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Bemused by banks: cash-happy on the streets of Brazil

I’ve never been able to keep track of my money. I had years in the UK of playing the cashpoint-fruitmachine, especially near the end of the month, when I had to hold my breath when requesting £20 beer money. The short term elation of ‘winning’ a payout nearly compensated for always being (almost) broke.

Internet banking – and a gradually increasing wage – eventually ended the uncertainty of a cash machine withdrawal. But I am finding that now it is Brazil, not so much me, that is responsible for an inability to know my financial situation. I have a bank account that sends me statements that make absolutely no sense. It appears to be some kind of sweeping system, that takes my credit and puts somewhere else – not in the main account itself. The sweep itself defies de-coding – it can happen at any time of the month or with any amount of credit. And I know not where it’s gone. I know it’s there somewhere – I asked Deb to check with the bank manager when I first saw a chunk of money disappearing from the current account. He assured Deb, who assured me, it’s safe. And I think I saw some of it on the online banking website once but I’ve not been able to recreate how I got to where I was.

When I look at my account I can’t tell if the bottom figure is going to be swollen by an incoming wave of tardy cash or if I’m looking at a bills-are-about-to-come-out high tide. So I’ve taken to using the only figure on the monthly statement that seems to be consistently in the same place (bottom-right of the last sheet) – the amount for which I am pre-approved for a car loan – as a proxy for my financial health. It fluctuates, but each month the bank says it is willing to lend me enough to buy a saloon car and so I think that means I’m probably OK.

It doesn’t help that I’m working as a freelancer here – which means irregularity in the payment amounts – and the even more irregular arrival of payment, which creates an obtuse sense of where I am. Expenses, too, channel through my account, spasmodically and lumpily.

But it could be worse. Credit is everywhere here. If you buy shoes, they ask in how many instalments you want to pay. I always buy ‘a vista’ – in one go. Even if they don’t offer a discount for a vista (and I was led to believe these discounts are more standard and generous than I’ve managed to secure – my bargaining skills are obviously weak) I insist on a one-off payment. If everything I bought came out in 6-10 instalments it would be impossible to check if these payments were correct. I can (just about) spot one payment on the statement – try keeping tally with every supermarket shop spread over 12 weekly payments. Impossible. Sale assistants look at me as if I’m crazy – the history of inflation here means that until recently the 12th payment in an annual repayment programme would ‘cost less’ than the first. But this pre-supposes my wages can rise (which they don’t -they can just devalue against the Real, paid as they are in dollars).

On average, one-third of Brazilian income is spent on interest payments – despite, or that should probably be because, the fact that the cost of credit here is high. Credit cards start at about 40-50% interest per year. Unsecured overdrafts attract an eye-watering 170%. And still the Brazilians spend money they don’t yet have. As a would-be social commentator I hate generalisations, but ALL Brazilians spend everything they earn – and more – on ‘consumer items’. Saving doesn’t happen, apart from among the mega-wealthy who can’t conceivably spend all their income, although a lot seem to have a pretty good stab at it. A young man got on a bus I was on once – dressed in tatters. I thought he was going to beg. Then his pocket made a noise and he whipped out a spanking new iPhone.

Anyway, I just wanted to discuss money as a clunky segue into telling Debora’s favourite anecdote from my Mother’s visit to São Paulo a few months ago. I’ve heard her tell lots of different people and yet each time she tells it she laughs in recollection. The background: Brazil, of course, like many places in the world has a track record of street muggings and pickpockets. The general advice is to be very careful with bags, wallets, phones, things like that. Don’t take out what you don’t need to and be discreet with what you do. It’s just common sense really but Debora had, as a good host, passed on this advice to my mum and George when they came. Her intent was to warn and counsel caution, but she was also worried that she would scare them, or foster an anxiousness when they were out and about that would impair their enjoyment of their holiday.

She needn’t have been concerned. Anxiousness wasn’t to hit chronic levels. We were in Paraty – a lovely tourist, colonial town. It was approaching dusk and our thoughts were turning to dinner. George spotted an ATM sign hanging outside a shop further down the cobbled street and he and Deb started walking in that direction. Thirty seconds or so later, Ma realised they’d split away and asked me where they were going. I explained.

– George! She shouted. George! She shouted louder – a proper holler. They were now about 50 metres away but they’d heard someone shouting and turned round. As did everyone else in the street. Having got their attention she continued.

Don’t get any money out, she shrieked, waving her wallet above her head. I have money – I have lots of money. Here, look [waving wallet harder] we have loads of money.

Even for those that didn’t speak English I think the message being conveyed to George – and everybody else – was clear. But we managed to get back to the pousada unmolested. I can only assume would-be muggers thought it was a very clumsy sting.

More by this author on his very entertaining blog.

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