Reality and television re-defined

Putting herself in the shoes of the character Carrie from Sex and the City helped a young executive resolve to cut back on luxuries.

Setareh Shayestehmehr, 30, has saved enough to support herself for at least six months after recently being made redundant.
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My philosophy is you have got to live every day as if it is your last. So I enjoy my life, but I do not lose sight of the big picture. I'm not exactly a saver, but at the same time I do not dig myself into debt. Overall, I enjoy life with what I earn. I moved from Iran in 2005 to study for my MBA at the American University in Dubai. My family offered to support me: pay my tuition, my rent and living expenses. However, I wanted to be independent, so I looked for a job and within two months I secured a position as a junior account executive that paid Dh6,500 a month. Within three months I was promoted to account executive and my salary was boosted about 22 per cent. It was not a big salary, but it allowed me to become more independent. Working full-time meant that I had to delay my graduation for two years since I took fewer courses per period. But I started paying all my expenses; my parents paid the tuition, which came to US$30,000 (Dh110,188).

I moved out of the dorm within a year after starting school and paid my rent because I was lucky to find a flat at Dh45,000 a year. I also bought my first car, a brand new Peugeot 407, for Dh76,000. I had to finance the purchase and many people asked me why I was buying a new car when I was still in school. But I knew I could handle the monthly payments if I made adjustments to my other expenses.

For instance, one good way to cut on your spending is to find activities that do not cost money. So, to occupy my time, I started utilising the university's recreational facilities - the gym, tennis courts, soccer field and the pool - which I had already paid for through my tuition. My plan was to reward myself but not to overindulge. So, from time to time, I went to a good restaurant, about three times a month, or treated myself to a spa. I remained true to my philosophy that you have to enjoy life. I also kept a savings account. My savings were not for investment but to reward myself by going on holiday.

Two years ago, however, I had a change of heart. It happened when I was watching an episode of Sex and The City. It was the one where Carrie wanted to buy an apartment, but didn't have enough money for the down payment. However, she noticed that her shoe inventory in her closet amounted to $40,000. As a shoe lover, I could immediately relate. Her situation really made me realise that I could have shoes and other luxury things, but I was limiting my choices. So I started rethinking my strategy. I was keeping a savings account in addition to my current account, but I kept taking money out of it. It was sometimes running to zero and I had to start replenishing it again to treat myself.

That's when I began to think that I could find myself in Carrie's situation. That's when I decided I had better make some changes to my life soon, especially since, at 28, I had a seven-year head start on Carrie. I also thought that one day, when I left Dubai, I wanted to take with me more than just the experience of living here, the good memories and the education I received. So I opened a second savings account, one that I would never touch. When I opened it in 2007, I told myself: "No matter what happens you can never touch this money, not even for an emergency."

Around the same time I moved to a new job where I was account director, and my salary grew to a more comfortable level. I set a goal of saving 50 per cent of my income. I had set the goal pretty high, but I managed to put away about 40 per cent regularly. I don't believe in fixed budgets. Instead, I drew up a yearly plan and, just like public companies, I divided the year into quarters. So if I missed my goal in one quarter, I would try to make up for it during the next period. Ironically, I was saving more money during the months that I expected to have greater expenses because I was cutting out the unnecessary spending. This proved to me that saving really requires discipline, and it's all those little expenses that add up and swallow the contents of your pocketbook.

To be disciplined about the small savings is not easy. Many people come to Dubai thinking they can save a great amount, but they end up having little to show for it. I think that is because people are away from their families and friends, and they become enthralled in shopping. It's a culture that turns even men into habitual shoppers. I graduated last month. But this was soured when I was made redundant at work the same month. Fortunately, I have enough funds to get me through at least six months.

The layoff didn't force me to substantially alter my lifestyle because I don't want to demoralise myself. I kept my tango-dancing activity. I have cut down on eating out, but I told myself this is for health reasons. I still meet my friends at restaurants at weekends and this helps me to keep my spirits up. I increased my bank balance recently by selling some of my furniture since I could be forced to leave the country if I don't find a job. Need also improves you memory. I collected the university deposits for my dormitory and I also remembered the money I was owed by friends, which I had forgotten about.

I'm 30 years old, I'm healthy and I have energy. I'm thinking of travelling. Just the other day, I was jogging with a friend and she asked why I was even considering travelling during a recession. Well, my thinking is that it is during a recession that you can get better deals on fares and hotels. But without a job, I'm not sure. * As told to H Michael Jalili