Money talks

Ok, let’s talk about money. One of the things that is both good and bad about living and working in a developing country is the money.

For starters, Indonesia’s currency is the Rupiah, which is worth 0.000104004 USD. So, about 9600 Rp equals 1 USD. We generally round things to a clean 10,000 for reference – say we’re shopping and we spend 1,000,000 Rp, we figure that we spent 100 bucks. (As an aside, I’m not so good at this conversion. I actually have to block off the last four digits of a price with my finger to wrap my head around it.)

The paper money here starts at 1000 Rp and only goes up to 100,000 Rp ($10), so when we take out cash, say 200 dollars, the stack of money that comes out of the ATM is embarrassingly large – like how much you might sleep on if you were Scrooge McDuck or a coked-out mobster. The coins range from 50 Rp to 1000 Rp. Yeah, pocket change is quite literally worth nothing, and in fact, the smaller denominations are made out of aluminum and feel like they’re fake (and they might as well be).

As you can imagine, this leads to all sorts of hilarious references to things costing A MILLION DOLLARS. Plus, the kids can’t figure out the difference between a Rupiah and a Dollar, so LittleB keeps saying things like this:

“I used to get a dollar a week for allowance, but I think I should get AT LEAST 5 rupiahs a week now.”

“OHMIGOD I just found a coin that is worth A THOUSAND rupiahs!”

“Psst, check it out, I have so much money [flashes a few thousand in his wallet].”

On the other hand, many things are very inexpensive to buy here. I can get lunch in the cafeteria for 15,000 Rp. We can fill the car with gas for 150,000 (gas is also heavily subsidized here, which is another story). Toll roads average 5000 Rp. We pay our household staff a few million per month. So that pocket change isn’t as worthless as it seems. Still, a lot of the things we buy as “rich” expats are comparable in price to Canada. Imported food and clothes are on par, as are services like Internet and phones – which means we’re spending MILLIONS each week.

Now, the bad. First of all, to a local person, a tenth of a cent is valuable because it means the difference between feeding their family that day and going hungry. A typical driver, for example, gets an allowance of 20,000 Rp (that’s $20) for food per month. We have spent more money on Starbucks in one week than a university-educated person might receive as their weekly salary.

It doesn’t help that there is really no such thing as credit here, and that everything has to be paid up front: cars, houses, rent, big-ticket items. It’s a vicious cycle. You have to save up for a big purchase, but you can’t make enough to do it. In a way, I felt like we had this problem even in Canada – so that’s not a big difference. In fact, maybe it’s just as well. As personal debt builds up in developed countries, it’s scary to think how people in place like this would handle the kinds of market crashes that can happen when the bubble bursts.

Anyway, it definitely puts things in perspective. There’s nothing like suddenly being “rich” when a few short months ago we felt like we were in massive debt and struggling to get by. I hope these are lessons we can take with us for the rest of our lives.

One thought on “Money talks

  1. Hi Sandra,

    When Ngan and I travel to Vietnam, it is about 20,000 Dong to the USD, so your post is hitting home (I also find that there are two prices for most things – one for whites and one for locals. So, when I’m there, I enjoy buying something (for say $1) then sending in Ngan or a relative to buy the same thing just to see how badly I got ripped off (I don’t spite vendors for this – it is small change for me and real money for them). Anyway …. keep on posting … – Vinny Kurata


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