If you can't afford something, don't buy it. That's the philosophy of Sarah Noble, a Pilates instructor in Dubai.
Learning to make money stretch
For once and for all, I am here to set the record straight about "expat brats". I might have been brought up in the expatriate life in Botswana, but no way can you call me precious. Like most expatriate young people, I was sent home to study or, as parents like to say: "Wait until you experience the real world." Yes, I paid my dues during my time in college back in the UK but I'm back living the expatriate life in Dubai, and thriving, with a strong sense of self and of financial management. Don't you wish your kids were smart like me? Listen up.
I've been working as a client relations manager and Pilates instructor for Zen Yoga for the past year. I look after clients and give classes at its three studios in Dubai. I also recruit and train the receptionists, ensuring that any communication issues are dealt with effectively. It's a good company to work for and, in addition to earning a management fee, I'm paid on a commission basis for the Pilates classes. The fee covers my living expenses and I can manage to save my commission for giving group and private classes, which is roughly the same as the fee or a little more. My savings allow me to travel and explore the region while my fee is my cushion, giving me the security of always having enough money at the end of the month to pay my rent, a practice I was forced into during my time at college, away from home.
Now, I'm grateful to my parents for giving me a good grounding in money management all those years ago, but it was a rude awakening for an expat brat, already suffering the cold and rain of the UK. I was just 17 when I arrived at Leicester University in 1997 to study sport therapy. My mum came for the first two months, to set me up in accommodation and organise the bank standing order for my living expenses.
I had an allowance of £300 a month which I never thought anything more of until the day before she left. She produced a newspaper and said: "Now let's look for a job for you." What? I had never had a part-time job like a paper round or babysitting when growing up in Gaborone, the Botswanan capital. It just wasn't done. A bit like here, I suppose. But my parents, who were originally from the UK, wanted to instil their own values in my younger sister and I so they gave us jobs for which we were paid, like washing the car and cleaning the swimming pool.
It wasn't going to be a free ride in the UK either, it seemed. While my parents ensured I had a roof over my head by giving me enough money for the rent and living expenses, if I wanted anything else I had to go out and earn money to buy it, or else do without. The innocence of the Gaborone life was quickly to be replaced with a street-smart attitude. I waitressed all through my four years at college, working next door at the Leicester Tigers Rugby Club's hospitality boxes. Doing silver service, where I would personally place customers' food on their plates, I earned a lot, especially at weekends, almost matching what my parents sent me. I didn't tell them that but I could have paid for myself, really. As I earned more qualifications in sport therapy, the venues where my university would place me began offering to hire me on a paid basis.
I also worked part-time in the college gym, doing rehabilitation therapy for students with sport injuries or disabilities, which is essentially what sport therapy entails. I learnt the value of money over that time, as well as having fun, spending my money on travelling and cheap £99 holiday deals. But I was lucky to have that cushion from my parents for my living expenses. I first came to Dubai in 2000 when a college friend and I were recruited as sport therapists for a health club, but we ended up working as gym instructors.
I stuck it out for a year and managed to save almost half my salary of Dh6,000 plus housing every month. Dubai was cheap at that time; a taxi ride cost only Dh10 to get from Lamcy Plaza to Deira City Centre. When I moved back to Botswana and converted my savings into the local pula, I had enough to set up my own business. I rented premises for Dh4,000 a month from one of the local gyms and had referrals from the gym and physiotherapists. Over the next two years I built up my reputation, in addition to my savings. I was also working on my qualifications for teaching Pilates.
The funds enabled me to pay outright for my 20 per cent share in a business I set up in partnership with two physiotherapists and we built up a good practice over the following few years. However, a short trip to visit a friend in Dubai in 2007 made me realise there were more challenges out there and, having reached a plateau in the business in Botswana, both professionally and financially, I decided to research my options back in Dubai.
I spent a year working at a Pilates studio on my return, earning about the same amount of money as in Botswana, which wasn't very much. But I had the cushion of my savings and continued to save over that time, giving me a sense of security. My parents had taught me well. The thing is, I doubt that I would have got to where I have now without the early lessons in money management. I learnt that I had to work hard and save in order to get what I wanted. I don't like the thought of owing money; I don't have a credit card and if I can't afford something that means I can't have it.
Eventually I'll settle down and then the big decisions will come with regard to buying property. But for now, I'm happy with working with Zen Yoga and building up my precious cushion of cash. My quality of life here in Dubai is very good, as my earning capacity is higher than in Botswana; however, the temptation to overspend is greater in Dubai, so I have to be really disciplined in order to save.
* As told to Fran Healy