mini packets of shampoo

Que Caro Es Ser Pobre/How Expensive It Is To Be Poor – Buying Power

que-caro-es-ser-pobre-how-expensive-it-is-to-be-poor-smallWhen I was volunteering at Maya Pedal in Guatemala there was a sign on the wall that said “Que Caro Es Ser Pobre”. It means “How expensive it is to be poor.” As I travel through many of the world’s “poor” countries, I am writing a series of articles about how expensive it is to be poor. I don’t think many people in “rich” countries understand how difficult it is to climb out of poverty. I am all about positivity and I am having the time of my life right now. But I would be doing a disservice to the amazing people I’ve met if I didn’t share their story of what life is like dealing with poverty.

Buying Power

When I was in business school, we talked a lot about the Bottom of the Pyramid. Basically, there are literally billions of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid who, collectively, represent a giant neglected market. Often people talk about those making less than $2 per day as being the bottom of the pyramid.

At business school we talked a lot about opportunities that exist at the bottom of the pyramid. I remember in one class someone from India talking about how large companies there started catering to the under-served bottom of the pyramid market via smaller packaging. At the time, it sounded like a very innovative and excellent idea to me. These companies created a new market for themselves and enabled less affluent people to buy their products.

Fast forward two years and now I am on the ground living among those at the bottom of the pyramid. I now find everything I just said disgusting. 

mini packets of shampoo

mini packets of shampoo

I will illustrate this using a simple commodity everyone reading this post uses: shampoo. Many people here in Central America cannot afford to buy a whole bottle of shampoo at once. It might be equivalent to a whole day’s worth of income. Buying a whole bottle would be cheaper in the long-run, but it’s just too expensive. Imagine yourself not eating for a whole day because you decided to stock up on shampoo instead. Hard to justify, no? Especially if you have kids..

So enter the savior – Proctor and Gamble, the company behind dozens of brands you are already familiar with. In this case, I’ll talk about Pantene and Head & Shoulders.

In Honduras, you can buy a 10ml/0.33floz sachet of Pantene or Head & Shoulders shampoo. Each sachet costs 3 Lempira/$0.16. This is relatively affordable among the less affluent here, though by no means is it cheap. My daily cup of coffee costs 5 Lempira/$0.26 by comparison. My breakfast baleada (hand-made tortilla filled with beans, cheese, and eggs) costs 10 Lempira/$0.52.

Thus, a single-use sachet of shampoo costs 1/3 the price of my baleada breakfast at a restaurant. If you ate your breakfast in a restaurant this morning, I’m guessing your shampoo was maybe 1/100th the cost of your breakfast or less.

Now, some more numbers. Sorry, I’m an engineer. I can’t help it. When I ran some sample numbers in my head I immediately put out the call to my family to give me some actual prices from the US. My awesome cousin sent me these two pictures. I think you will be surprised..

H & S H & S Pantene Pantene
USA Honduras USA Honduras
Cost $5.49 $0.16 $6.99 $0.16
Volume 420ml 10ml 750ml 10ml
Cost per 10ml $0.13 $0.16 $0.09 $0.16
Cost for 420ml $5.49 $6.72 $6.99 $12.00

Head & Shoulders and Pantene cost 22% more and 72% more respectively for the equivalent volume. This is hard to justify given the purchasing power and cost of life here. It also illustrates my point…

Poverty is often a cycle that is hard to break out of. When a Honduran making $5 per day is paying more for shampoo than a comparatively “rich” American, how can you expect the Honduran to ever catch up – or break the cycle?

Shampoo is not the best example to illustrate my point. One can live just fine without shampoo, though your hair may not bounce and sparkle like TV commercials show. But you can extrapolate this example across numerous daily expenditures such as cell phone service, food, medicine, cigarettes, internet access, and probably tons of other things I haven’t noticed or realized.

There is savings in having the purchasing power to buy in larger quantities/bulk. It prevents you from having to dedicate an even higher percentage of your meager income to daily necessities. Think about that the next time you buy a bottle of shampoo, though you’ll probably forget since that probably only happens a couple times a year.

