For singletons, the Emirates can be a financial pitfall

Single people in the UAE may not have the same financial demands as couples married with children, but the difficulties are just as serious.

Living the single life can be fun, but managing your finances on a single income can be quite the opposite.

For many expatriates who move to the UAE, the set-up costs of starting a new life can be a financial mountain to climb. And if they're surviving on one salary rather than sharing the load between two, it can leave little option but to borrow to stay afloat.

This was the welcome for Megan Wynes, who first moved to the UAE from the UK in 2005 after landing a job in Dubai.

Now living in Abu Dhabi, the magazine editor's first income was Dh12,000 a month and she needed to take a loan out to pay her first year's rent.

"It was hard to cope financially at first," says Miss Wynes. "Living alone wasn't an option because I would have spent over half my salary on rent, so I spent Dh3,000 sharing a flat with three people and then later Dh3,500 sharing a villa with five."

But Miss Wynes's financial struggles did not end there. She had to send £700 (Dh4,062) a month home to pay off £27,000 of debt she had accumulated in the UK from her studies and pay Dh1,000 to hire a car - a figure that later went up to Dh1,400 - leaving her with little spare cash.

As a result, over the course of the past five years she has run up Dh40,000 of what she calls "silly debt" on two credit cards.

"The problem is that most banks don't give you a debit card; they only give you a credit card, so it's hard not to just shove things like flights home on the credit card," she says.

"I look at friends, and those with kids probably aren't better off than me as they have big expenses that I don't, but couples without kids can indulge in the luxury lifestyle and enjoy a better quality of life."

However, Miss Wynes has had two job moves, each with a substantial pay rise, which means her income has more than doubled since she first touched down in the Emirates.

She now pays Dh40,000 a year for her one-bedroom apartment in Khalifa City, has recently bought a Peugeot car, using her overdraft, for Dh20,000 that she has almost paid off and is less than a year away from paying off her UK debt.

"My salary has increased considerably and I'm earning Dh5,000 more than my last job, so it's made life a lot easier," says Miss Wynes. "I actually have money to save for the first time since I've lived here. Unfortunately, because I moved to Abu Dhabi for my latest job last month, I had to buy a lot of stuff to furnish my new place such as a sofa, fridge and washing machine - things that I could have shared the cost on if I'd been part of a couple. So that's been an expensive process.

"But when I do save, I will be able to send about Dh5,000 back to the UK to build up a nice little nest egg for myself."

Miss Wynes's story is typical of many singletons who arrive in the country looking for a new challenge and are quickly seduced by the nation's lavish lifestyle.

"As single people do not need to take responsibility for other people, the temptation can be to spend and enjoy and not to think about the future so much," says Keren Bobker, a financial adviser with Holborn Assets and a columnist for Personal Finance.

"For single people, as well as couples, it is easy to be swept up by the 'Dubai lifestyle' - flash car, fancy clothes, expensive nights out, lots of holidays. Everyone should sit down and work out what they can actually afford to spend on fun things every month" [after rent, utilities, car, food and savings].

But while many believe it is only expatriate singletons who face monetary difficulties in the UAE - they are grossly mistaken. Despite having his family for support, Faisal al Hadi, a 25-year-old Emirati, still struggles to curtail his spending. Mr al Hadi, who lives in Jumeirah, Dubai, and works in human resources for an airline, saves Dh3,000 a month in a Chit fund with nine members of his family and when it is his turn to receive his Dh30,000 payout, he says he spends the lot.

"I'm a lousy saver," he says and laughs. "I put the Dh30,000 I receive from the Chit fund into a savings account, but I usually end up spending it. Last year, I bought a laptop and new furniture for my room.

"Sometimes I regret not keeping the money; I've been working for five years and I've saved nothing. I'm starting to realise how important it is to have a back-up as whatever money I have I spend."

Mr al Hadi says the main reason his Dh25,000 salary disappears every month is because he loves to travel and has big monthly financial commitments.

"Around Dh10,000 a month goes on my phone bill, credit card and loan repayments for a bad investment I made with a friend in the property market," he says.

"I borrowed Dh250,000 for the deposit on two studio apartments, but they've never been built and it upsets me that I've been paying Dh5,000 in loan repayments for nearly three years for something I don't have. That's money I could have spent on something else.

"But I suppose my biggest expenditure is travelling. I work for an airline and while I receive discounts on tickets, I spend a lot on hotels."

Mr al Hadi admits it is time he took a more restrained approach to spending, particularly because a lot of the regular costs - that can often cripple someone on a single income - such as accommodation and utility bills, are covered by his parents because he lives at home. Even his Land Cruiser 4x4, which he bought jointly with his father three years ago, has been paid off in full.

"Living with my parents makes it much easier to manage my finances, but I need to save more and put it somewhere I can't touch, such as in stocks and shares," he says. "I know that if I had some money saved, I wouldn't worry about it the way I do now and it's important because I plan to complete my studies and do an MBA overseas.

"If I go abroad, my father will insist on offering support and I will need that help, especially with my current expenditure. It's extremely reassuring that my parents are there as a back-up, but they are the last resort. In the last couple of months, my expenditure has gone down - I have been going out less and think twice about the things I buy."

