Dubai : After she got burned by a personal loan and an employment scam a few years ago, Diane vowed not to run to lenders for help.
The Filipino expatriate, 35, took out an unsecured credit from a loan shark in her home country in 2004, to pay the placement fee for a job in Taiwan. The employment deal turned out to be a hoax, so the funds she borrowed did not only go down the drain, her dreams of going abroad also vanished.
It took her more than a year to finally found a job at a bakeshop in Kuwait, before she could start paying back her debt — but not without incurring excessive late payment fees. "Since I wasn't able to pay for a while, the credit charges piled up and I ended up paying double the original loan amount. I never borrowed since then," Diane says in an interview with Gulf News.
Diane settled her dues later and saved a few thousand dirhams while staying out of lenders' radar, thanks to a monthly salary of 75 to 100 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh1,280). Hard-earned savings, however, quickly dwindled shortly after she returned home. There was an ailing mother to take care of and some siblings were hard on cash.
In her 30s, Diane had practically nothing to show that years of labour have borne fruit. Realising how fast money seems to go out the door, she entered Dubai on a visit visa in March 2006.
Diane quickly realised that lucrative jobs can be elusive. She had to do more than a couple of visa runs to extend her search for employment, and when she finally landed a receptionist post with a Dh2,500 monthly salary almost a year later, she felt she had to stick to it.
"My friends advised me to look for another job because the salary is too small by Dubai's standards. But I had no other choice. I spent almost a year in Dubai looking for a better employment, but that was the highest offer I could find," she says.
Diane did not follow her friends' advice. Over the course of about three years, she stayed with her employer and proved her friends wrong.
She did not only succeed in making ends meet without borrowing money, she managed to stash 20 per cent to 40 per cent of her monthly pay and help her brother acquire a property back home. To date, she has almost fully paid the equity line on their new home which is equivalent to 19 per cent of the property value.
"I'm almost down to a zero balance. And I did it without borrowing money! I paid the equity line in cash. I'm happy I have helped my brother get a new house. Well, it's our property now," she enthuses.
How did she do it?
Living debt-free in one of the most expensive cities in the world with only Dh2,500 monthly income is no easy feat. The amount is barely enough to pay the rent of one decent room.
The key is a lot of patience, sacrifice and self-discipline, and the ability to live cheaply. Impulse shopping, night outs, fancy dinners and even movies are not part of the picture. Diane is sharing a room with seven other expatriates.
Her biggest single expense is her share of the rent which comes down to only Dh850 a month. The amount already covers electricity and water bills.
Groceries are her next biggest expense which normally cost her Dh500 a month.
Her shopping basket usually consists of inexpensive items that she can store for a long time: canned goods, eggs, hotdogs, cured meat, rice and toiletries.
Luxury items or brands are certainly not on the shopping list. She considers it a treat when she grabs a small cup of ice cream for Dh3, at times when she's feeling down.
Pre-packed lunches at work aren't that heavy on the wallet either. At Dh9 to Dh15 a pop, a meal delivered to her office is much cheaper than a cup of coffee at a chain restaurant.
So, if she doesn't cook lunch for one month, she spends about Dh180 to Dh300 on office meals. "I've found a nice vendor who sells affordable meals. Given that his clients are mostly construction workers, you don't expect the prices to be very high," Diane says.
The cost of meals at home is very negligible. An oatmeal for breakfast or dinner will suffice, although she gets free treats from her housemates most of the time.
"There's always free food in the house, considering that almost everyone cooks, so I end up eating for free," she says.
Transportation expenses are also the least of her worries. The company bus takes her to and from work, free of charge. She does take a taxi, but only on rare occasions, when she needs to go out to meet some friends and there's no public bus available, or there's no one to offer her a free lift.
In any given month, she takes three taxi trips on average, but she makes sure she doesn't go too far. So, the monthly taxi bill only hovers around Dh45 to Dh50.
She hardly goes out to unwind or relax. Most of the free time is spent at home. Her idea of relaxing is a short window shopping at a nearby supermarket. The last time she went out to a movie was about two months ago, when a friend paid for the ticket.
"Since I take a company bus on weekdays, I usually get stuck in traffic. So everyday, I reach home late and there's no more time for night outs. I usually have one free day a week, so you'd see me staying at home on weekends, because that's the only time I can do the laundry. Considering that we're about 8 people in the room, there's a long queue to use the washer. I can't afford to give up my spot," she says.
Updating the wardrobe is a luxury she can't afford. Every time some friends, who happen to have cash to burn, take her to shopping trips, she has to bite her lip so hard to resist the temptation.
"I'll think about how little money is left in my wallet and the regular expenses I have to take care of. Then, I'll be able to ignore those really nice clothes in the shops.
"Sometimes I feel sad looking at my friends buying stuff, so I usually find an excuse not to go with them to the malls," she adds.
This was certainly not the lifestyle she had dreamed of before she moved to Dubai. Neither is she happy and proud to be struggling day to day just to get by. It was the promise of high salary that brought her to the Middle East in the first place.
But with jobs getting more scarce, this is no time to rue unfulfilled aspirations, she says. That doesn't mean she's stopped dreaming, though.
Do you lead an economical lifestyle? How much money do you generally use in a month? Do you have any tips on saving money?