Filipino Money
JWS (c) March 2010

Filipino money in my grandmother's time (c. 1901-1910) had amazing value. The lowest denomination was isang pula - one cent - which could buy sumptuous pandesal (local bread) and matamis na bao (coconut jam). Isang bilyon was actually twenty centavos and isang salapi was fifty centavos. With isang bilyon my mother would have been rich, if her mother regularly gave her that amount. But Grandma Barsilisa (Nanay Lisang to us) strictly guarded against extravagance. Ironically, she did not find it extravagant to lose bilyones (many twenty cents) and manalapi (many fifty cents) in a card game she frequented with her friends. Her favorite card game was called kayho, similar to poker, but the card characters were more rowdy, and one character was called sotang bastos (irreverent knight).

Philippine coins (c1901-1930) were heavy and copper colored or reddish: isang bilyon is the size of present one peso coin and isang salapi is four times the size of the present five cents. Isang bilyon could buy a pair of socks - which Nanay Lisang never bought for any of her children because she always associated wearing socks to wealth. Besides, her children could make do without footwear. And she sent them to school only because, it was free.

No Shoes, No Baon

My mother wanted a pair of wooden slippers for herself (bakya), but Nanay Lisang found no immediate practical reason for it. All the school children lived in the coastal area (mga batang aplaya) so they walked barefoot (nakapaa) on the beach in going to and from school. Even the maestro (teacher) did not bother to check this, because the classroom, with sawali (woven strips of split bamboo) walls, had hardened earth for flooring anyway. At lunch break, the children ran or hopped as fast as they could on their way home to cheat the scalding hot sands. And if it was really too hot, they would just walk on water. However this always tempted them to take a dip into the river and swim, and by the time they reached their houses, they would be wet and salty, with air blown hair which, through time, would sometimes turn into the color of corn husks (olandis).

The only time they were given baon (recess money) was when they finally had to go to school in poblacion (bayan) because there were no intermediate grade school near their coastal homes. During the Japanese occupation, schooling stopped, and by the time my Inay (mother) and my Tito Isto (Uncle Isto) returned to intermediate school, they were teenagers (1950s). Tito Isto had singko (five cents) allowance every day. By the end of the week, he would have about a peso in his pocket, and sometimes, he would use it to buy something for the house to give back to his mother. Singko was not enough to buy what teenager's fancied at the time, but it was enough food-money for recess. At the time, five cents was more than enough to buy sorbetes (dirty ice-cream). However, Tito Isto did not eat during recess; he'd rather wait until lunchtime, when he could saunter along the Calumpang riverbank - on a one kilometer walk back home (isang sigarilyo ang layo) - to enjoy lunch of salty pinais (cluster of small fish wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in salted water with tamarind or sour fruit kamyas) and a generous serving of rice. Meanwhile, he spent his one peso on bread and vegetables.

Women's Trades

My mother started to earn her own money by sewing parts of baby dresses (nagtatahi) around the 1950s, and by the end of each week, she would have earned about three pesos (tatlong piso). With this money she would buy three yards (tatlong yarda) of fabric at P2.40, which she took to a mananahi (dressmaker), who custom made it into Gloria-Romero-style vestida. She would spend about twenty-five cents in the city, where she watched a movie starring Gloria Romero and Juancho Gutierez, and feast with her friends in the nearest paminggalan on pancit (stir fried noodles) and dinuguan (meat cooked in pork blood). With this money, they could also afford to ride a calesa (horse drawn carriage) on their way to wawa, where a banca would be waiting to bring them home.

My mother's friends in the fifties sold fish for a living. They bought the fish on shore first thing in the morning from fishermen who were out to sea the night before. They were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-ish young ladies walking tall and earning their keep. Fish was not sold by the kilo, but were simply gathered into tumpok (plate batches, of the same size). Isang tumpok (one batch), measured by sheer hunch, would probably correspond to about a kilo today. Isang tumpok na tulinganin, a salt-fresh tuna caught on the far seas of Mindoro and Batangas, would cost about isang bilyon.

My mother's friends, the mag-iisda, poured their purchases onto a tin pail (timba) or basin (palanggana). They placed a thick roll of cloth on their heads (sunungan) where they balance their wares. By noontime, they would have sold most of the tulinganin (medium sized tuna) by loud peddling in the nearby barangays. Tulingaaaaan! was like an alarm clock for folks living at the poblacion, and together with the crowing of cocks and hens, was enough to get their day going. The ladies, my mother's peers, had enough motivation each day to peddle that day's catch, since at the end of the month their earnings could afford little luxuries, such as a pair of much coveted shoes and eye-let dress. By their time's standards they were more financially able to buy certain luxuries than my mother, whose earnings of ten pesos a month was slim compared to their almost twenty, indeed a hefty amount for a lady.

Filipino Money Today

Today, a single person must earn at least P30,000 pesos a month to pay retirement insurance coverage (SSS or GSIS), health benefit coverage (Philhealth), board and lodging, transportation, daily meals and groceries, once-in-a-blue-moon fine dining, trendy clothes, work bags and shoes to keep pace with the urban race. In the province where the cost of living is a lot cheaper, this could go down to P20, 000 pesos. The minimum starting salary is only about P15,000. With this salary, one could afford bed space but nothing will be left after tax, insurance and health care. If you go to market and cook, you can still enjoy nutritious meals. If you live with your parents, you may have some extra money for an occasional movie and rare dining at Jolibee. I suspect that this amount has more or less the same value as my late mother's three pesos at the end of every sewing week.