But while Mr al Hadi is trying to apply a more frugal philosophy to his personal finances, for Cristal Llewellyn, a Welsh teacher who moved to Dubai in September last year, staying on top of her money has never been a problem.

Rather than be swayed by the trappings of her new home in the Middle East, Ms Llewellyn keeps a tight rein on her budget to ensure she never goes into debt and always has enough put by to indulge her passion for travel.

"I've always been the careful one among my friends, probably because I like to save for things," says Miss Llewellyn, who also owns a two-bedroom apartment in Wales. "I know what I've got per month and I don't go beyond it.

"I suppose I'm a targeted saver; I like to have goals. When I bought my house, I saved up for the deposit. And if I want to go on holiday, I plan where I want to go and how much I need so that I can save in advance.

"I don't set myself limits, but what helps me keep track is that my bank sends me text messages every time I spend so I always know what my balance is."

The psychology teacher, who earns Dh10,135 a month, says she is probably better off living in Dubai because even though her take-home pay is the same as her UK earnings, she also receives a one-bedroom flat as part of her package - the same benefit as a married teacher.

"In the UK, I still had to pay my mortgage out of my salary. Because the accommodation is paid for here, I'm able to send Dh5,000 a month back to the UK to make additional payments on my mortgage and save up for my holiday to North America next year," says Miss Llewellyn, whose Dubai outgoings include Dh300 a month on her phone, internet and electricity bills, Dh1,750 on her hired Toyota Yaris and Dh439 on her gym membership.

"In many ways, the UAE is fairer for single people," adds Ms Bobker. "Some countries offer tax allowances for married couples, discounts on car insurance and many traditional corporate pension funds discriminate against single people."

For Mobeen Chaudhri, a 31-year-old chartered accountant from Toronto, Canada, living in the UAE is more cost-effective because of the high taxes he paid as a single person in his home nation.

When Mr Chaudhri, who earns Dh32,000 a month, moved to the UAE in August 2008, he found he could live quite comfortably on one income.

He bought a new Nissan Pathfinder, spent Dh5,000 in utility set-up costs, paid a year's rent of Dh100,000 for a two-bedroom apartment in The Greens and made sure he had Dh7,000 a month to send home to cover the mortgage on his two-bedroom apartment in Toronto.

"It's easy to handle finances here because it's a tax-free regime," he says. "I have gained 30 per cent in income by not paying tax and even though the cost of living is 10 to 15 per cent higher, there's still a net gain of about 15 per cent, which I save into a savings account."

But Mr Chaudhri's personal situation will change in January, when he marries his Pakistani fiancée, who he met a year ago in Dubai. The couple will tie the knot in Pakistan, enjoy a short honeymoon "somewhere regionally" in January, before returning to the UAE to live together in Mr Chaudhri's home.

And the groom-to-be is not concerned about the financial effect of supporting his future wife, who works in the same industry, and has no plans to work when she relocates to Dubai.

"It won't be a significant financial change so I'm not worried about the transition from being single to married. The wedding will be paid for by family and I am keeping some money aside for our travel plans," says Mr Chaudhri, who recently moved to the Tecom area to secure a cheaper rent of Dh65,000 to help support his new lifestyle.

"But I will have to cut down on the amount of electronic gadgets I buy," he adds. "At the moment if I like it, I'll just buy it. I like playing golf as well, which is quite expensive in Dubai - particularly the full 18 holes - so I will have to cut that down, too."

And he says getting married may even encourage him to return to Canada because of the tax benefits for married couples.

"I'm currently on transfer, so I'm still technically an employee there. That ends in 2012, so we will see how it works out," adds Mr Chaudhri.

But tying the knot won't ease the financial burden on Mr al Hadi. The singleton, who has no plans to settle down for the next five years because he wants to complete his studies first, says the cost of getting married is another reason he needs to become a more committed saver.

"In the UAE, the grooms pay for all the bride's costs at the wedding and this is usually between Dh200,000 and Dh300,000. And when I marry, my wife will rely on me financially. It's expected that I will pay if we go out and that I will pay all the bills," he says.

"Even if she earns more than me, that income is for her, so you can see why I've been worried about my savings."

But Miss Wynes isn't holding her breath when it comes to finding a life, and a financial, partner.

"Ultimately, I would like to settle down and share the cost of living, but I don't see that happening here," she says. "It's been five years and it hasn't happened yet."

Saving tips for singles

Build up an emergency cash fund.

Work out your monthly budget and stick to it.

Focus on repaying debts.

Stick to cash; credit cards only have to be repaid and you don’t want to waste money on interest.

If your employer doesn’t provide good medical cover, arrange a plan yourself.

Aim to save a significant percentage of your income before you have any dependents.

Think ahead; it’s never too early to start planning for retirement.

Single people still need wills, so think about who you want to leave all your worldly belongings to.

You don’t have to go out to have a good time; an evening in with friends is cheaper and sometimes more fun.

Get insured; although single people do not require life insurance (unless they have dependents or a mortgage), they should consider cover from which they will benefit, such as critical illness cover and income protection in the event of ill health.

* Tips courtesy of Keren Bobker, a financial adviser with Holborn Assets