on leftovers in the fridge and putting peanut butter on the wafers.
Day 3 — January 15
Total spent 6.17. I bought beer, bread, lutenitsa (Balkan ketchup), cilantro, a leek, and a pepper. My purchases were becoming a bit more strategic but still, beer? Soon I’ll have to start cutting it out of my budget if I want to make this bag last. I ate peanut butter jelly sandwiches. The beer went untouched.
Day 4 — January 16
I combined some cornmeal, grits, remaining flour, an egg, coconut oil, and water into a loaf of what could only be described as Southern Bread or Cajun Bread. Why? Because it goes very well with hot sauce, of course. That got me through the day, along with some leftover soup.
Day 5 — January 17
I spent way too much money today. 22.06!!! My cat needed kibble. I don’t think the lady at the pet store was happy about receiving 14.90 in coins. The rest of the money bought me 2 chicken legs, a lemon, 2 small beets, cola, mayonnaise, and apple vinegar. Yes, I know what you are thinking, cola? Yep, that’s going to have to be removed from the budget in the future. It’s not essential, is it? The pocket change project is very quickly becoming an aggressive attack on my drinking habit.
I used some of my newly acquired products to make quinoa salads for the rest of the week so I don’t need to purchase anything else for a while. Quinoa just seems to accumulate in a tupperware container in my cabinets. Almost like it grows a little each night. Not sure how, but I have an abundance now which should last longer than my coppers.
Day 6 — January 18
I have no willpower. 2.00 for a toasted ham and cheese pastry. But at least it was food, not beer or cola.
Day 7 — January 19
1.80 for a pastry (lunch/dinner)
Day 8 — January 20
2.98 (+ .10 just for the trouble of counting 3 leva in 1’s & 2’s) I bought a 1kg bag of flour and a pint of plain yogurt. I can make pita bread.
Day 9 — January 2
Before leaving my apartment for work today I’m asking myself, “Can I get through today without buying anything?” (The answer is yes.)
Day 10 — January 22
I usually buy 400-500 grams of coffee as needed from a shop about 5 minutes from the school I work at. The lady at the coffee shop did not like my pocket change. “I’m going to kill you. Where did you get this change? I don’t want the little ones.” 10 leva for 500 grams of coffee.
After work, I went for a beer with a friend. 3 lev for 1 pint. I ate (free) leftovers. I’m becoming a scavenger.
Day 11 — January 23
Green Onions, Red Pepper, Lime, Napa Cabbage, Cucumber for 5.56 leva. I’m planning on using old rice wraps and rice noodles for spring rolls.
Day 12 — January 24
1.80 for a pastry for lunch on my way home from work.
Day 13 — January 25
I went out for beers with the girl I was dating and she got upset when I asked her to buy one for me. I guess she forgot I had just paid for her half of the airfare and hotel for our Xmas vacation. I didn’t remind her but we got in a fight anyway. She left.
Thankfully, I have friends and they volunteered to buy me a couple beers without any drama.
Day 14 — January 26
Instant noodles were on sale — 5 packs for 3 leva. What a steal! Combined with random items in my fridge, I should have a week’s worth of food. I’m out of milk so I’ll try sticking to black coffee.
Everyone around the school has been getting sick and I’m feeling a bit under the weather. I hope I don’t get sick. Even with Eastern European prices for pills, one trip to the pharmacy with a bag of coins would piss off the pharmacist and end the project.
Day 15 — January 27
Black coffee isn’t my thing. I bought 500 ml of milk and will wean myself off using it. The cashier seemed happy to get the change. A student took me out for coffee, so that was nice.
I still have the sniffles so I’m just bundling up. I wore wool socks, sweatpants, and a shirt with an extra blanket to bed to sweat the illness out of my system.
Day 16 — January 28
I bought 376 grams of pork cutlets for 3.35 leva. The butcher appreciated being paid in change. I truly appreciate it when they are respectful about getting paid. I mean, what’s the point in making a fuss about whether it’s coins, cash, or a card? I kinda don’t want to go back to the coffee lady because she made me feel awful about paying with what I have. I wonder if she’d make such a fuss if I was a pensioner just scraping up enough money for something.