11 replies
  1. Gray
    Gray says:

    This reminds me very much of the “rent-to-own” business. I worked in a store like that for about 6 months when I was 18-19 and nearly had a nervous breakdown because I was just so appalled at how ripped off poor people were by these stores. Just because they didn’t have decent credit, they would wind up paying 3 times what a piece of furniture or an appliance was worth IF IT WERE NEW, only they were paying that for a piece of furniture or an appliance that had been rented by numerous families before them, and were often scuffed up and on their last legs. I would have to watch these people bring in bags of pennies and count them out to try to cover their payments, because if they missed a payment, the item would be repossessed and they would have to start the payment cycle over from scratch. It was awful. And this was in the US.

    • Adam Pervez
      Adam Pervez says:

      Hi Gray,

      Wow, I can only imagine. I guess this fits in all contexts of poverty. That would be hard to accept and it would be hard to sleep at night! 

      I wonder, though, if that experience helped you take “The Plunge” and it was part of your decision to become the Solo Traveler?

      • Gray
        Gray says:

        No, it didn’t have anything to do with me deciding to travel. I was living in NY state at the time. Actually, it convinced me to return home to Vermont.

  2. Francisco
    Francisco says:


    I think you are missing something, from the calculations point of view: considering the packaging. I cannot tell that the material from the little sachets is more expensive if you add it up than the material for the bottle. But… now that I think of it, it supports your argument anyway… people who have more money can leverage economies of scale. Think about Costco, or other wholesale-consumer places like that.
    Another point… it would be interesting to actually compare the sachet to the bottle in the same country. I will go fetch numbers with you when you come to Costa Rica 🙂


    • Adam Pervez
      Adam Pervez says:

      Hi Francisco,

      Thanks for the comment! In the tables I showed how much it costs for 10ml in both countries and how much it costs for the bottle in each country (assuming you buy X sachets to have the same volume in Honduras).

      Yes, let’s see what the situation is like in Costa Rica! I didn’t see any bottles of Pantene or Head & Shoulders in Honduras, though maybe they existed in Copan (for sure in Tegucigalpa I guess?).

      Thanks again for the comment and nos vemos en unas semanas!

  3. 50+ and on the Run
    50+ and on the Run says:

    Glad I found you from A Dangerous Business.  What a great article.  This is exactly why I donate to Kiva on a regular basis.  I thought everyone knew about microlending by now, but I find very few really do, so I wrote this post a few weeks ago:

    • Adam Pervez
      Adam Pervez says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      I’m not sure if everyone knows about Kiva, but yes, it’s definitely helping to alleviate poverty. I have friends who have worked with microlending on the ground and sometimes it’s not as rosy as it sounds, but yes, in general it works well and can really make a difference in many communities.

      Thanks for the comment and look forward to following you!

  4. Gar
    Gar says:

    Hi Adam, I’ve been enjoying your blog. Keep up the good work.

    This “poor tax” is not just limited to South America and Central America. It is prevalent worldwide even in the land of “rich Americans”. I might even say especially in the US.

    The latest political wave here now is to blame the poor for their condition and to claim the unemployed are unemployed because they “want” to be. The conservatives say that the bottom 50% of households pay no taxes, ignoring the fact that everyone pays social security taxes on all earned income (unlike investment income). Further, the poor pay sales tax on ALL of their income since it takes it all for food, shelter, and clothing, whereas the rich only pay sales tax on part of their income because they can stash part of it away in 401K’s and other investments. This not only lets them skip the sales tax on a portion of their income, it also allows a deduction on their income tax.

    Anyway, enough of my mini-rant. Nice blog. 

    • Adam Pervez
      Adam Pervez says:

      Thanks, Gar! Yes, all excellent points and I agree completely. I try to keep politics off here and my scope is the rest of the world, but I couldn’t agree more. There are marginalized peoples everywhere, unfortunately.


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  1. […] to “How Expensive It Is To Be Poor.” This led to this series of articles. After sharing this simple example of how being poor is more expensive, the students contributed many other areas of life where this […]

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