Shopkeeper Jonathan Faez has a word of advice to people around the world obsessing about inflation: Chill out.
“I have friends in the United States and Spain and they’re telling me they’re going crazy with their annual inflation of 5% or 7%,” says Mr. Faez, owner of a lingerie store. “Here, we reach 4% almost every month!”
Welcome to Argentina, where high, nearly uncontrollable inflation—now at an estimated 55.1% over the past year—is as natural as the country’s juicy sirloins and sensual tango shows.
With the rest of the world experiencing higher inflation—byproduct of supply chain crunches, heavy stimulus spending and the war in Ukraine —Argentina offers something of a window to those who fret about just how high inflation will go and what it will mean to their everyday lives.
They’ve had practice: In the late ’80s, runaway government spending sent inflation soaring above 3,000%, and after a period of relative stability the figure has been creeping up again, reaching 6.7% in March alone, the highest in 20 years.
“Here 40% is normal,” says Mr. Faez. “And when we get past 50%, it doesn’t scare us, it simply bothers us.”
Most Argentines have developed strategies to cope with rising prices and other features of the country’s economy, like the falling value of the currency, the peso. It’s a bit like the old “Dr. Strangelove” classic about nuclear war, with a twist: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hyperinflationary Policies.”
With money sitting in a banking account quickly losing value, Argentines drain their paychecks nearly as soon as they get them. A trip to the supermarket often yields weeks’ worth of food and supplies, from nonperishables like shampoo and canned goods to frozen meat that is stuffed into freezers. People seek to exchange their pesos for U.S. greenbacks, which provide protection against inflation. And they readily apply for loans, which in time become easier to repay because of the weakening currency.
Yolanda Mastripólito, a 70-year-old lawyer, said one tactic she uses is to pay her taxes late—knowing that if she procrastinates she can cover the bill with money that has less value. And like other Argentines, she has learned that the government won’t charge her interest on an overdue bill.
“You save a lot of money,” she explains.
Hoarding is a must. “I came to this market and bought as much toilet paper as I could for the month, more than 20 packs,” Melanie Lichtensztejn, a 24-year-old university student, said on a recent day. And not just toilet paper—there was also cleaning supplies, bottled drinks, milk. “I try to buy all I can because I know that next month it will cost more to buy,” she said.
At the fruit stand outside Buenos Aires where Sofía Finot works, she says her competitors battle inflation by adding water and ice to their fruit shakes. “It’s more water, less fruit!” she says, adding that she doesn’t resort to such tactics, relying instead on buying frozen fruit to stock up before prices spike. “They will keep for a year,” she says.
In southern Argentina, butcher Exequiel García, resorts to humor to lighten the mood, placing hand-lettered signs outside the storefront with quips such as, “Look at our prices and cry,” and “Eat meat on Holy Week! It’s not a sin.”
Just how bad has inflation been?
According to the policy group Argentine Institute of Fiscal Analysis, Russia was first in the world in March and Argentina was second (Venezuela, which doesn’t regularly release fiscal data but is thought by economists to have a 251% annual inflation rate, isn’t included in the institute’s estimates).
With the peso falling and inflation rising, workers are increasingly paid and are saving in cryptocurrency. “They prefer the volatile asset of bitcoin as opposed to the peso, where they know they will always lose,” said Damian Di Pace of Focus Market Consultancy in Buenos Aires.
Argentines who haven’t caught the bitcoin bug go for other, often-times inventive ways to stretch their beleaguered peso.
Raúl Ramos, 36, a construction worker, said he and his wife look out for sales at the giant Carrefour store they like.
“I come to Carrefour to look for sales of 25% to 50%,” he said, explaining that at the start of the school year everything from books to knapsacks to notebooks were three times higher in price than a year before. “I don’t do it to save. I do it so I have money at the end of the month. I’m used to the struggle.”
María Oyhanarte, 67, and her husband, Gustavo Pastrana, 68, say they scour the La Nación newspaper for senior specials. “We bet on those specials,” says Ms. Oyhanarte. “We go, we look and we make one big purchase once a week.”
She admits it’s a losing battle, explaining that with inflation so high the couple has had to stop consuming some of the things they had bought in the past. “Meat, for example,” she says.
Mr. Pastrana, who runs a cafe next to his wife’s book store, says he sees people come in and read all day, only consuming a coffee, even though he is conscientious about raising prices. “I run a low-margin business,” he said.
Others in Argentina buy in installments—everything from groceries to clothing and household goods.
Cecilia Luna, 50, says her monthly income from working as a super in a building isn’t enough, so she’ll buy what she needs in tiny payments stretched out over long periods of time. At the moment, her family is building a small house in a poor community outside Buenos Aires.
“All the building material we’re buying with deferred payments,” said Ms. Luna, noting that material for the roof is paid out over 12 months, with no interest. In other cases, Argentines know that the interest on the payments is usually less than inflation, so their money can stretch further.
“We’re experts in the economy so we can reach the end of the month,” Ms. Luna said. “That way, we can stay calm and not have to borrow money.”