Show Me the Money!
- From the award-winning movie ‘Jerry Maguire’, starring Tom Cruise.


The first time I went into a grocery store in a foreign country, I was petrified, especially approaching the checkout. I saw how fast the customers were going through. This was the first time that I actually wanted to wait in a queue. I had the correct currency, but I didn’t know how to use it. I didn’t really know how much the groceries would cost in English, and I didn’t know if I had the right amount of money on me.


I could tell the cashier who served me knew this right away. All I did was hold out my hand and let him scoop the money out of the palm of my hand. He gave me change but I didn’t even check it. All I wanted to do was to get out of that grocery store. I didn’t even care if he had given me the correct change or not. I just dumped it along with the receipt in my bag and ran out. Because it was winter, I stopped sweating by the time I had got home.


If you’re traveling to a country that speaks the language you are studying, it’s important that you are familiar with their units of currency. As harsh a reality as is, money is a crucial part of life. And, even more so, money is an important part of the culture you are learning about and living in. And most obviously, you have to buy things there to live!



Ask Your Teacher To Show You Money


First, kindly request that your teacher show you some ‘paper’ money and coins, making sure this is not an ‘imposition’ (an intrusion in a person’s private life). It is better if you bring up this topic a lesson or two before you want to discuss money so that your teacher can be prepared. Especially on Skype or any other format you may use, it should be easy to view the money via video. You will see different denominations of bills (paper money) and coins. An interesting thing is whose picture, if any, is on the money. This will tell you who the nation considers important in the country’s history.


After an introduction to money by your italki teacher, you can then look up the different currencies online and download photos to make it easier for you to remember them when you visit the country you have in mind.


It can also be fun to learn the names of some of the denominations (amounts of money in each currency). For example, in Canada, a $1 CAD is often referred to as a ‘Loonie’ (i.e. lucky loonie) In the US, $1000 (USD) is called a ‘grand’ (this can be heard in movies). A one-dollar bill in the U.S. is called a ‘buck’, for example: ‘Do you have ten bucks I can borrow today?’. Some denominations are named after the metal they are made from, such as the Polish złoty (‘golden’) and Vietnamese đồng (‘copper’). And in the US, a nickel (worth five cents) is made from, guess what? Nickel!



Learn How To Use It


Without a doubt, you will have to deal with money in almost every part of life in your ‘new’ country for things like:

  • Shopping
  • Rent
  • Banking
  • Restaurants
  • Cinemas
  • Tourist attractions
  • Public transport


In other words, for everything you use money for at home, you will also need it for the same things in your new country. You will have to recognize the denominations and feel comfortable when using them. No offense intended towards the people who live in your new country, but some salespeople may sense your fear of using unfamiliar money and try to cheat you. Believe me, this happened to me a few times until I got to know the currency system in the foreign country that I was in (Malta). There was, in fact, a saying there: ‘There’s one price for the native population and another for the tourists’.



Don’t Compare


At first, you’ll probably default to using a currency converter as you try to figure out if paying in your new currency is too much or too little, compared to your native currency. Hopefully, you will stop relying on the converter, just as you curtail (shorten, or decrease) your dependence on a dictionary when learning a new language.


Soon, you will stop comparing money between the two currencies you are dealing with. If you are spending a substantial amount of time in your new country, you’ll adapt to its money system and automatically get a feel for how much things cost in your new nation. You will instinctively know when something is worth the same amount in your new currency; you’ll learn if something is too expensive, too cheap, or just right.


In fact, ask your italki teacher to tell you how much things cost in the nation you’re visiting. That’s most likely the easiest way to learn how much items are worth in the currency you’ll be using.


Restaurants pose some challenges, and it’s not just ordering the food. When the meal is finished, how should you pay?


Here is how people from most Western countries are expected to pay. Interestingly, in the U.S., we ask for the ‘check’ when we have finished eating (when usually a check is what someone pays you for a service).


In other countries, you usually ask for the ‘bill’. Depending on the custom, you may raise your hand and ask the person who has served you for the bill. You may want to also ask: “Do you accept credit cards?” Most restaurants do.


Sometimes, the waiter/waitress will bring the bill over to your table. You will probably be asked “How was everything with your meal?” It is important, therefore, to learn these expressions in your target language.


One of the most important issues to ask your tutor is how much of a tip to leave when you eat in restaurants or when taking public transport like a taxi. Tipping culture varies from country to country; people in some countries are expected to leave a large tip, while in others, you are not obliged to leave any tip at all. Finding this out from your italki teacher can help you avoid a lot of stress.



To Talk Or Not To Talk About Money


Here’s where your teacher can have the greatest impact on your journey. Internationally, people differ a lot when it comes to talking about money. In some cultures, it is a very private matter, while it is a much less sensitive topic in others. Find out where your new country stands. Talking about money includes asking how much money a person earns, the cost of their home or clothes, and other material things. Ask your teacher which costs are okay to ask about and which are taboo in your new nation. This will make a difference to how people view you. Since the rules of asking and talking about money are so ingrained in people’s minds, saying the wrong thing about money may make you look ignorant or intrusive.


In the U.S., for example, it is extremely impolite and even taboo to ask how much money a person earns for a living, or how much he/she has in the bank. And you don’t dare ask how much someone’s house costs.


Sometimes, especially women, don’t want to talk about how much they paid for clothes. If you really want to know, you might try: “About how much does a beautiful outfit like yours usually costs?”.


However, there are always exceptions. If you’re traveling alone or with someone who is equally unknowledgeable about customary monetary rules, people are often kind enough to tell when it’s ok and not ok to inquire about certain monetary matters. This is especially true in countries where there are a lot of tourists and foreigners.



Getting Over The Fear


At some point, you’ll have to take that chance in your new country and buy something, using your new currency. If you make a mistake, just recall the occasions where you saw visiting foreigners in your own country make mistakes with money.


Here is a typical conversation you might have with a vendor in your new country:


  • Vendor: Hello, can I help you?
    • You: Yes, I’m looking for a small gift to bring back home.
  • Vendor: We have some lovely scarves over here.
    • You: How much is that one over there?
  • Vendor: It’s 20 Euros.
    • You: Do you take credit cards?
  • Vendor: I’m sorry, Ma’am, we only take cash, we’re just a small shop.
    • You: Ok, I have the cash, can you wrap it as a gift?
  • Vendor: Yes, of course….
    • You: Thanks very much!
  • Vendor: Thank you for coming in, I look forward to seeing you again.


Since this is a rather simple and typical transaction between a merchant and a customer, it is still important to learn the words and expressions that you will need in your new language.


Be aware that some merchants are used to bargaining and negotiating the price of products. This is a whole other subject for another article. Ask your italki teacher if bargaining takes place in the country you’re heading to. Bargaining can be a difficult and stressful monetary transaction and you need to learn how to do it. But some foreigners like it and find it as a fun challenge.


The bottom line is this: don’t be like I was. When I moved to Malta, I was starving before I ventured out to that grocery store. To this day, I don’t know if I used the currency correctly. But here I am, I survived and I’m even giving others advice about money. So stop holding onto that money in your wallet and go out and spend it!



  • Please click here to explore different currency converters.


Ilene Springer is a long-time italki teacher, specializing in advanced language students. She is a writer and author of The Diary of an Expatriate (AUK, London). Please visit her website Chocolate


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