5 Money Lessons From the Third World

There is a fear that pervades North American culture. It is a fear that people might think that you have less than others. So much of what drives people relates to their desire to maintain a certain appearance — a facade. We seek to present a false reality. Not only is that an unhealthy financial habit, it is also certain to lead to a life of misery.

Four years ago, my family moved to the third world country of Papua New Guinea. (For context, here's an interview with a few PNG citizens.) Since the very first day we moved, we have been learning important lessons about money and finances. Today I'll share five money lessons we can learn from the third world. However, in order to learn those lessons, we first need to look at the two following illustrations.

Illustration #1: Entertainment

On a recent day trip to the beach, our family filled the back of our pickup truck with items to help entertain ourselves for a few hours. The truck was packed with chairs, balls, towels, floaties, snacks, and toys.

However, when we arrived at the beach, we found a group of kids who were running up and down the beach playing with empty 5-gallon oil containers and small pieces of plywood. They transformed these two pieces of "junk" into hours of entertainment. Meanwhile, we spent as much time unpacking and setting up as we did playing.

By the end of the day, all our fancy gadgets were cast to the side as we instead tried to see who had the best form while jumping into the water over a high-jump structure made of sticks.

Illustration #2: Repairs

Several weeks ago, the front cover of my truck headlight broke. Because of an upcoming safety inspection, I knew the headlight needed to be fixed. I did what any good first world citizen would do: I tried to find a new one to buy. The problem? There are no replacement headlights in town. However, with the help of masking tape and cable ties, I was able to reinstall the headlight. In the process, I saved myself $45. The point is not that I fixed my own car, but that I was forced to be creative, and I saved $45 in the process.

These two illustrations taught me that I should be learning some money lessons from my friends in the third world.

5 Money Lessons From the Third World

1. Try to fix it before you buy it

Change your default thinking. When something breaks, force yourself to spend some time figuring out if there is a way to fix the item. Hey, you might surprise yourself with what you can fix. If you're in the first world, you have one huge advantage: the Internet. I learned how to build almost all of the furniture in my house with the help of Google. I figured out how to fix my oven by following instructions on the net. I'm certainly not qualified to do those things, but I decided to at least take a look before buying something new.

2. Be creative and use what you have

It is amazing the number of items people from the first world dispose of just because it fulfilled its original purpose. In the third world, once something has been used for its original purpose, it is time to ask what its next job should be. As such, newspaper is used in the stores for keeping freezer items cooler. Empty margarine containers are used to make ice blocks. Sugar is stored in old peanut butter jars. Used oil marks the boundaries on sports fields. On and on the list could go. The third world teaches people how to be resourceful.

3. Focus on functionality

Are you consumed with how things look? I'm convinced that most people in the first world could save enormous amounts of money if they we more concerned about functionality than fashion and fancy. When the radio breaks, are you willing to fasten the battery plate with tape?

4. Fun is not a byproduct of money

Far too often we think that when we get money, we also get fun. It's as if we think both things are packaged together. While the amount of money you have can contribute to the type of happiness you can enjoy, there are so many fun things that can be done without money. Challenge yourself to consider great activities that don't cost a dime.

5. Don't buy it if you don't have the cash

A fortunate advantage of many third world citizens is that they don't have access to credit. As such, they only buy things when they have the cash. I sometimes wonder how different North America would be if people had to have cash to buy things. I think people would have much better personal finance conditions if they were forced to pay cash. If you have any type of credit card debt problems, then you should seriously consider going to a cash based system.

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5 Money Lessons From the Third World

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Guest's picture

I love this advice. I recently started looking into rewards debit cards for those who refuse to stop using credit cards (under the notion that they pay them off at the end of the month anyhow..) because they want the cash back. PerkStreet financial offers 2% cash back (there are some "catches") for non-pin debit purchases. While I still think CASH is even better than debit cards (because for some it hurts to pay cash), maybe something like that can help folks with number 5.

Guest's picture


Great advice. Thank you so much for sharing.

I believe in using cash for your disposable expenses. It makes you appreciate and understand what you're spending on.

Guest's picture

From the list of 5 lessons, number 4 is my favorite. I have two outdoor hobbies that I absolutely love. Right after college, I had a new job and was making more money than ever before. I thought that by being able to spend more money on my hobbies I would enjoy them more. Wrong!

