If you thought nappies and organic baby food were gnawing holes in your budget, fast forward a few years. Barely three years after my youngest finally tossed his nappies, I'm faced with an innocent-looking letter asking for Dh1,490, announcing that my middle daughter's entire class will be embarking on a two-and-half-day excursion to Dibba. The 56-hour jamboree, organised by the British-run Green Turtle Adventure company, included two nights in tents and a jump from a dhow to boost their self-esteem.
It's apparently not enough that my daughters, aged eight and 11, have discovered a passion for gymnastics, which they do twice a week for two hours. That alone sets me back Dh360 a week for both children. They also receive piano lessons for about Dh100 per week, and swimming lessons for all three children run at about Dh170. All told, it's fair to say that I spend many thousands of dirhams each year keeping my children active and entertained.
These costs can be as surprising as they are crippling, particularly because my children already go to an expensive school. I just wrote nine post-dated cheques for the next school year, amounting to a whopping Dh163,500, plus Dh30,000 for bus transportion and Dh20,000 for lunches. Sure, most schools, such as the one my children attend, offer after-school activities, ranging from music to crafts, netball and Quran recitation. That said, these "free" school activities come with a caveat.
They usually don't start until the second or third week in the semester and finish a week early, leaving only 10 sessions for each activity. And if you want to take on a sport more intensively, say swimming or gymnastics, it is only offered at a highly competitive level. Few children make the school squad, which trains four times a week at no additional cost. Also, a growing number of school activities involve paying: one semester of tennis will set you back Dh75 per hour, while kung fu costs Dh675 for the term. Then there is ballet, Shiamak dance, ice-skating and karate, all of which cost additional money.
But school trips are the real budget killer, and the two-day trip to Dibba for my eight-year-old daughter is only the beginning. There was also the seven-day skiing trip to Austria for my eldest child, offered during Easter holidays, which cost Dh8,500. So I presented my daughter with a choice: ski with her school in Austria, or visit her grandparents in Germany. Thankfully, my daughter opted for the latter. But a week later, she complained bitterly about the new alliances forged between friends after skiing together.
The final straw was a sports camp during this year's Easter term break in April. One day I was naive enough to ask my bored children whether they would enjoy a day at the E-sports camp at Dubai's Wellington School. The proposition cost me Dh400 for two of my children. Luckily, my third child was invited to a friend's house. What strikes me most about these activities is that everybody seems willing to accept such prices. Approaching the class representative about my qualms of paying Dh1,490 on a trip to Dibba for eight year olds only earned me strange looks.
So, what to do? First, I use the free weekly activities at school as the acid test to help my children find out what they enjoy. There's nothing worse than shelling out a fistful of dirhams for something they quit after the first day. I also use the whole debate to teach my children about the value of money. For one, I did not let my daughter participate in that class camp to Dibba. Granted, she was sad at first.
But once I explained that the camp costs the equivalent of what a labourer earns in two months (and he feeds himself and his family back home), she nodded silently. And she smiled when I promised a sleepover with a friend in a tent. I am also strict when it comes to skipping any expensive activities they signed up for. I will allow my children to sacrifice one activity per semester for a birthday party. If they want to skip more, they have to decide: continue the activity or not.
Alternatively, if your budget is really tight, parents could always organise activities themselves. One option is to form a collective with other parents, taking advantage of the skills everyone may bring to the table. Of course, this route assumes that the parents have the time, skill and patience for such a proposal. When it comes to real bargains, my son attends the German Soccer Club in Dubai. It costs Dh50 per 90-minute session. Run by three active mothers, it also has a really nice community feel to it.
But before signing up for anything, it makes sense to enquire whether they are flexible regarding times and activities. The more activities an organisation offers, the easier it is to switch if your child suddenly declares that he or she hates swimming. Otherwise, the odd birthday invitation, a school event or a play date will easily make the child miss a few classes - costing you a lot of money and teaching the child little about discipline.
Dubai Olympic Gymnastics, for example, allows two class changes for reasons of illness or travel outside of the country. An e-mail informing them of this is usually enough to send your child on another day. The same is true for Hamilton Aquatics, where the offerings are wide and a child can easily change a class with permission from the teacher. This weekend, I now must make good on my promise. Instead of sending my youngest daughter to Dibba to learn "communication skills and responsibility", she will camp with her friends in the backyard. The family-size pizza will set me back a mere Dh50.