x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

For parents, there's always something… and it costs

It was 'parental engagement week' at school this week. Just hearing those three words I knew I would be dipping my hand in my pocket for something or other.

Illustration by Gary Clement for The National
Illustration by Gary Clement for The National

It was "parental engagement week" at school this week. Just hearing those three words I knew I would be dipping my hand in my pocket for something or other.

Sure enough, Dh5 was the required sum for each child to shop at the Arabic souq with their parents at the end of the week. I also needed to donate a toy for each of them so that the pupils visiting the makeshift souq actually had something to buy.

Shelling out Dh5 here or there is not a problem for any parent. However, it is never just Dh5. It's always much, much more.

According to Souqalmal.com, the Middle East's first price comparison website, when it comes to picking a school for a child, parents consider fees the most important factor over other criteria such as location, the local authority rating or the quality of the facilities.

The website now includes schools and nurseries on its comparison platform because along with credit cards, car insurance and mobile phone plans, where you send your child to school is one of the biggest personal finance decisions UAE parents face.

For expats, there is no choice but to send children to private schools. So with fees ranging from Dh2,500 to more than Dh90,000, it's perfectly acceptable for parents to be a little choosy about how much they pay.

But as Ambareen Musa, the founder and chief executive of Souqalmal points out, the buck doesn't stop with the education fees. There are also uniforms to consider, school shoes children seem to grow out of every term, bus fees, meals, aftercare, school trips and extra-curricular activities.

"It's a huge financial commitment and planning ahead is crucial," Ms Musa said this week in an interview. With this in mind, I begin totting up the different amounts I regularly send into school with my three-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. There are craft markets, charity fund-raisers, book fairs and presents for the teachers at the end of each term.

There are also presents for any children leaving, and with the UAE being such a transient society, that's a lot of presents to factor in.

Amounts vary from Dh5 for a craft sale to Dh50 for a school trip to Dh100 for teacher's presents.

Then there's the odd surprise such as Dh100 to have a costume handmade for a concert.

Add it all together and you're looking at a few thousand extra dirhams - and that's for one child, let alone two.

I know one mother of four who says she feels bankrupted during the end of term present-giving ceremonies.

For my first few years as a school parent, I absent-mindedly handed over cash without ever considering the running total.

But when my son joined the school last September, I started paying more attention.

Now, barely a week goes by when I'm not scrabbling around for cash first thing in the morning.

And I haven't factored in the extras that come with being a working mum. While there is no problem dropping my little darlings off at school, getting them home is a different matter.

So there's Dh1,700 a term for my daughter to go home on the bus and Dh5,000 for my son, who finishes earlier, to be picked up by a nearby nursery and looked after for a couple of hours.

Add it up all together and we are talking more than Dh8,000 a term or Dh24,000 a year for the pair of them. Convert that into your own currency and it's heart stopping.

Which is why, while these little - or sometimes rather big - extras now get factored into the monthly budget, I try not to think about them too much. Because like any parent, I will pay whatever it takes to keep my little ones safe, happy and comfortable among their peers.

So if it costs Dh100 for my son to dress up as a candy cane so that he matches all his friends at the end-of-year concert then so be it, I'll pay.

And if my daughter needs Dh20 to buy me a mother's day present at the mother's day market, then no problem - even if it means wearing that garish bracelet every weekend to prove just how much I love it.

It may be Dh24,000 a year but for the smiles on little faces I get in return, it's probably the best Dh24,000 I'll ever spend.