Day 17 — January 29
Day 18 — January 30
I might be about halfway through the change. I’ve been spending too much and haven’t made any drastic changes to my lifestyle other than not buying items on impulse.
What I have noticed is that when you have counted out the 2.45 in your hand before you go into the shop, it sets a limitation. That a bag of chips, soda, can of condensed milk, etc, just isn’t available anymore. They’re all luxury items. Kinda like toilet paper, which I ran out of yesterday. Don’t ask.
Day 19 — January 31
300 grams spinach, a large baguette, cream cheese = 4.74. Sometimes I feel a little embarrassed about counting out the change but the end game is in sight.
Day 20 — February 1
300 g. Macaroni = 3.05 added to the spinach and cream cheese was a decent investment — easy to create some simple pasta dishes just throwing in whatever.
Day 21 — February 2
Hummus and pita = 4.29
Day 22 — February 3
290 grams Sausage = 2.87
Day 23 — February 4
I talked with my Bulgarian teacher and this project came up in our discussion. She made an observation that people have become accustomed to eating without a reason. People put food on the table and know it will be eaten. But not because we’re actually hungry. It’s like we just want to get rid of the food.
We noted this isn’t just with food. Buy it, get rid of it! Buy, get rid! Buy, rid! It’s a very strange mentality. It’s not something I’ve accepted as normal. I know there are many people like me that hoard or hold onto items. As I write this I’m wearing a shirt from a school trip to the Smoky Mountains in 1994. Not because the trip was so sentimental, but because the shirt is very comfortable and I like the color.
Who are these people that buy seasonally and throw it out a year later, and how do their brains even function? I’ve long held that the fashion industry, which pummels numerous ecosystems, is the devil for making billions off convincing morons that trends are worth following more than being comfortable or moral.
Day 24 — February 5
Lettuce, tomato, cucumber. I didn’t keep the receipt.
Day 25 — February 6
1.30 on zakuski. 1.11 on a baguette.
Day 26 — February 7
2.00 on breakfast biscuits. (like a buttery American biscuit with some cheese curds in it.) I think I have about 50 leva left (About 30 bucks.) It’s payday and the temptation to go out and splurge is real. Considering how fast this change is disappearing I don’t think this project will continue well into March but I’ll try to stretch it out as long as I can.
I spent my weekly “allowance” on tomatoes, garlic, a large onion, and spaghetti. I have some leftover wine from guests, some bouillon, and all the necessary spices to make a great sauce. I’m thinking marinara will last a while, especially if I freeze the sauce and pull out what I need in the coming weeks.
I still have three jars of random soup in the freezer and a number of other items that could be a satisfying meal if thought out well.
Day 27 — February 8
I let the crockpot cook my sauce overnight on low and damn! I filled three jars and stuck them in the lower drawer of the freezer next to the soups.
Dinner was satisfying and I’m looking forward to eating this all week.
Day 28, 29, 30
No money spent.
Day 31 — February 12
Running low on everything. At work, they put new rolls of TP on every day and put what’s left of the previous to the side and I’ve snatched a few of those. I hate coffee without milk and I’m rationing my sugar now. Soon I’ll be out of coffee so I’ll be digging through the tea box.
I had to refill the cat food (10 leva) and have decided to decrease his rations. He always leaves the crumbs at the bottom and refuses to eat them (spoiled!). He’s a bit chubby so a little diet won’t be bad for him.
Day 32 — February 13
Pulled a jar of soup out of the freezer. The bottom broke while it was defrosting – it was a clean break so I ate it anyway. Added 2 potatoes, an onion, and chicken bullion, and bought a tiny cup of cream. I have around 30 leva left (maybe, haven’t counted it.) not counting what they call “yellows” (5’s,2’s, and 1’s) in the whiskey bag which I plan to take to a change machine soon. Sadly this project is coming to an end way more quickly than I had imagined.
Day 33 — February 14
I’ve been playing a lot of chess online rather than going out. When it’s nice, just taking a walk is pretty good entertainment. At least walking is basically free.
Day 34 — February 15
Bought 13.47 leva worth of food. Can of tomatoes, dry beans, rice, red pepper, onion, a little sausage. I’ll make a spicy Mexican-style bean soup (and freeze some jars of it.)
