When the downturn struck this vitamin distributors business she was forced to reduce monthly expenses by Dh24,000 - and discovered she enjoyed a more thrifty lifestyle.
I learnt to take my dose of reality
I came to Dubai from Los Angeles in September 2006. It had always been a dream of mine. I had read about Dubai in the news, and I thought the bustling atmosphere would fit well with my personality. At 50 years old, with my two boys by my side, I finally achieved it. However, the move wasn't a simple affair. From 2004 to 2006, as the exclusive UAE distributor for a brand of vitamins and health products - Vitasecrets - I travelled to and from Dubai for business, staying at hotels whenever I came to the Emirates.
At the time, money wasn't an issue at all. I spent quite liberally on luxuries, mostly in the forms of nice dinners, movies and travelling. Even after all of these expenses, I was able to put money aside. The money I was making was almost exclusively from selling vitamins, and business was very good. My savings paid off one day when, while staying at a hotel on a trip to Dubai in September of 2006, I met a man who was in the process of moving out of the city. After we talked for a while, he offered to rent me his office in Deira and his three-bedroom apartment in Sharjah, both for a year, and sell me his used car - for a grand total of Dh160,000. It goes without saying that everything was much less expensive in Dubai at that time.
I paid the full amount in cash. When I saved money, it was always deposited as cash in the bank. I never put much thought into investments, not even safe ones. While I may be extravagant in my spending habits, still spending on movies, dinner, fancy nights out and the like, I always wanted a stockpile of cash, just in case anything went wrong. In fact, I still don't have a credit card. I feel that if I always pay for things in cash, I can really feel the money moving from my hands to someone else's. In America, I fell into the credit-card trap and paid the banks much of my hard-earned income in interest. As a safe replacement, I tried a debit card for a while. Spending with a card still seemed too abstract, so I stuck with using cash. I still kept the debit card for things like online purchases though.
For the first few months in Dubai, at the end of 2006, I still enjoyed a healthy stream of income. However, I spent months dealing with riddling problems, such as registering my business and navigating through all of the red tape I needed to settle in. I was still running the same business, vitamin distribution, but now that I was based within the UAE I had many more requirements to go through. I had to pay for the visa, register my business and rent a post box. I can't remember the exact cost of these things.
My inability to navigate the labyrinth of roads was difficult. I kept getting lost. It was a small thing but it added to my frustration and made this start-up process all the more difficult. The traffic caused me to spend four and a half hours a day commuting to work and taking my youngest son, now 9 years old, to and from school. Through these early months I endured some difficult situations, including the fact that my oldest son wasn't with me. But I knew I could make things work.
As I settled in and worked out the kinks in my business, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was finally able to register my company ? Pass International Trading- a few months after arriving, which focuses on importing vitamin products, specifically the Vitasecrets brand. Once I hired a live-in maid for my youngest son, for Dh2,000 per month, I could relax and enjoy life in the city to its full extent. I couldn't believe how inexpensive a full-time maid was - in Los Angeles, I would pay my neighbour's 16-year-old daughter US$20 (Dh73.50) per hour just for babysitting.
In 2007 and into 2008, I made myself comfortable. After going to the movie theatre at Mall of the Emirates, I used to ride the escalator downstairs to the Virgin Megastore and spend between Dh700 and Dh800 on music. This was quite a regular occurrence. My mobile phone bill alone usually ran about Dh1,000 each month, mostly on long-distance calls to the US. I would even travel to America two or three times a year. Being able to spend lavishly and still save money in the bank was an amazing experience. But I generally limited my expenses to entertainment. I never spend very much on big toys, like luxury cars.
And I don't believe I spend money foolishly. My landlord for our apartment in Sharjah tripled my rent in February 2008, so while I could afford the increase, I still opted to find somewhere else to live. I now live across the street from my old apartment and pay Dh44,000 per year for another three-bedroom flat. I used to get into arguments with friends who ridiculed me for not buying property in Dubai. "It's a sure bet! You can double your money in no time," I would hear. But I stuck to my habits. I rented my apartment and leased a car, while my oldest son, now 26 years old, drove the car I originally bought. When it came to speculating in the property market, there was no way you could convince me to take part.
I believe that my refusal to buy property is the main reason I am still here today. However, I wasn't immune to the market slide. In November 2008, as Dubai realised that it was not exempt from the global economic crisis, everything changed. When my oldest son moved to Dubai from America to live with me and work in the business, it was nearly December. As a seasoned expatriate at this point, I informed him that there wasn't any traffic because everybody was on holiday for the month. I assured him that the roads would clog once again in January.
January came, but the traffic stayed at bay. And so did my customers. Business fell dramatically and I started to get concerned about my future. Luckily, I had money saved for this occasion - but I never felt comfortable living off savings. It was at this point that I made massive cuts in my spending habits. I stopped calling the US on a regular basis and started using e-mail instead. I let go of two employees out of fear that I might run out of money and lose my office.
I ended my unrestrained visits to Virgin. Instead of frequenting the most expensive hotels and restaurants on my travels, I chose less glitzy, more budget-friendly venues. I have visited the US only once this year. Taking into consideration the cuts I made in my personal and business expenses, I have been spending about Dh24,000 less per month in 2009 as compared to 2008. Business was very stagnant for the first six months of this year, but sales started to increase in June, though only modestly.
I believe that, because of the economy, people are less willing to spend their cash at a doctor every time they get sick. Instead, they may start looking for alternative treatments and preventive medicine. My products could fill this niche, so I am hopeful that my business will continue to recover even while the overall economy struggles. However, even as my income begins to rise, I am sure that the thrifty spending habits I've developed this year will continue to guide my future spending.
* As told to Keith Parker