Trapped by a red note

As I sat down for my evening meal, I had in front of me a bowl containing pasta, tomatoes and peanuts.

Illustration by Sarah lazarovic
Powered by automated translation

It was certainly not one of the culinary high points of my life. As I sat down for my evening meal, I had in front of me a bowl containing pasta, tomatoes and peanuts. I would have liked to have had some cheese or eggs to accompany the slightly watery dish in front of me, but I couldn't afford any. In fact, I couldn't afford much of anything. It was the final seven days of a five-part budget challenge set by the editors in the Personal Finance section, and this time I had just Dh100 to get me through the week.

After starting off a month earlier with Dh500, my spending power had been gradually sliced by Dh100 each week - until I was left with a single red note in my wallet. And it was turning out to be as trying an experience as I feared. Lunchtimes were just as uninspiring as evening meals. I was worried I would overspend, so I hadn't bought any cheese, which meant my sandwiches each day contained a couple of slices of tomato, some peanuts and not a lot else.

By Wednesday, when I tucked into the less-than-appetising pasta meal, I had little food left in the refrigerator - and I had already exceeded my budget. My seven days on Dh100 began with my usual Friday visit to the supermarket, where I picked peanuts, apples, pasta, tomatoes, orange juice, bread and vegetable stock cubes from the shelves. Rather indulgently, given that I was supposed to get through the week on Dh100, I also splashed out on a Dh23 jar of decaffeinated coffee, bringing my total bill up to Dh51.25.

With little money to spare, I stayed in on the Friday evening, while no doubt many of my colleagues were enjoying a night on the town. I just had a couple of books for company - one of them a complete history of the world from the Big Bang to the present day (not an ambitious volume then) and the other a paperback about Hollywood scandals that I picked up earlier in my budget challenge for a mere Dh10.

I had to work on the Saturday, which meant I spent just Dh8 on the likes of bananas, a chocolate bar, milk and more bananas. A late finish at the office meant I was not tempted to go out and spend anything that evening. On the Sunday and Monday, my costs were again limited to occasional items of food, since I cooked at home each evening, stayed in and brought a packed lunch to work. By the end of Monday, despite doing my best to save cash, I had already parted with Dh81.75.

That left me with less than Dh20 to get through a further three days, which I was sure would not be enough because my food cupboard, and my part of the refrigerator in my flat, were not exactly bursting with provisions. And yet I met some people that week who seemed able to cope on what were, in some cases, even tighter budgets than I was attempting to live on. Take Ruel de la Cruz. This 29-year-old Filipino told me his job at a car-tinting garage in Abu Dhabi earned him Dh1,700 a month. Of that, he said to my amazement, Dh1,500 gets sent back to his wife and four children in the Philippines.

Shared accommodation with his workmates is provided free by his employer, so that means he has Dh200 each month to feed himself and enjoy a few luxuries. "We cook for ourselves," he said of himself and his colleagues. "Each week it's maybe Dh150 for [food] for all seven of us. And I don't go shopping." He works six days a week, which means there is only one day in which he has to entertain himself. On this day off, he might watch a DVD with his roommates or use the internet on a friend's computer.

A couple of times a month he visits a nearby restaurant and pays Dh12 for a chicken or mutton biryani. And each month, Mr de la Cruz said, he spends about Dh50 on telephone cards to speak to his family. Mr de la Cruz, who has lived in the UAE for nearly two years, admitted his life here is tough, since he has little money left over for himself. "I am not enjoying living here," he said. Things are slightly easier for Abdul Salam, 52, who comes from Kerala in India, but who has lived in the UAE for 28 years.

Mr Salam takes home Dh3,000 a month from his job selling spare parts for cars at a small shop in Abu Dhabi. A third of his wage goes on a bed space in an overcrowded flat, leaving him to spend about Dh500 a month on food. He shops at a big supermarket such as Lulu in Al Wahda Mall, and then prepares his meals at home, rather than eating out. "If you buy food outside it will cost more," he said. He budgets for additional expenses each month of about Dh200 or Dh300, which can include anything from medical treatment to money for a charity. Telephone calls to the subcontinent set him back about Dh100. Mr Salam sends 10,000 Indian Rupees home each month, which works out at about Dh800.

Compared to many of us in the UAE, Mr Salam's earnings are modest. Yet he never feels financially sorry for himself. "I don't have any such feeling," he said. "I always think about the people below me, the people suffering more than me. I am sacrificing my life here so my family is better. They're living happy." Well, for one week at least, I was sacrificing my life too, and I have to confess that by the end of Tuesday I had crashed through my Dh100 limit and overspent.

After work I ate some felafel sandwiches, bananas, an apple and a chocolate bar before playing football with some colleagues. At that stage my total spend for the week was Dh98. But it wasn't possible for me to survive Wednesday and Thursday evening on Dh2. I had run out of food. So, after driving back from football, I went to the Abu Dhabi Co-operative Society and, with a few pangs of guilt, shelled out Dh24.25 on tomatoes, peppers, milk, orange juice, oranges and milk. I also bought a tin of cat food for the local felines.

On the Wednesday, I was stung for a further Dh25, as I had no credit left on my telephone, and I wanted to reply to a text message from one of my sisters in England wishing me happy Christmas. Bananas, apples and a chocolate bar cost me a further Dh7. By Thursday evening then I had spent Dh161.25 in a week in which I was supposed to be living on Dh100. But as I contemplated my failure to live on my intended budget, I realised with a little creative accounting I could just about convince myself that I had not really overspent. I had hardly used any of that coffee I bought, and had sent just one text message using the telephone card.

So I could safely take off about Dh45 from my total if it was to accurately reflect my cost of living that week, rather than the actual amount I spent. Add on Dh10 for the little petrol I had used, and my total for the week could safely be put at about Dh125, which was a lot closer to my intended maximum. Perhaps with a little imagination I could have done more with my last week. I might have read a book in a park one evening, or wandered the malls for some low-cost window shopping. But that's about all I could have done.

After five weeks of watching the pennies, I was still alive. But my life had got progressively more boring, and I had been forced to cut out pretty much any form of entertainment. On the Thursday evening - Christmas Eve no less - as colleagues enjoyed celebratory evenings out, I sat at home alone (there was no money to go out with) and contemplated tearing off my financial handcuffs. Some people that evening were looking forward to their biggest slap-up meals of the year the next day, but I had more modest ambitions. After a week of pasta, tomatoes, bread, peppers, apples and bananas, I was desperate for a cheese sandwich.