I still have quite a bit in the cabinets. I’ll have to work on clearing that out.
Day 35 — February 16
Ate rice and beans + 2 leva for pastry
Day 36 — February 17
Rice and beans + 3.90 for chips and beer. I didn’t eat the chips. Saving them for the last of the beans
Day 37 — February 18
Rice and Beans
Day 38 — February 19
I watered down what’s left of the beans. I’ll eat them with chips.
Day 39 — February 20
I have the afternoon off so I took the bag of ‘yellows” to Kaufland. Nobody wants this stuff and they have a machine there for it. (I hope.)
I walked to the first one which is about 10 minutes away. They didn’t have one so I walked to the central bus hub and caught a bus to what I thought was the largest, most central one.
They didn’t have one. I looked it up online and google said the one with the change machine was in a neighborhood 20 minutes walk away.
I went there and they didn’t have one so I asked and they said the one out by the airport was the only location. It was another 30-minute walk because I didn’t know the bus and why take a taxi for more than what I was probably going to get.
I got there and it was out of order, of course.
I caught a bus back and played chess. 3 hours wasted and I still had this stupid bag of yellows. I’m just going to try to get rid of it the slow way.
I have plenty of items stocked up in the freezer and a few recipes that will make it last. I might be able to stretch it out about 2 or 3 more weeks. I’ll have to eat grits or oatmeal or something at home and get a bit more creative. I don’t mind skipping meals.
Day 40 — February 21
I bought a pastry for .40 stotinki (.23 cents). I bought something else about 3 hours later. 1 lev for bread with some kind of spread on it. It wasn’t any good.
Day 41 — February 22
Planning to sell a guitar today. My crappy acoustic that I bought in 2019 and it kept me busy through the pandemic winters.
Day 42 — February 23
The dude didn’t show up to buy the guitar. Probably a prank.
I’m surprised I’ve broken 40 days on this change. It’s the little things people do for each other that make a difference. As a teacher, when someone brings some cupcakes to work or offers to buy you a coffee it makes a big difference.
People ask for help all the time, can you check this message/email I’m sending to co-workers, can you look at my CV, in a random conversation “What does … mean?” and it’s honestly non-stop. I think it’s why I prefer to hang out with native speakers in my free time, just so I can switch off and don’t have to explain or correct anything.
Day 43 — February 23
I have counted out all the small change and separated it into envelopes so that it’s easier to pay for things. I found out that my local corner shop wouldn’t be too pissed with small amounts so the envelope contained 1 leva worth of the smallest coins.
I didn’t count the larger change, 5’s and above, but I estimate that I have about 30 leva left. Which is about 12 to 18 bucks. I’m going to literally and figuratively tighten my belt this month.
I bought items from the corner deli last night after work and they sell their items at a discount around closing time. It’s a win-win for me as I don’t feel like cooking after work and I get about 30% off the price of bread and meat.
Day 44 — February 24
Day 45 — February 25
I’m running on empty here. I’m out of everything I regularly use. How do people get by like this? I’m spending an average of 4 leva per day on basic and depleting my pantry and reserves. The average pension in BG is 386. They expect people to live for a month on 13 leva per day. (Which would include utilities and medical expenses, etc.) The equivalent of about $7.27. Coffee costs 4, a plate of fries costs 8, crappy thin pizza from 10-15, a cheeseburger is the same price unless you get crap from McDonald’s or the soy burgers from the doner stands, buying toilet roll is 3-4 lev. I just don’t get it. I suppose they are living off bags of flour (2.19) and eggs (1.99.)
Day 46 — February 26
Speaking of toilet roll, I’ve been taking some from work. They always remove the last of the roll and put it to the side where people avoid it and put on a fresh roll. That little cardboard tube with a thin spool of soft cottony goodness is just begging to serve a purpose. So, Yoink!
Day 47 — February 27
8.62 for chickpeas, yogurt, lentils, and tomato puree. I spent a few more lev on a leek and a carrot – I’m making a vegetable curry using some of those dried soy chunks I mentioned earlier.
