The greater your financial freedom, the more choices you have. And that makes you happier. I came to the UAE in 2008 after accepting a job as a senior occupational and environmental health officer with Health Authority Abu Dhabi. I help write policies that address health risks both at work and in the natural environment. As well as giving me the salary I was after, the job provided the chance to work overseas again and advance my career in occupational health.
This position in Abu Dhabi was my first job after completing a master's in public health at Loma Linda University, near Los Angeles. Prior to this I spent six-and-a-half years in the US Navy as an industrial hygiene officer. I left the navy as a lieutenant in 2005, mostly because I felt I had a nice savings account, and this gave me the security to try something new. I decided that I wanted to go back to school. I already had a degree in environmental science, and I used my savings - more than US$200,000 (Dh735,915)- to fund the master's without working or taking out loans.
Tuition for the degree cost about $80,000 over two years, and my living expenses were probably $2,000 a month during this period. I was able to save more than $200,000 in a variety of ways. My first professional salary with the navy in 1999 was $36,000 after taxes. By the time I finished with the navy in 2005 I was earning $70,000. I applied for a loan and bought a house in San Diego, southern California, in 2002 for $360,000. I sold it two years later for $675,000.
I took the profit from the house, about $200,000, and invested it in mutual funds and stocks. I was lucky in real estate, and I was lucky again on the stock market. I didn't just throw my money at the stocks; I did some research. My work in the navy involved research and risk analysis, and I applied those analytical skills looking at stocks and businesses. One good stock I picked out was internet wholesale retailer overstock.com. I bought in at its initial public offering following the success of other internet companies such as eBay.
Overstock.com started at $3 a share and at one point it was trading at about $70 a share. I won't say how much, but I made a bit of money. Investing in stocks was an education, but the bulk of my money actually went into mutual funds. I picked a well-managed mutual fund from a reputable company, USAA, which specialises in military clients. I liquidated my high-risk investments in 2006 when I went to graduate school and drew out of my mutual funds as I needed to. Most of my stocks were sold during the good times before the global downturn. That was luck.
I still had quite a bit of money left once I graduated, but then I spent more than a year out of work looking for the perfect job before moving to Abu Dhabi. I continued living in a very nice apartment on the beach at Marina Del Ray in Los Angeles. I travelled a bit and spent more than six months doing humanitarian volunteer work in Peru and Mali in Africa. I substantially reduced my savings, but didn't quite go through everything during this time. However, it was a bit disconcerting to be living off my nest egg rather than putting money away.
Doing volunteer work made me feel very grateful to have money but the greatest effect it had on me was more about opportunities than money. People can live without money but they can't live without opportunities to better themselves and make a life for their children. When I was living in the jungle in Peru I spent almost no money. The basic necessities weren't always available and you just had to make do, sometimes without running water or electricity.
I was based in a developed town called Ayacucho while in Peru, and got work through a non-governmental organisation called Cross Cultural Solutions. I worked in an orphanage, a women's health clinic and a women's prison. I paid the agency $5,000 plus my air fares and they provided housing and basic living expenses. It was one of the happiest times I can remember. I lived out of a backpack and it made me feel incredibly free and unburdened.
But it did help knowing I had a Mastercard and access to money if necessary. I know what it is like not to have this security. I didn't have money for a really long time, being from a large family and struggling to put myself through college. I have three brothers and five sisters. I was the youngest, and I am now 36 years old. I grew up in Sidney, a small town in Nebraska, in the US Midwest. My first job was a paper route when I was eight. Then I worked as a waitress through high school, earning about $2 an hour plus tips.
I graduated in 1991 and went off to Chadron State College, in Nebraska. I had a tuition scholarship and got a school loan to cover $1,700 a term for books and living expenses. I was on a pre-medical programme for a year and a half. Then I decided I didn't want to be a doctor, so I quit. I moved to Fort Collins, Colorado to be closer to the Colorado State University, a bigger school offering more courses.
I was 21 when I started at the college, studying environmental science during the day and working nights and weekends managing a pizza shop. I think I had less than $1,000 a month in expenses. Right now, I'm looking to regain the nest egg I once had. Money came easily previously, but I realise that that's not going to happen all the time. I'm slowly putting money back into my mutual funds. It's very conservative investing. I try not to worry about what the markets are doing. I'm not looking for another overstock.com.
What I spend my money on now is travelling and my family. I'm planning a trip to see Thailand and Cambodia. And I've spent money buying laptops for my nieces and nephews and helping them put down payments on their first cars. I have 25 nieces and nephews, and I give them these gifts as an incentive for them to keep learning and keep trying. I have a monthly budget of Dh4,000, which I spend on food and whatever else I want. The rest of what I'm paid goes into bills and savings.
I like eating out and probably spend about Dh250 a week. When I dine out I prefer locally owned, smaller eateries to five-star restaurants. With clothes I buy quality rather than quantity, and the same goes for what I buy for my house. I believe if you earn money, and are conservative in how you spend it, you're buying yourself time to do the things you want to do rather than have to. If you're not spending every single dirham in your pay cheque, you can put money towards retirement or time out.
I have no plans to retire early. I'm working towards becoming better in my field and having a greater impact on people's lives in the work that I do. That's what drives me.