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Managing with limited resources

Expat on low income stretches the dirham to meet obligations in her home country

Managing with limited resources
Image Credit: Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/©Gulf News
24 Gulf News

For Theresa, leaving her family behind to work overseas is only half the battle.

In addition to fighting homesickness, the Filipino expat also faces the challenge of surviving on a meagre income.

A rank-and-file employee at a company in Dubai, Theresa barely pockets Dh6,000 a month. For a lone breadwinner with three mouths to feed and no other source of income, that means affording a life of luxury in a foreign country is impossible.

The rising cost of living abroad and a stagnant paycheque are not doing any help, and her best recourse at the moment is to make her income stretch further.

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Theresa's main goal has always been that her family, who are at the centre of her world, can afford middle class comforts and that her two children can finish college.

"I've got to do what's necessary. My husband doesn't have a job," she says.

Unlike most avid savers out there who are aiming to leave 40 to 50 per cent of their salaries untouched, Theresa's monthly target is to set aside 90 per cent of her income for her financial obligations, leaving only 10 per cent to cover her personal needs.

One of her major expenses is the repayment for her personal loan, setting her back Dh2,800 every month, or nearly 50 per cent of her salary. She had taken out a Dh50,000 loan from a bank in Dubai last year to purchase a second-hand car for her family's use, and to also furnish and improve their house.


The second biggest expense is the Dh1,200 allowance she sends home for the children's tuition and her family's daily essentials. Another Dh600 goes to her landlord's pockets in Dubai, to pay for a small bed space and utility bills. About Dh500 is also sent home for the amortisation of a house and lot.

At the end of the month, she usually has Dh100 cash left in her pocket, plus Dh500 for emergencies. "It's always been like that for me. Sometimes, I barely have anything left. I literally live paycheque to paycheque."

So what does a mother do to get by and make every dirham last until the next payday? "Self sacrifice, that's what it takes to survive," she says.

Careful not to create anymore major expense, Theresa limits overseas phone calls. She stays in touch with the family mostly through internet chats during her off days. "Long-distance calls are very expensive," she says.

When it comes to shopping, she has mastered the trick to stretching the dirham even further.


"I hardly buy clothes and other things for me and when I do, I'd go for hand-me-downs in Karama, where a blouse or shirt costs only Dh5 to Dh10. The only branded item I have is a pair of Levis jeans that I bought from a second-hand clothing store. I don't even buy from a bargain sale at the mall. The items are still expensive, despite the discount," she says.

At the grocery, she buys only the cheapest products. "I know where and how to find them since I compare prices all the time. If you look hard enough, you can take home a 200-gramme toothpaste for only Dh5." She said she could even find dishwashing soap for a steal price of Dh8.

Theresa's cost-saving ways may be a bit harsh for other expats, especially for those who make more money, yet at a time when incomes are stagnating and the cost of essentials is rising, other people are also looking at ways to keep their spending down.

In the US, where many consumers struggle with debt, workers have tightened their day-to-day spending to help get by.

A survey by CareerBuilder showed that 77 per cent of the workers live from paycheque to paycheque.

In order to make ends meet, consumers have cut back on leisure activities, used coupons or shopped at discount stores, driven less to save on petrol, cancelled cable and other subscriptions and used public transportation.

Salaries never enough

It is not certain how many UAE workers are living paycheque to paycheque, but studies have shown that not many are satisfied with their income. According to a recent survey by, only three per cent of UAE residents are highly satisfied with their salary, while nearly half (47 per cent) are not at all pleased.

A look at the level of income among residents in the Middle East and North Africa region, however, revealed that the UAE still maintains a “high number of professionals with the biggest salaries”.

About seven per cent of the workers bring home $8,001 (Dh29,387) or more each month. But there seems to be more high-paid workers in Bahrain, where 9 per cent of professionals get more than $8,000 monthly. In Oman, the number is lower (6 per cent), and in Kuwait (5 per cent) and Saudi Arabia (3 per cent).

The lowest paid residents in the region are in the North African countries of Algeria, Egypt and Morocco. This year, 56 per cent of residents in Algeria earn under $500 a month. In Egypt, 53 per cent of professionals receive up to $500 per month and about 45 per cent earn the same in Morocco.