Every morning, the school bus would swing by Purnendu Prasad's home in Sharjah at 6am to pick up his daughters for school. For one and a half hours, his children, Pragna and Patima, aged four and six, respectively, sat restlessly in the early morning light as the bus weaved through the emirate's sprawling side streets, taking on dozens of pupils before the start of class. Then, after school, it was another long ride home.
It wasn't long before Mr Prasad and his wife saw a change in their daughters' behaviour. The children had become irritable, their energy levels and appetites were low and they lacked concentration at school. And for this unpleasant travel arrangement, the family paid Dh6,000 every year. Mr Prasad, 35, an advertising professional who works in Dubai, is one of many parents in the Emirates paying high fees to have their children taken to and from school. With tuition sometimes running into the tens of thousands of dirhams, this added expense can take its toll. But last May, at a neighbourhood party, he and a friend found a solution.
"My neighbour, a businessman whose son studied in the same school as my children, told me he would be happy to take my daughters to school in his car as well," he says. "He initially refused to accept fees for the service, but later on agreed on Dh300 a month for both my daughters." His friend had flexible business hours, so he had no problem playing chauffeur twice a day. Now, the car pool has relieved the stress on Mr Prasad's children, who can sleep in an one hour longer in the mornings and reach home an hour earlier. Meanwhile, he saves hundreds of dirhams each month on bus fees. With other parents in the neighbourhood having the same problems, Mr Prasad says spending money on the transport service was not a wise investment.
"They no longer have to sit in the bus from 6 o'clock in the morning," he says. "I realised my mistake, which I allowed to go on for years." Saving money on the bus couldn't have come at a better time. When he moved to the UAE from New Delhi five years ago, Mr Prasad's primary goal was to save money for the future. But with a modest salary, the family had to keep expenses under control. After accepting the job in Dubai, in 2005, he and his wife, Srijana, decided to rent a flat in Sharjah for Dh26,000 per year. Annual tuition fees for his two young daughters were just Dh5,000 each at an Indian school in Sharjah.
Mr Prasad would drive the family's only car to work in Dubai every morning, and paid an extra Dh3,300 for his children to ride the bus to school. But over time, as the cost of living in the UAE rose, the family's expenses changed. Mr Prasad's rent gradually increased to Dh54,000 per annum, and last year, the combined tuition for his daughters at the school rose to about Dh17,000. Meanwhile, the cost of both children riding the bus surpassed Dh6,000 a year.
Suddenly, all costs considered, Mr Prasad found it difficult to manage his expenses, let alone save any money. He needed to find ways to cut back - and decided that eliminating the school bus by car-pooling was a good start. But the savings didn't stop there. It was at another neighbourhood party a few months later that he found a solution to another needless expense - the cost of driving more than 100 kilometres a day to and from his office in Dubai Media City.
One of his colleagues, who lived in his neighbourhood, proposed an adult car pool every day. Mr Prasad thought it would be wise, considering the stress and boredom of driving the long distance, not to mention the fuel, which cost him about Dh600 a month. After taking their proposal to another colleague who lived down the street, the group readily agreed to try out the idea. Each commuter would contribute Dh200 per month towards fuel, and they would all take turns driving.
"It was a great relief for us," Mr Prasad says. "It has been almost six months and we haven't had any problems so far. In fact, while one of us drives, others relax, take a short nap or enjoy each other's company during an otherwise dull ride. This way we share the exertion and cost of travelling." It's not just the Dh400 per month - and Dh4,800 a year - of savings that counts. He says the group is also able to reduce additional costs by spending less on car maintenance.
"Our overall expenditure has come down a lot if you count all these costs, including the toll tax you pay every time you cross the Salik gates in Dubai," he says. "Every day I spent a minimum of Dh8 on tolls. Add it up over 22 days and it's another Dh176 a month." All told, Mr Prasad saves more than Dh10,000 per year by eliminating the school bus and car-pooling with his colleagues. Although car-pooling is not a new concept, it's growing in popularity in some of the emirates as a means of reducing stress and wasteful spending, according to Mr Prasad.
The benefits of car-pooling are many. To start, Mr Parsad says you need a plan. Drawing up an agenda that's convenient for you and the other participants is essential. It must include pick-up times, locations, work schedules and the phone numbers of your group. You will also need to calculate your total costs, including toll charges if applicable, and set a payment schedule, Mr Prasad explains. It's important to take into consideration factors such as holidays, which could affect other members of the group and derail the system. Of equal importance is your willingness to compromise on things such as choice of music, , smoking and eating. If you're going to spend several hours a day in a confined space, it's best if the experience is as pleasant as possible for all parties.
Car-pool members can include work associates you already know, or people who live near you and work at a nearby place with similar hours. If done properly, Mr Prasad believes car pools are an effective way to slash spending. "By car-pooling, we have significantly reduced our commuting costs compared to driving alone," Mr Prasad says. "We are all here to earn and save some money and we must strive to do that.
"By going into such arrangements, you cannot only save money but contribute to the environment as well - because you are driving less."