Dubai: Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic was unexpected in scale and in effect. When the first cases were reported out of China, not many could have expected that we would reach the overwhelming tally of 25 million confirmed cases by the end of August. Even as people get used to the new normal, of wearing a mask, maintaining social distance and working or learning from home, a huge consequence of the pandemic is money.
The World Economic Forum reported that according to the UN’s International Labour Organisation, 1.6 billion informal economy workers could suffer “massive damage” to their livelihoods. The pandemic, in the second quarter of 2020, may cost the equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs.
For those who are still holding on to their jobs, most face pay cuts, unpaid leave and uncertainty. While it is never easy to downsize, here’s how some UAE expats are cutting expenses to keep up with salary deductions.
“We can’t really blame anyone,” 29-year-old Indian expat Nair, who works in Dubai, commented. “The entire world is suffering and I am lucky I still have a job,” he said. Nair had a salary pay cut of 30 per cent, reducing his monthly income from Dh9,000 to Dh6,300.
“My expenses haven’t changed, I still have my car loan, my personal loan, rent, living costs, responsibilities … everything,” he explained.
He decided to take a few measures to cut costs but maintain his low debt status. “I am making sure I continue to pay back my loans and credit cards,” he added. His biggest expense is rent, Dh2,000 for the room he shares with three others. His car and loan payments added up another Dh2,500. His personal loan, which he took up for expenses in his hometown in Kerala, still has a year of payments due.
His major cut in expenses is in grocery shopping, Nair said, along with phone payments. “I am really glad that now some apps work for calls, so I am saving costs on international calls with my family back home,” he said. “I have also changed my diet to suit my new salary,” he laughed, and said he eats homemade rotis [Indian flat bread] three times a day with either vegetables or chicken. Nair scours for offers and deals from grocery stores and supermarkets making sure he calculates cost of transport alongside the best deals.
I am really glad that now some apps work for calls, so I am saving costs on international calls with my family back home
His desserts are the budget-friendly Filipino bananas or oranges that are on sale. From spending Dh1,500 a month on eating out and shopping to cook and eat, Nair now spends just over Dh800 a month for food. The rest of the money, around Dh1,000, Nair spends on fuel or other miscellaneous expenses and saves whatever is left.
“I also saved money on petrol for the first few months because of the remote work situation, so that helped,” he added. This has changed now as UAE workplaces have started returning to offices full-time. Nair expects his fuel costs to be around Dh400, as was before the lockdown but he isn’t worried, yet.
“I was hoping to go back to Kerala in September for my annual vacation, marriage proposals were also in place,” he said.
“Now all that will be on hold. I want to be certain of my financial future here, before I bring another person into my life,” he said.
For another young couple with a newborn baby, a lot of plans went awry with a pay cut. Earning a combined income of Dh10,000, Ravi and his wife Sreeja were eagerly expecting the arrival of their first child. A month before delivery, Ravi’s wife was informed that her pay would be reduced temporarily to Dh3,000 from Dh5,000. “I only have basic spousal insurance, so we were really worried about any unexpected costs for the birth,” Sreeja said.
A normal delivery in the UAE costs around Dh6,000 while a non-elective C-section costs around Dh10,000, both of which are usually covered by insurance. The newborn is also covered for 30 days under the mother’s insurance.
However, there is a cap on the basic insurance plans and one night in a NICU (Neo-natal ICU) could cost upward of Dh12,000.
After rent, at Dh3,000 a month for a studio, the couple pay Dh3,500 towards expenses such as food, TV and internet connection, metro transport and electricity. Another Dh500 covers an office loan that Ravi took out for their marriage leaving them with Dh1,000 for savings or any emergencies each month.
“We were planning to move to a one-bedroom before the baby came, and my mother-in-law was supposed to come to help us,” Ravi said. None of it materialised, however, and when little Hari was born at just 2.5 kilos the young parents were really worried. While Sreeja was on maternity leave, having a caretaker was crucial for the newborn, especially given his low weight. “We couldn’t afford any special care for him,” Sreeja said.
“Thankfully, my uncle and his wife stepped in to help us out,” Ravi added. Sreeja and Hari stayed at the uncle’s place for over a month, while Ravi arranged to move to a slightly bigger apartment.
My main tip would be to save even the little amounts when you can, because that’s what is keeping us afloat now.
“I had saved some money for around 5 months, to use in Kerala for our annual vacation — which we were supposed to be on now with Hari. I am dipping into that for now,” Ravi said. Expenses have only increased for the couple with the new rent at Dh3,500 for a one-bedroom flat in the same building. “Not to mention diapers, baby items, everything else…,” Ravi added. Friends got them useful but sometimes expensive items such as a baby stroller and a bath and change table.
Now that travel has opened up, he paid Dh900 to get Sreeja’s mother to Dubai so she could help.
As for cutting expenses, he is planning to downgrade his TV and internet connection while making sure that the family eats home-made meals as much as possible. Ravi said, “My main tip would be to save even the little amounts when you can, because that’s what is keeping us afloat now.”
Where’s the silver lining? Sreeja laughed, “Maybe this will teach us to make the most of that Dh3,000 when I get it back again. Maybe we will learn to save all of it.”
Filipino expat Deb D said he has faced a 35 per cent salary cut. “As a single person living in the UAE, I am managing this fine so far. My salary cut has just meant that I have had to rework my budget.”
Deb said he has had not received any good news on rental drop so far from his landlord. “The good thing is that he has allowed a staggered payment of rent so I am able to manage so far. Since I have been working from home, I have saved on Salik and transportation expenses.”
He has also worked around his food orders so as to accommodate his new budget. “It is all about changing your mindset and working around something practical to keep you afloat amid salary cuts.”
“So effectively, the way I have met the salary cut is by minimising my expenses in the most practical way possible.”
Property purchase pays off
Pakistani expat Khurram H said he has given himself six months’ time to see if things work out for him and his family here in the UAE following a 25 per cent salary cut. “The saving grace is that I live a two-bedroom apartment in The Gardens which I own and have fully paid for. So there is no encumbrance on it.”
Right now I am meeting my salary cut by pulling money out from my savings. I cannot do this beyond six months.
But he said he has not seen any respite in his two children’s school fees. “I don’t blame the school as they need to pay teachers and staff. Everyone is trying to survive amid a pandemic and I am trying to do the same. Right now I am meeting my salary cut by pulling money out from my savings. I cannot do this beyond six months. If my salary does not come back to pre-COVID times, I will have to return home with my family.”
Indian expat M. Dohadwala has only one family member with him in Dubai — his wife. So a 10 per cent salary cut has not bothered him a lot. “I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Dubai Sports City, which I have paid for in full. So I don’t have a rent to pay. Since there are only two us, our expenses are minimal. We used to spend money for eating outside. But that has come down drastically. Since I have been working from home I have saved on Salik and petrol expenses. It is not fun having your salary cut, but at least I am not in a distressed situation.”