x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Money&Me: Through it all, family is the sweetest thing

Linda Forster runs Gluten Free UAE, an awareness group for coeliacs she set up after her two-year-old daughter, Aili, was diagnosed with the digestive condition in April last year.

Linda Forster and her daughter Aili, who is involved in a case study on gulten disorders, are at the Organic Foods & Cafe in the Dubai Mall. Charles Crowell / The National
Linda Forster and her daughter Aili, who is involved in a case study on gulten disorders, are at the Organic Foods & Cafe in the Dubai Mall. Charles Crowell / The National

Linda Forster runs Gluten Free UAE, an awareness group for coeliacs she set up after her two-year-old daughter, Aili, was diagnosed with the digestive condition in April last year. The Swede, who moved to the UAE with her Polish husband in January 2006, also has a five-year-old son, Victor.

Describe your financial journey so far.

Growing up with a single mum in Sweden, I learnt never to borrow money. My mum got into the cycle of borrowing every month from an overdraft or a friend and then, when her wages came in, she would have to pass it all out again. So it made sense to me, even as a child, not to do it. That's the way I live my life now. I hate credit cards; I've never borrowed money from anyone in my life. I compare prices and I shop smart. I look after the family finances as well, so if my husband wants to splurge out, then I'm the sensible one saying: "Oh, we don't need that."

Are you a spender or a saver?

I am a spender, but I am a sensible spender who likes to keep some aside for a rainy day. I don't get enjoyment out of buying something really expensive if I don't have an equal amount saved. We try to save, but it's hard. My husband is an architect, which means in the Dubai situation, where half our social circle has been fired, you feel you are walking on eggshells. And we're not the type of expats whose company pays our rent and school fees. So, yes, we save, but it's not as much as it should be and definitely not enough for retirement.

Why did you decide to set up Gluten Free UAE?

After my daughter's diagnosis, I needed help, but there was nothing here. So I set up the group weeks later. With Aili, we knew from birth that something was wrong. She was premature, screamed all the time and would not be put down. At first, she suffered horrendous constipation with terrible pain and a bloated stomach and if she picked up a cold it would last for days. Then, she started suffering regular vomiting and diarrhoea and it got to the point where she'd be on IV fluids in hospital in the day and home at night. By March last year, she wasn't eating, was losing weight, not growing and the doctor was confused. We had stool tests sent all over the world until, finally, the doctor told me that her antibodies for gluten were off the chart and I needed to take her off gluten. She hasn't vomited once since then.

How did Aili's gluten-free diet affect the family budget?

I knew what gluten was, but I didn't know that they put it in everything, including frozen French fries, chicken stock cubes, apple juice and even hummus. At my first trip to the supermarket after the diagnosis, I spent two hours reading ingredients and only had six things in my basket. The whole family is on a gluten-free diet now. Aili is a hypersensitive coeliac - so the kitchen at home is entirely gluten-free, but it's expensive. We used to spend Dh700 a week and now it's Dh1,500. A packet of gluten-free pasta is Dh30 and even baking the bread myself costs Dh18 a loaf. So bread and pasta are huge luxuries now.

How do you want Gluten Free UAE to help others?

I want to provide information, so that no one else has to suffer the way we did. The amount of incorrect information that's given out here is unreal. One doctor asked if we gave her toast! So the group is all about education. I've held events, including one with a leading gastro doctor, but with the big event, I found it was too much work for one person who wasn't getting paid, so now they are more casual coffee mornings.

What is your philosophy towards money?

It's only paper. You need it, but it's not everything. I was offered a marketing and PR job recently, where I could work from home and I turned it down because I enjoy doing what I'm doing for free because it's more important. We always had a plan that I would work part-time when Aili starts school, but with her weak immune system and the fact I have to cook every single meal from scratch, it would be impossible.

Have you experienced any financial difficulties along the way?

When we first came out here, my husband changed jobs and for a long time I had no medical insurance. I was pregnant with my son and needed a lot of medical care and we didn't really have the money. We knew we could just about afford a normal delivery, but if I needed a C-section, we didn't know how we were going to pay for it.

What do you invest in?

Ourselves. We don't owe anything and what we have we own. If my husband was laid off tomorrow, we would be able to walk out of here with our heads held high and no debts.