Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 July 2020

The Debt Panel: 'My Covid-19 debt holiday is up on my loan. Can I have more time?'

The Filipina, who lost her job last year and received a repayment break for April and May, has still not found a new role

Illustration by Mathew Kurian 
Illustration by Mathew Kurian 

I have a loan with a bank in Dubai and have always made my repayments on time. I lost my job in finance in November, which paid me Dh12,500, and since then finding a job has been very hard, especially with the pandemic putting many new hires on hold.

I owe Dh170,000 on the loan and have no other debts or credit cards. I borrowed the money to buy a home, pay for education and settle a previous debt. My monthly payment on the loan is Dh6,000 and I have savings to support me while I find a new role. I still have not missed any payments yet.

The repayments start again this month and while I can afford to repay the loan for now, in the long term I'm not sure how long I can last.

SW, Dubai

I approached the bank to ask about debt relief and received a two-month holiday for April and May. The repayments start again this month and while I can afford to repay the loan for now, in the long term I'm not sure how long I can last. I need a job, otherwise repaying the debt will become unsustainable. I attended some interviews until Covid-19 stopped all hiring activity in my field.

As a family we have reduced our expenditure to help us get by. My husband is from India and I am from the Philippines and we share the bills. We have one child to support as well as our families back home. My salary used to pay for family and education expenses back home.

How can I approach the bank and solve my issue? Would the bank give me some more time to find a job before taking repayments again?

Separately, I also paid an amount for some insurance but I do not have a copy of the policy. Would that help me at all? What options do I have here? Or is there a legal route I can take? SW, Dubai

Debt panellist 1: R Sivaram, executive vice president, head of retail banking products, Emirates NBD

This is a tough situation and I commend your commitment to continue meeting your financial obligations based on your savings, despite job loss.

As a first step, I recommend approaching your bank to discuss the possibility of debt restructuring. Most banks in the UAE are supporting their customers and offering financial solutions to help navigate through this difficult time. Under a debt restructuring programme, your bank could restructure your existing outstanding loan of Dh170,000 over a longer repayment period. This will help lower your monthly instalments significantly and help you continue to make timely payments. If your husband is employed, you could also consider making him a co-borrower when the loan is being restructured as this would add weight to your application.

You have taken the right step by lowering your expenses to help you continue to service your loan instalments. Furthermore, the end-of-service benefits you received at the end of your employment could be used to pay off part of the outstanding to help reduce your liability and instalment amount. Please also ask your bank for details on the insurance coverage on the loan. While normally this is to cover against loss of life, there could be additional protection available.

Given you are being forthcoming about managing your financial commitments with no delinquent history, I am sure your bank will view this favourably and find a suitable solution that could address your predicament.

Debt panellist 2: Steve Cronin, founder of DeadSimpleSaving.com

Your monthly payment is nearly 50 per cent of your salary, so this debt has always had you in a bit of a vulnerable position. It is good you are now aware of the problems loan payments can cause you and that you are planning ahead – many people wait until they start missing payments.

The nuclear option is that you sell the house and use the money to repay your loan. It may be hard to get a good price in this times and you may be emotionally attached to the home, but if you are at risk of severe stress and court proceedings, then this will, literally, get you out of jail. Houses cannot be sold quickly, so even if you don’t end up selling, it might be worth putting a plan in place and identifying solicitors, agents etc so you can act fast if you need to.

Meanwhile, the bank is unlikely to be too sympathetic or creative in helping you, because you are not at the point of missing payments yet. Maintain dialogue with them and try to talk to the most senior manager you can find, in person, rather than dealing with junior staff on the phone. They may be able to extend your payment holiday, reduce the payment temporarily, or reduce the term of your loan so that you make lower payments each month. Other banks are unlikely to help you, as you don’t have a job yet.

You may have insurance covering debt payments in event of job loss, but there are usually lots of tricky clauses in the small print. Push the bank for a copy of your insurance policy – they cannot legally decline this if you have paid the premiums, and act fast because sometimes there is a limited window for claims.

To what extent can your husband support the payments or take on the debt if he still has a salary? You and your families are in this together, so you all need to rally round to reduce expenses – in all three countries. Communicate the risks of missing loan payments and the importance of everyone going through a bit of a tough and frugal time now so that you can all benefit later. If you and your husband have to leave the UAE, it will be that much harder for your relatives.

Identify what major expenses you can slash, such as rent, and manage your smaller bills within a strict budget to make sure they are not mounting up excessively. If there are no jobs in your industry, see if there are similar jobs available in other industries or slightly different roles that may suit your skills. If you have a finance background, you may be able to earn some money doing book-keeping or teaching finance, in person or online, enough to keep the debt wolf from the door until you find another job.

Debt panellist 3: Ambareen Musa, founder and chief executive of Souqalmal.com

You mention you've been unable to find job opportunities within your field, so it may be time to get out of your comfort zone and widen your search a bit. See where your skills and expertise can be put to use – it doesn't just have to be a full-time role in finance. Part-time opportunities, freelance assignments, tutoring – cast a wider net and your chances of unlocking a source of income should definitely go up.

Since you've also lost the income that was supporting your remittances to the Philippines, is there another family member or sibling who can temporarily contribute towards supporting your family and child back home? You will need all the financial support you can gather to help you focus on getting out of debt.

When it comes to actually dealing with the bank, find out what other debt relief or debt restructuring options are available to you. However, if you're unable to negotiate more relaxed repayment terms on your own, you could work with a licensed debt counselling/management company who can negotiate with the bank on your behalf. Alternatively, if your financial circumstances don't start to look up in the near future, use the UAE's recently introduced Personal Insolvency Law and go for a court-mediated settlement.

As for the personal loan insurance you've opted for, the benefits and scope of coverage under such plans vary greatly across banks. For example, while one bank may offer you coverage in the event of death, another bank may cover death and permanent total disability for a nominal premium too. Some banks may even extend this insurance coverage to include involuntary job loss. Chase your bank and try to get a copy of the benefits, terms and conditions under your insurance coverage. If you don't make any headway, you can also go through the Central Bank of the UAE complaint channel.

The Debt Panel is a weekly column to help readers tackle their debts more effectively. If you have a question for the panel, write to pf@thenational.ae

Updated: June 16, 2020 09:28 AM

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