Day 48 — February 28
I made bread (buns) and had a curry with rice for dinner and a beer 1.35
Day 49 — March 1
Buns and random items from the fridge for lunch. Curry for dinner. 3 lev beer with friends.
Day 50 — March 2
I bought some filo dough and hotdogs to make some kind of pigs in a blanket Balkan style. You know, leeks, cheese, condiments, roll it all up like a burrito and bake it. Decent enough. With the curry, it needs to last a week. I have pulled a bit more from the freezer (cheese, bread, mom’s old coffee cake.) and I’m looking forward to the marinara sauce again.
I was never one of those people who keeps bread in the freezer, but I am now. The value of a cheese or egg sandwich has just increased in market value in my kitchen.
Day 51 — March 3
Still working on curry leftovers.
Day 52 — March 4
1.89 for 204 grams of ground chuck. I figure I can make it last two meals. 2.97 for milk and baking powder. I want to bake a cake.
Day 53 — March 5
I divided the remaining coins into 1 leva bags just so I’m not counting it at the checkout like a schmo. I have around 16.69 leva left.
Day 54 — March 6
A very thin cheeseburger on homemade bread with a small side salad for dinner. I have enough lettuce for one more salad but nothing else for that salad except dressing and green onions. I have a window garden and next week I’m playing on doing transplants. I know some funny little things are growing there.
Day 55 — March 7
I’ve been growing mung bean sprouts in a jar. They should go well in a stir fry with those noodles I bought a while back. Some miso paste, egg, soy, and green onion, maybe frozen meat – basically a real meal. You can add hot sauce till it tastes good, right?
Day 56 — March 8
Co-workers bought me a couple beers and when I got home I pigged out. Anything I could find. Not eating all day and generally being underfed and then drinking till you lose your willpower has dire consequences on my weekly budget.
Day 57 — March 9
I have looked at my cabinets and freezer carefully and I’ve still got plenty of food. I estimated that I have at least 2-3 weeks’ worth of meals (one meal per day) and I think I can still stretch out that remaining change (still have 16.69).
My cat will need food so that’s going to make a big dent in the budget. I hope that he’ll survive my weird financial experiment.
Day 58 — March 10
A student took me to dinner. It’s like people can sense that I’m being stingy. 😀
I went ahead and bought cat food (6.36) before my funds started running too low. I spent 2.99 on the cheapest spaghetti and 174 grams of minced meat. The mince is enough for two meals at least whatever I mix it with.
Day 59 — March 11
Didn’t buy anything.
Day 60 — March 12
Didn’t buy anything, again. It’s an interesting habit to start. I’ve been thinking about how I’m so used to buying whatever I want whenever I want. Never taking the time to reflect on my consumption habits. I’m spending about 75% less than I normally would and not really suffering other than minor annoyances.
Day 61 — March 13
I went to the local market in the center and selected two carrots and a small onion. I started counting out my change and the guy was like, “Nah” and I was offended. I was counting out 30 coins! Is that so much of a problem? 30 seconds. What strikes me as strange is that they act like they don’t want the money just because it doesn’t meet their expectations. It makes me wonder how pretentious they are in other ways.
So, instead of buying my carrot, which is what I really needed for dinner, from this independent man, I bought it from a chain market. It was probably cheaper by weight anyway. I bought one carrot for .16 stotinki.
Day 62 — March 14
Didn’t buy anything.
Day 63 — March 15
Coworker’s birthday. Bulgarian tradition states that if a person invites you to their birthday party they pay. I drank 4 beers but decided to eat before going to the bar.
Day 64 — March 16
Didn’t buy anything. I did gardening today and what a bountiful harvest. I made soup.
Day 65 — March 17
Didn’t buy anything. Cleaning out leftovers and making meals out of nothing. Lots of soup! 😀
Day 66 — March 18
I had enough flour to make bread and bought another carrot. .18 stotinki
Day 67 — March 19
Didn’t buy anything.
Day 68 — March 20
Bought two medium carrots, a medium onion, one local red pepper, a banana, and 106 grams of minced meat. The banana was the most expensive item. The total was 3.42 and I now have a total of 1 lev and 34 stotinki remaining.
