Reaching financial maturity

After squandering her allowance at age 16 and losing her mobile, this student had her finances reduced drastically.

Dubai, 26th April 2010.  Disha Laungani an undergraduate student of mass media and communication, at her residence.  (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)
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I learnt my lessons in financial management the hard way. My family lives in Mumbai, where I went to school before moving to Dubai in 2007 for my undergraduate studies. I came to the UAE because I wanted to experience living and studying away from home, and the farthest my parents were willing to send me was Dubai. I now live with both my grandparents and my uncle's family. As a teenager, my father pampered me with loads of gifts and always bought me whatever I wanted. My mother, on the other hand, was the disciplinarian.

Five years ago, when I turned 16, there were two incidents related to money that really taught me to be more prudent in my spending. I never really had a regular allowance, but on our weekly outings, my younger brother and I were given a limit on how much my parents would spend on us. As we grew older, the spending cap increased. When I entered my final year at high school, my mother decided it was time for me to start managing my own money.

We mutually agreed on a monthly allowance of Rs2,000 (about Dh170) for my personal shopping trips to shopping malls and outings with my friends, either at cafes or in the cinema. I still remember how delighted I was the first time my mother handed over the entire amount to me at the start of the month. I had never handled money before, and it was quite exciting to be treated as a grown-up and allowed to handle cash, as it wasn't very common to do so in India at the time.

Delirious with my newly-gained financial muscle, I spent the entire amount that was intended for the month in less than two weeks. I bought new clothes and went to the cinema three or four times to watch the same movie. I even skipped class to go to the movies. My mother was extremely upset when she discovered my irresponsible escapades, and immediately cut off the allowance. I was then given Rs80 (about Dh10) a week and it was primarily to cover my food expenses at school.

At about the same time, my father gifted me a brand new Nokia mobile phone that was worth around Dh1,250. It was a pleasant surprise, as I already had a Sony Ericsson. But I wanted a Nokia because all my friends possessed one, which at the time was the "must-have" brand. Soon after my spending allowance was cut, I was most unlucky when I lost my new Nokia phone. That did not sit well with my parents at all.

My final years in high school were spent regretting my immaturity and carelessness towards gifts and money. My parents had presented me with an opportunity to learn about money, and I squandered it in haste. Moving to Dubai for my higher education has been a huge learning experience. As an undergraduate student of mass communication at Manipal University in Dubai, I have been exposed to young adults who are careful with their spending and work part-time jobs to save up and buy their own car, or finance holidays.

Most Indians arrive in Dubai to work and with the intention of sending money home. I am part of a small minority that moved here to study, while my parents live in India and fund my expenses. My first 18 months here were spent extremely cautiously, as I would convert everything I purchased in Dubai into Indian rupees. This helped restrain me from spending. A latte in India, for example, would cost Rs180 (or Dh15), but the same would cost Dh20 here. It took me a while before I stopped converting prices in dirhams into rupees and comparing values.

To make extra money, I soon discovered small promotions jobs that last a day or two. These odd jobs usually take place during exhibitions and conferences and pay between Dh250 and Dh500 for about six hours of work. I once worked a promotions counter that allowed shoppers to sample chicken nuggets in a mall. I only sign up for these shifts when it doesn't conflict with my academic workload. I graduate this year and intend to work while also pursuing a part-time master's programme in business administration, after which, I want to return to India.

I think it's better to return to India with a master's degree and some international work experience on my resume. I've worked about seven of these promotion jobs in the last 18 months, and they have helped fund my shopping expeditions. I also save up money that I get from relatives during Indian festivals. We have quite a large extended family and tradition requires the older relatives to give the younger ones a little bit of cash during the festivities. I would say I manage to collect about Dh1,000 three times in a year, and now I use these savings to enjoy my holidays at home in Mumbai, when I visit my family twice a year.

My parents are financing my tuition and transportation to university. I don't live in the dormitories, as I have family in Dubai and stay with them. I spend about Dh15 every day on food in the food court. I'm vegetarian, so my dining options are pretty limited and I can keep my eating expenses low. On the social end, I spend time with my friends in Dubai. We mostly hang out in the malls or watch a movie. When in a mall, I always return with a shopping bag filled either with shoes, handbags or accessories. I also enjoy collecting nail paints.

I don't have a fixed amount that I splurge every week, but I'm a careful shopper in terms of waiting for sales and also visiting stores as soon as they open so I can comb them for promotions and special offers. I mostly chat online with my family in Mumbai, but we speak every three days. I must admit that although landline-to-landline phone calls are free within Dubai, I'm not accustomed to the concept as we're charged in India and more used to using our mobile phones.

I end up talking to my friends using my mobile and run up bills of about Dh300 each month. I think this is definitely an area I must cut down on especially as landline communication is extremely cheap here. Most people say that coming out to Dubai spoils you and you end up becoming an incurable consumer. With me personally, it's been the opposite experience. I've matured a lot and understood the real value of money.

I've learnt the concepts of saving, patience and waiting for the right opportunity to spend. * As told to Vinita Bharadwaj