Dubai: Across the Arab world, many women justifiably seeking divorce are finding themselves trapped in the marriage because of financial dependence on their husbands.
Although some may be working women, the rising cost of living makes it expensive for the woman to support herself and her children on a single income.
Being a single mother presents enormous challenges: even if you came out of the divorce, death or separation from a spouse with a financial safety net, you are fully responsible for the financial decisions that will affect you and your children for the years ahead. Unless you are money-savvy, this can cause massive anxiety or lead to unsound decisions that affect your long-term financial security.
According to a recent study by Euromonitor International, there are 89,000 single-parent households in the UAE, an increase of 71 per cent from 2006 to 2011.
The transition to becoming the sole breadwinner may be difficult but with strict financial planning, inventiveness and frugal living, it is not impossible for single mothers to achieve financial independence and security, according to personal finance experts and women who have taken the leap.
After first being separated from her husband, E.K, a Palestinian single mother who spoke on condition of anonymity, felt the real burden when his death left her with unexpected debts 15 years ago.
"In one night we were below zero, my salary was only Dh6,000 although I am a university graduate," says the mother of two, who had no idea of her husband's debts.
E.K., now 59, says it was a struggle to raise a teenage daughter and son on a single income from her job at the Ministry of Health.
"All of it was taxing for me, I had to be a mother, driver, a maid because we couldn't afford one, take care of the children's health and pay the rent, electricity and school tuition. It was a very difficult journey," she said.
Determined to put her children through private school, she went into survivor mode and coped with what she had: Armed with a pen and paper, she made a list of monthly expenditures and income and stuck to the budget.
She secured rent by putting away a monthly amount into her bank account. She denied herself new shoes, clothing or outings unless absolutely necessary and cut spending drastically.
"Thirty dirhams a week on petrol had to be enough… To save on electricity we all slept in one room so the air conditioner bills would be less."
She also contributed to a chit fund or committee, where a person enters into agreement with a group of people to subscribe an amount of money in instalments over a period of time and then each person in turn is entitled to the accumulated sum.
Reluctantly she took out bank loans and overdrafts but consistently paid them off.
The difficult part was explaining the change in lifestyle to her children, she said.
"I told the kids that they weregrown up now and that our lifestyle had to change from dad's time. I told them these are my capabilities, I'm an administrator and I denied myself many things. I told them I would pay for school. God helped but we just barely covered high school expenses."
E.K. had to sell her gold jewellery to put both children through college. One kilo of gold got her Dh45,000. "When a woman buys gold it is a security. I had that feeling. But when the time came I had to sell it for the children. I had no choice. It's better to sell gold than be indebted to neighbours and friends and owe them for life. I can withstand anything but not favours from people," she said.
"It was a big burden. I look older than my age. I always depended on God but it was like the seven lean years." The tough times she faced with her children taught them valuable financial lessons, she said. "It taught them the difference between being miserly and management, to cut corners and put money in the right place. I gave them awareness to save up because you never know what the times have in store for you."
Financial security and the question of whether to raise them in the UAE or in Syria, where they have residency, weighed on E.K. heavily.
"When they slept I thought: ‘How will they be raised and will we stay here?' I had to be resilient and not be a weak mom so they wouldn't be affected. The journey was tough, financially and socially. I deprived myself of a lot of things to be a fighter in front of them," she said.
A proud and independent woman, she refused the offers of help from relatives back home.
"I was on my own. It's bad to feel on your own. Relatives offered to help but I felt it was a big thing to be in debt to them after living abroad for so long. It was a big deal to me if people said they had a part in paying for my children's school."
Annalyn Reyes, another single mother, believes the key to fin-ancial security is living within your means, and saving and investing wisely. Reyes, 36, has a ten-year old son and works as a financial officer with an airline company to support her parents and her son who lives in the Philippines with them. Her ex-husband pays funds that go into a savings account for the boy.
"My golden rule is if you can't afford something don't grab it. Always save," she said.
She spends half her salary on National Bonds savings and the other half is split towards her own expenses and sending money back home. "I always make it a point to budget for everything. My priority is the education of my son, his allowance and my parents' allowance. I won't grab anything which I can't afford and I won't take loans," she said.
Reyes avoids letting credit card interest pile up and stays away from borrowing.
"So many people here have no difficulty in getting a loan, they don't care. They think of how to acquire a loan then end up saying ‘Oh how do I pay it?' That is a no-no for me."
She also invests a small amount of money on treasury bills, has a time-deposit back home in the Philippines where she also invested in two plots of land that are increasing in value.
"It was so hard for me at first because it was only my salary. I had to give up things to get sufficient funds to support my son. Before I had a bedspace, less shopping, limited phone calls, cut down on food," she said.
Her aim is to make sure she saves enough to put her son through college. Through this journey, she got no support and did not find any programmes or resources for single mothers.
‘Rely on yourself'
"You have to rely on yourself. I'm very independent. I don't want to rely on anyone. I don't care, I can do whatever job it is, I'm not scared, I'm a risk taker."
Taking an "aggressive" approach to pursuing her goals, Reyes has even been on several business ventures including buying and selling fireworks, she said.
For both E.K. and Reyes, making financial decisions and working while they were married helped them make a smoother transition into single motherhood. "If I mismanage money I have only myself to blame. I am the captain of my ship," Reyes said. She speaks bitterly of her friend's experience who tried to separate from her husband but failed because of economic dependence on him.
The first step forward is to make a solid financial plan, says Natalie Storey, an executive consultant at Acuma Wealth Management. Start by looking at your income and expenses then make a budget. On an Excel spread sheet, categorise the items you will spend money on (shopping, car, school tuition). "If finances are tight, you will need to cut out luxuries that you were used to," she said.
Regularly review what you are spending by collecting all your receipts over the month in a bowl at home then categorise them against the budget on the Excel sheet, she said. This helps to get a clear picture of actual expenditure compared to the original plan.
To tackle the gap between your income and any debts, reduce expenditure: cut your grocery bill by going to more affordable supermarkets, buy cheaper products or use the Dubai Metro instead of a car, she said. Clear debts quickly to avoid paying interest on loans, which makes things worse, and try to work more hours to earn overtime.
Resorting to measures such as selling gold jewellery is one way to ease financial burdens, but it is a quick fix, Storey said. A better idea is to stick to the budget.
Single mothers should also start saving for future education and retirement if they have any income left over, she added.