Day 69 — March 21
I won’t buy anything today. I’ve been preparing donations for the refugees. I put together a box of items: shirts, sheets, a blanket, some new underwear, decent items I’ve never used. I also asked my students to bring some stuff too. Used kids coloring books, colored pencils, etc. I plan to take it to the refugee center tomorrow after class.
Day 70 — March 22
We went to the refugee center to drop off the items I’d collected. My friend cried. I guess I was too distracted by the box but she noticed more detail about the people there. About 30 seconds after we left she said, “That could be us.” We tried not to be overwhelmed by the gravity of this whole situation.
I still felt like I could do more to help them. Some news sources say that there are nearly 100,000 refugees in BG now and one-third are children. As a teacher, I’m sure I could do something to help. My crappy little box of items didn’t seem like nearly enough. I could help distract the kids for a while with some games or activities, I could help people with language, I want to collect their stories to share with the world, or just make them feel welcome.
Day 71 — March 23
Didn’t buy anything. I broke 70 days. I’m out of flour, toilet paper, milk, eggs, and butter, and only have a little sugar left. I have no meat and no cheese. I have an orange that’s probably gone bad in the center and an apple. I ran out of snacks a while ago. I have frozen spaghetti sauce and some pasta in the cabinets. I still have the tin of red herring with paprika, caviar croutons, and seaweed paper. There’s rice and quinoa as well as some buckwheat. I think I can finish the rest of this week and maybe hit 80 days.
The real question is how to spend the last of this change. Flour? Vegetables?
Day 72 — March 24
Didn’t buy anything.
Day 73 — March 25
Didn’t buy anything.
Day 74 — March 26
I bought three small tomatoes and I have 9 stotinki left. I don’t think there is anything that I can purchase with that so now I just have food from the pantry and freezer. My cat needs food,
which will require cash or a card, so this project is officially over.
I think it’s time to stop keeping a daily log and reflect on my experience. Basically, I’ll see how long I can go without buying anything for myself and reflect on this project in general.
Over 75 days I spent 164.60 leva, which is equal to 84 Euro or 93 USD. I can tell from how my pants fit that I have lost weight and so has my cat. I wouldn’t say we are any less happy. I think what stands out to me now is gratitude. What I consider a luxury, and what I took for granted has changed. I have had time to think about how I spend money, even just a little.
Knowing now that I have been overeating way too often and way too much as a habit has shifted. I’ve altered my perception of how much alcohol is actually affordable if you are truly tightening your budget. I’m not going to end up drinking rubbing alcohol like the dudes in the park so it’s best to cut back.
Now, chocolate feels like a delicacy and maybe that’s the right way to think about it. I hope that this all leads to a greater appreciation of the lavishness I ignore. There is the idealization that I could somehow pull some greater philosophical or spiritual meaning from it all, but I doubt it. It just refreshed my view on my personal budget and consumption. No great Marxist messages or laws of finance need to be laid out here.
What has changed is that I’m more miserly than before. I’ll be making it a practice to freeze some of my meals. Also, I am going to try to make it a practice of learning to cook with awkward “red tag” items and limit the dusty items in the cabinets that are just sinkholes in the budget.
Also, even though this is a largely cash-driven society, I won’t be using cash nearly as much as I used to. Just because nobody knows what to do with the little yellow coins here and that’s annoying. So, no more jars of coins.
In the end, I have saved about 200 Euros (220 USD). And now that I know it’s possible I can continue to save more each month by simply not buying what I want. Perhaps one of the biggest ways to save cash is just drinking tap water (filtered nonetheless) as much as that does make me miss living in a place with really clean water.
The biggest new habit I’ve learned is to buy nothing. It’s something that takes some getting used to because you have money so why not spend it, right? But this continuous habitual consumption has become banal and lifeless, so why not spend it on things that you appreciate and adore?
If you think about it, what could you buy if you changed your daily habits? Things that truly bring richness to life. Cola and chips aren’t that amazing every day, but investing in our hobbies, taking a vacation, and having more free time are things we would cherish more.
I was ignoring the reality that all those little purchases add up and they were pushing my bigger desires to the back burner. I’ve decided to use what I’ve saved to help buy a guitar. After all, I’ve been waiting for two years and know it’s something I’ll enjoy every day.