How to reduce your living expenses in the UAE

The streets of the UAE aren't really paved with gold so expats working here need to realise their financial responsibilities and live their lives a little more prudently, advises Chris Ferguson.

Defy the urge to spend big at the malls, advises Chris Ferguson. Ravindranath K / The National
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The streets are paved with gold, the sun shines year-round and it’s all tax free – or so they say.

But those who look from afar do not truly understand the realities of life in the UAE. The tax-free element of signing up for a job in the UAE can quite easily be eaten up by expensive rent and flights home that were never costs to expatriates when they were living in their home countries. It is all too easy to look at a tax-free salary and assume that life will be great from this point forward.

The harsher reality is that spending habits in the UAE need to be planned out carefully to make living away from home a success. And living a little more prudently wouldn’t go amiss either. With this in mind, here is a guide on how to shave off unnecessary expenses from your everyday spending:

A palace comes with a price tag

With villa rentals starting at Dh80,000 for three bedrooms and rising as high as you would like to go, the average expatriate family pays more on rent than they would at home. A tip here is to ensure you are not paying for wasted space and remember why you came to the UAE. Was it to pay off the landlord’s mortgage or save some money for your future? With many landlords demanding a year’s rent in advance, the more you spend on rent the more interest you will pay on a loan taken out to fund that unnecessarily lavish home. Don’t be sucked into taking on more than you can afford simply to prove to those back home that you are living the dream.

School fees

Schooling for expatriates in the UAE is all private, but many companies assist with the cost of this. In economics we often talk about supply and demand, and with the rapid growth of the UAE school places are a precious commodity, which pushes prices up. Last year average school fees in the UAE ranged from Dh22,042 in the Indian school system to Dh50,678 in the British system, with year 12 annual fees as high as Dh94,215, according to recent data from Cost of Living Reports. Saving money on your children’s education is probably a false economy, but costs can be saved by planning in advance and then living close to the school of choice.


Just because fuel is cheap here does not mean every family needs to equal their homeland petrol expenses by spending more on cars for the household. Often we see driveways with two or more 4x4s – these are often only used for the school run or daily drive to the office. Expatriates tend to spend more on vehicles here than they would at home, leaving less net expendable income. Choose a more affordable model to avoid paying high interest on a car loan. And remember that the biggest depreciation on a car happens in the first year. Let someone else lose this cost and buy second-hand to save the money for yourself.


Flight costs are a necessary part of life when you become an expatriate, but if you get the right credit card and save up reward points these can be free. Otherwise, plan in advance – airlines price flights depending on the number of seats left, so the more in advance you book the more seat availability they have and the cheaper your flight bill will be. It’s also wise to remember that airline loyalty does not always pay off if you insist on flying with the most expensive carrier and do not accumulate enough loyalty points to make it worthwhile. There is an increasing range of airlines to choose from, so shop around and also consider flights home with a stopover, as that will prove cheaper than a direct journey.


The UAE can offer an amazing lifestyle with unlimited activities for both singles and families. But living a life you realistically cannot afford is a great way to pour money down the drain. There are ways to live more cheaply – avoid the malls, use discount vouchers in restaurants and socialise at home rather than out on the town every week. Also, take advantage of some of the fantastic free facilities available, from city parks to beaches and the desert. There is glitz and glam galore if you want it, but you will pay later. Save before you spend and the rest is yours for you.

You probably came here for some form of financial benefit, and it is probably a perfectly reachable goal. But do not attempt this journey without a map, as you will fall foul of your objectives and leave with regret. Make a plan and stick to it to make the UAE work for you.

Chris Ferguson is a director of Credence International, a financial planning and wealth management company based in Dubai

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