The magic of currency exchange (dollars to ringgits)

A big question with moving from one place to another is how the cost of living changes.  In the States, you have shows that go around the country, showing you how much house say, $200,000 will buy.  A mansion in Arkansas costs the same as a tiny apartment in Manhattan.  The units of money are the same, but their value is quite different.  Prices of cars and such have gotten much more unified since corporations have gone national and since the Internet allows people to compare prices and demand the lowest price they can find.

So when moving to another nation, especially when moving from the U.S.A. to the “2/3 World” (a more accurate description than the old phrase “3rd world” nations), the value of money is a big question mark.  Having been here for just about 2 months (we celebrate the 5th of each month as an anniversary!) we are just getting used to the currency, called Ringgit Malaysia, or RM, or ringgits.  The conversion amount – 3 RM to $1 U.S. – has stayed pretty steady.  At first, we calculated everything into dollars.  A large pizza is about 24 RM – $8 U.S. – which we thought was a steal, though it was really a medium size pizza, which could really cost $8.  A bag of Goldfish crackers is 9 RM ($3 – same as U.S.).  A smartphone costs about 600 RM ($200 –same as U.S.).  A monthly phone/data plan costs about 80 RM per phone (that’s a steal at $27).  A new small car is about 50,000 RM ($17,000 – same as U.S.)  And you can fill its tank with petrol for 75 RM – $25 – which is close to the $35 my Hyundai cost in the States.

Malaysian money

Malaysian currency – 1 RM

So many things translate equally – you’ll pay the same for a bag of Goldfish whether you’re using $3 US or 9 RM.  But then we started doing things that were local, rather than national (car companies) or international (Goldfish and pizza).  Sure, you can get a pizza for 24 RM, but you can also go out for curry or fried rice at a restaurant for 6 RM per person – a full meal for 4 instead of one medium pizza for the same 24 RM!  And you can get a huge bunch of fingerling bananas for 2 RM – $.66 for a week’s worth.  Pretty soon we found that when buying local, calculating into US dollars is harder – and we began to think in terms of RM.  A grocery run costs us about 100 RM, and we don’t think of how many dollars that is.  Why bother?  We live in a place where what matters are the ringgits.

What was stunning for us was realizing that when we think in RM – understanding that RM basically equal US dollars on non-Western purchases – we make far more than we ever have.  Because for every RM that passes through our hands, we make 3 RM.  Does that make sense?  We are paid in US dollars, which are worth 3 ringgit.  So it’s like we make three times what the cost of living is here.  What that means is that we have enough to live on, enough to give away, enough to start savings.  But we don’t have enough to do all three of those if we want to live on Western food, or to travel constantly, or to live like tourists.  And that is WONDERFUL, because we aren’t tourists.  We don’t want to live differently from our peers here.  We want to learn and be blessed by being changed.

Today I’m learning to make our own tortillas.  They cost 15 RM for an 8-pack, and it’s so much more fun to have a friend teach me and then to be able to cook them ourselves.  The resources we have at hand are amazing, and we are constantly learning gratitude, often especially so when we are confronted with not being able to do things the way we used to.  We’ve heard that at the 6-month mark we will hit a wall with wanting to do new things, but for now, we are wide-eyed and living a grand adventure – one where you can get a fresh warm red-bean bun for 1 ringgit.  Cheers to that!


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