A focus on family and education

Ten years after completing law school, this lawyer in Dubai has finally paid off her student debt. Living a frugal lifestyle, she and her husband are now investing in their daughter.

Dubai, UAE - February 3, 2009 - Portrait of Erin Miller Rankin and her daughter, Maeve Rankin, in their home in Arabian Ranches. (Nicole Hill / The National)
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When I was five years old, my brothers and I had bank accounts at the Bank of Montreal in Nova Scotia, Canada. I have three brothers. We all had accounts, so when we got Christmas cheques - or money - from relatives my dad would march us all in with our little bankbooks, and we'd make our deposits. I did get pocket money, but frequently had it withdrawn for misbehaviour. We would lose our allowance for a week if we smacked a sibling, for example.

So I had a allowance that I rarely saw due to having it suspended. It was about 25 Canadian cents a week - the price of a small bag of potato chips, which was what I usually wanted to buy with it. It took a while for the concept of money to actually sink in. Around the time I was 13, I came home one day and told my father that I wanted contact lenses, and they were CAN$300 (Dh1,032). I just stood there waiting for him to give it to me. And he just kind of looked at me like: are you kidding? I had terrible eyesight and already wore glasses, but I wanted the lenses. My father was a lawyer in a small firm in Nova Scotia and he had me work the entire summer at his firm for the 300 bucks by answering the phones.

My parents completely paid my way during my first degree. I have two undergraduate degrees, one in liberal studies and sociology from Brock University, Ontario, the other a law degree from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. I didn't really appreciate my education as much as I should with my first degree, which is why I had to go back for a second. To get myself in a position where I could afford school, I had to find a full-time job. I worked 21 days straight, with one day off, for months until I could get myself sorted out financially.

After that I understood everything. I understood the value of education in terms of how much it was costing as well as the actual value of learning. I had worked enough menial jobs to understand the point of it much better. Between the ages of 24 and 26, I was working double shifts - managing a cigar store and bartending in Niagara Falls. My first job was housekeeping at a hotel in Nova Scotia. I was 16 at the time. I've also been a waitress at a truck stop there. Yeah, I've done some interesting things.

For my second degree, I took out some loans. My husband Dan and I met on the first day of law school, and we incurred some pretty subtantial debt getting our legal degrees. When we went to law school, I was 26, and my parents owned a shack - literally - that we lived in. They helped us financially in that way, and others. I don't even know exactly what my husband and I spent on education, but, combined, it's certainly somewhere in the six figures. We've now got it just about sorted out - nearly 10 years after starting law school. It's all settled just in time to start paying for our daughter Maeve's education. She is 22 months old now.

Back in 2007, during the winter in Canada, we started looking at where we might go - preferably somewhere warm. But it had to also be a place where we could both get jobs and marketable experience. Dan got a job here first, in 2007. I don't think that we would go somewhere just because it was a tax haven, but that certainly factored into the decision. The tax-free status makes a huge difference. Some things are more expensive here, but petrol is a fraction of what it is in Canada. We can fill up my large truck for less than what it costs us to fill up the Honda Civic that we brought from Canada. That was really surprising.

Now, I'd have to be dragged out of Dubai kicking and screaming. I love it here. One of the things that we didn't consider when we were coming over, because we didn't have Maeve then, was child care. Our nanny, Ruby, is sensational. She's been with us since Maeve was born. In Canada the cost of a nanny would probably have meant putting her in day care. We have cleared a lot of debt since we've been here. And part of that is down to having a very clear plan about what we want to accomplish.

We have things set up so that 25 per cent of my salary just flies back to Canada to help pay off the last bit of student debt. The money is also part of our plan to pay off the mortgage on our investment property in Canada. We rent it out, so that takes care of the mortgage. The things that are important to us now are the same things that were important on our wedding day: family, home, and education. When we were setting up home here we got a bunch of stuff off of Dubizzle.com, the Dubai online marketplace. We even bought stuff for our daughter, such as a playhouse for Dh500; a new one would cost us Dh2,600. We don't drive fancy cars, and we don't wear designer clothes, unless Gap is considered designer. Our focus is our home and our child.

In some ways, my husband and I have different philosophies when it comes to money. Dan understands and follows equities more than I do. And I tend to prefer investments that I can see. I want to buy a house. We just made another major payment on our daughter's education - US$23,000 (Dh84,483) at the American School of Dubai. The payment guarantees a place at the school for one child for 20 years.

It's a lot of money, but we can't stay in the UAE unless we are assured that our daughter will have an education we are comfrotable with. We'll finish paying the thing to hold her spot next year, and that will give us a bit more breathing space so we can start putting money towards her post-secondary education, if she wants one. Or it could help her start a business someday. Whatever she wants to do.

* As told to Angela Shah