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Suraya Zainudin of the hit blog ‘Ringgit Oh Ringgit’: “I was raised to be a financially independent woman"

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By Mohani Niza

Publication: Lisaffair.com

Date of publication: 29th October 2021

Mention Malaysian personal finance blogging, and the name Suraya Zainudin surely comes to mind immediately. Her blog Ringgit Oh Ringgit (RoR) made its debut five years ago and has since attracted millions of hits. Her readers enjoy her “advice” on various financial matters (though she does not like to call it advice - but more on that later!).

Whether the topic is on car loans, the perennial dilemma of whether to buy a house despite skyrocketing property prices, how to avoid scams, which credit cards to get, and those two trendy topics these days – Bitcoin and the FIRE movement – Suraya knows more than a thing or two about personal finance.

Writing in plain English intermingled with Malaysian speak, Suraya, 33, gives financial counsel to her readers like one would to a close friend, or a younger sibling.

She does not claim to know everything – in fact, she often seeks the opinion and feedback of her readers via social media (the RoR Facebook page has more than fifteen thousand likes and Suraya's Twitter page has more than thirty-five thousand followers).

People, mostly young Malaysians who are currently struggling to cope with the pandemic, the political turmoil and the country's low minimum wage, are more than happy to share with her their personal experience with money, and this sets a warm, healthy discussion about the topic.

What’s even more humbling is that Suraya often digs deep into her own experience, and candidly shares her purchasing habits as well as her financial wins and losses with her readers. Yes, that includes her regrets. When it comes to something as precious as money, Suraya is keen to not let her mistakes be your mistakes. It is the kind of sisterly love that people enjoy and find relatable.

When I mentioned this strength of hers to her, Suraya said she attributes it to her education and work background. After all, she has a diploma, an undergraduate degree and a postgraduate degree, all on the subject of communications. She even briefly worked in the non-profit sector as a communications person.

Suraya said all of these experiences allow her to “expand and deliver the information in a more engaging way” to her readers.

But don’t call her a guru.

“I'm very conscious about not sounding like a guru. That's something I'm very particular about. I know I'm giving good information. But I don't want it to sound like advice,” Suraya said adamantly.

Aside from drawing from personal experience, the self-described “personal blogger, speaker and financial activist” also relies heavily on reading and research. 

For example, take her recently-released article “4 Scenarios Where Hibah Takaful Is Useful, As Explained By A Non-Agent”. Suraya admits that for the longest time, she didn’t know much about Takaful (a type of Shariah-compliant insurance system in which money is pooled and invested).

Despite not having a financial background, Suraya said her honest approach towards personal finance attracts readers. She said people would have been reluctant to read that article on Takaful if it was written by an insurance agent, as it would have been biased. “I am not an agent. But I think the Takaful product is useful in many, many scenarios. And I write about it, because I think that you should know it. To me, if you're interested, go and find out because I don't sell it to you.”

“I'm most transparent about spending and expenses, and I have built a name for myself because of that,” she said of her success.

Given the abundant, and sometimes conflicting information about personal finance out there, Suraya, who describes herself a “natural saver'', said what she dishes out to her readers is simple: “Spend less than you make, make more than you spend, and invest the difference. That's the basics of it.”

Thriving in a male-dominated field

When most of us think of financial experts, we don’t really think of women, especially young women. Suraya said she experiences “extra joy” and “the biggest kick” by showing to people that yes, she is capable of dealing with money.

Suraya attributes her financial competence to the long line of career women in her family, both immediate and extended. “I grew up expecting to work and I was very surprised when I got to college and learnt that some women choose to become housewives. It just never crossed my mind that you don't earn an income,” Suraya said, though she insists she respects whatever a woman chooses to do.

“Another good part is that my parents have never been stingy with education,” Suraya said. “My parents are very generous people, sometimes to a fault. I remember my dad bought me thousands of Ringgits worth of books. As you grow up, you realise that not all fathers are like this.”

While Suraya said some remnants of patriarchal thinking, such as the concept of male guardianship, still remain in her Malay-Muslim household, she said the girls in her family are all brought up to aim for high-flying careers. “It's all my sisters and me that have our own businesses. I find it funny but there you go.”

Suraya believes in order to be more capable and confident with money, women should play to their own strengths. “I have read studies about how women have higher emotional intelligence and that we are better at collaboration and communication.”

“When we talk about the [personality test] The Big Five, for example, one of the measures is agreeableness, which is a measure of how much you value harmony,” she said. “Women tend to be more agreeable than men. Yes, this can be bad. Let's say someone asks you to cosign for a loan, or someone has to borrow from you or ask you to go to events that you can't afford. Someone with a high agreeableness score will find it very hard to say no. And that gets you into a lot of problems. But on the other side, someone who's very agreeable, or someone who is likeable, is very enjoyable to work with, and gets more job opportunities.”

Building a healthy relationship with money

On some people’s troubled relationship with money, Suraya again emphasises the importance of family. “When it comes to money, I do think that we inherit a lot of how we view money from our immediate environment, and that includes family members,” she said, pointing out to examples such as parents who treat loans as “free money”, people who ask their family members to take out a loan for them or co-sign something for them.

Suraya is particular about not pointing fingers though. “Parents are also learning from their parents. And some people were born in different generations where things were maybe tough. Recognise where your negative money mindset comes from, but don't put any blame on it. But recognise that ‘I learned this from my mom’, or ‘I learned about that from my dad’. Self-awareness and emotional intelligence can be trained.”

How RoR started

Suraya started out her career working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but found the work, though inspiring, paid little. So one day, she decided to experiment with online work.

With tweaks here and there along the way, it ended up being a wise move. “Eventually the income just started coming in. I thought ‘I guess this is going to be my life now’.”

The internet allowed her to become a freelance writer, and her career has evolved into various communications work since, which includes social media strategy, digital marketing and consultancy, among other things. She promotes these services on the RoR blog.

Suraya is humble, chalking her success to the fact that the personal finance niche "happens to be the right topic at the right time”.

“There was barely anyone inside the personal finance space when I first started out,” she said, noting the room has grown bigger since.

Starting RoR has reaped Suraya many rewards. She gets roped in focus groups about money, and is a regular feature in the personal finance scene in the country, appearing in interviews via Zoom, and - before the pandemic hit - at live workshops. What is more impressive is that she is usually the only woman on the panels, though of course, this shows the structural bias against women panelists.

Suraya also uses the RoR blog as a personal portfolio to showcase her past works, attracting potential clients whom she has the luxury of choosing from, and whom she has great freedom to negotiate her payment with - luxuries she didn't previously have when she was just first starting out.

On how exactly she makes money, Suraya said: “Most of my income comes not from advertising money. Most of my income comes from affiliates. It also comes mostly from doing sponsored posts and from consultancy work.”

So, how does she sustain her passion? After all, blogging, especially financial bogging, while becoming more popular, is still considered a non-traditional path for most Malaysians.

“I love making money,” Suraya said, without being shy. “There's no plan B. If this doesn't work out, then what am I going to do? And the flexibility and the freedom to set your own schedule is something that you can't get when you're employed. So you want to maintain this lifestyle.”

“There's no more turning back.”