Now, I focus on functionality (number 3) and only purchase those items for my hobbies that are going to last and add to the experience. More money does not always equal more fun.

Guest's picture

"Fun is not a byproduct of money"

Great point! This is something my wife and I hear all the time. By nature, we are frugal and generally do not consume a lot. Yet we are CONSTANTLY told by friends and family that we do not have any fun since we do not spend any money. That couldn't be further from the truth! My wife and I go on long bike rides, walks, or will read together for hours. Guess what? We have a blast together. More people would be better off if they would just heed the simple advice above, especially point 4.

Guest's picture

We've been doing these things out of necessity for years. But it comes at a price. People in our social circles have essentially cut us out of their lives. Perhaps with the greater recent emphasis on frugality this will become less of a problem. It may even become chic. But right now, as you mentioned, image means too much.

Guest's picture

To bad more people don't think this way. Sure, buying what you need when you need it is a nice luxury. But I like when my kids call me "mr. fix-it" because I try to fix everything (although it drives my wife crazy).

Guest's picture

What excellent advice. I love this. Often we judge 3rd world countries. What a refreshing article highlighting how really innovative people with less really are.


Guest's picture
Justine Webber

Great article! I agree that many of us are caught up in a cycle of never ending consumerism. I've been on a personal quest to try and pare down my belongings and better separate needs from wants so that I'm spending less money each month. Plus, for money that I do have to spend, I use my credit union debit card. I get rewards points for purchases I make that I can use to bid on items. Quite unconventional, but it's great because my points rack up faster than my other credit card rewards program. Your readers should check them out: www.telesiscu.com

Guest's picture

My grandmother, who grew up during the depression, almost never threw anything out. She used things, everything, until they had no possible further use. All leftovers were stored in Oleo containers. Bakery string was saved and used to secure Christmas wrapping- of the comic pages. Scraps of soap melted and fused together. Old stockings used to tie plants. You name it. You never unlearn those lessons, and I have benefitted greatly from all she taught me. My own daughter sleeps under a quilt that is made of all fabric squares taken from the previous three generations of mothers in our family. I have a quilt made from my grandma's clothes after she died. And eventually, when those wear out (we use things, we do not store), some of the pieces will become pot-holders. The women in our family have always taken pride in figuring out creative solution with what we already have. I once, driving home alone, hours away, at 1am in torrential rain, had the driver side wiper stop working. Pulled over, took off my pantyhose, and used it to tie the one wiper to the other, so when the passenger side moved, the driver side wiper followed suit. Worked like a charm! One of my proudest improvs!

Guest's picture

Useful tips. For some time now, I've been using cash instead of my credit card and I noted that I have saved much: no more items that I don't use in the cupboard, wardrobe... As for the fun part, my friend doesn't understand how I can have a nice time walking, hiking in the mountain or just go swimming at the beach.. And my mother who used to live in a third world country taught me how to fix things by being creative (when I was a child I just didn't understand why she wouldn't buy something new when broken instead of repairing it...): now it's really handy

Guest's picture

i am an it professional, making my 70k a year salary, single no kids. I started dating a guy who worked landscaping for 8/hr. I lost my job, unemployed for a year...but it wasnt that bad. I learned from him all the tricks that you mentioned above. To this day, although Im earning my orginal salary, I learned more from him and his friends about still haveing a GREAT quality of life (even if you are below the poverty level). That experience has given me a greater gift in this lifetime than Ive ever known. Thats why i am on this website, trying to get to the day when I don't need to work to survive, but only work because i want to. Thanks for the article, its lessons like this that helped me get over the classism that I grew up with and accepted, until now.

Guest's picture

Those are some great lessons. It's definitely true that you don't need to spend money to have fun, and oftentimes you'll have more fun without spending any money. I remember building a tree fort with my friends with some junk wood and some nails we picked up for a few Euros when I lived in Germany. I guess that's not the best example since we bought the nails, but they weren't that much so I think it counts.

Guest's picture

I think #4 is a really key concept for most people since they keep thinking their lives will be better after they reach X amount of dollars. There's plenty of fun stuff to do for free and enjoying the relationships you share with others will always be free.