How to Save Money as an Expat 

I have family members who regularly fly out to Dubai for a shopping sesh. They come, they shop, they pose for IG and they leave. That’s  what Dubai is known for. It’s very name tells you: “Do Buy”.

For those of us who live here for longer than a week at a time, it’s tempting to shop at every 75% off or buy one get two free sale, but the reality is that after a few years, your attitude is “seen one sale,seen them all”.

If you think life in the UAE is all about shopping at fabulous malls, eating out at swanky restaurants and living the life of camel milk and honey, you’ve lost your mind .

Don’t get me wrong. In the beginning it was all of that all the time.  I racked up incredible credit card bills shopping all the things all the time. Shops knew me by name and reputation. I would think nothing of spending an equivalent of one year’s salary in ZAR at 9West, Kenneth Cole or at Debenham’s or at one of the numerous malls in the UAE. Everyone here does.

Within three months of landing, every South African has a 4 x 4, is dripping in gold and most are dressing marginally better, because let’s face it- money can’t buy style! So that’s normal too.

We lifers have a little game we play at parties – spot the newbie. They’re usually the ones wearing the tight new shoes, speaking at unusually loud volumes, waving around a jewel encrusted, French manicured hand, hair freshly coloured ( always, ALWAYS highlighted) and coiffed and rolling the SA twang. Their kid is glued to the newest phone or tablet. It’s funny, it’s normal .

We were all like that.

But after a few years it’s tiring. We have settled into real life here. Maybe we have no taxes, and salaries are great with housing and medical provided ( in some, not all cases), but the stress of living in a foreign country gets to you. Raising a kid here is hard since no sense of family can be created if family is a 9 hour flight away.

So yes, while it’s a world away from SA and it’s hardships ( the Western Cape has a drought? How?) there are unique challenges.

Number one being saving.

Some advice. Before you come, know how long you’re staying, what your plan is and have a realistic budget.

Once you’ve landed, realize that you’re going to have expenses not usually bargained for in SA. Things like taxi fare ( in Dubai taxi meters start at 10 dirhams, that’s almost 40 ZAR!), since there are no minibus taxis. Things like school fees ( if you’re not covered by your employer, can be horrendous!) which can start at 45k a year ( about 180k ZAR) upfront or in 3 checks. Accommodation starts at around 60k for a studio apartment in Dubai. That’s 240k ZAR for the year! In one or 3 checks!

Food is very cheap ( a family of 4 could survive on 2000 AED/ month),as is petrol ( I think it’s 1.50/l or 6 ZAR/l) which explains why everyone drives a 4×4. Cars are ridiculously cheap and easy to maintain. Clothing is cheap as well. Dressing in Gap, Hilfiger, and even designer wear ( hello , Dubai Outlet Mall!) and the like is very possible.

As you can tell it’s tempting to live like that all the time. Many people do. But it does make the challenge of returning home so much greater. Here’s what no one will tell you. You can’t stay here forever. You’ll be hard pressed to get citizenship. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Saffa getting UAE citizenship. So yes, stay as long as you can, but return home you must.

For that you must have saved.

Let’s say you’re a teacher. Your salary should be in the region of 16k in dirhams. If you’re at a reputable school accommodation is provided, as is medical, annual flights and schooling. Which leaves utilities, transport and food for you to cover. I’m not factoring in eating out and entertainment. Just the necessities. The ZAR: AED is at about 3.60:1, so bear that in mind

Utilities can be a bit of a headache, since it’s just becoming regulated in the other Emirates. Dubai is better at it. Since your very survival depends on having AC paying your W&E is crucial. During the summer it can cost up to 1500 + dirhams.

If you’re using public transport you’re in luck. Bus transport is very cheap and cover all the major routes. Standing in the hot sun while waiting for a bus is not very comfortable and many people therefore opt for cars.

Groceries sets us ( a family of four + a cat) back about 2500 dirhams a month, including all meat, wines and luxuries.

At the end of the day it’s very possible to save a good part of your salary. If you forgo the lifestyle in the Emirates you can have a downpayment on your first house in SA ready within a year.

Many expats take out personal loans and buy their houses cash in SA, but should you default here in the UAE, let’s just leave that for another blogpost.

So, have I done all I said is possible to do here? Well, yes and no. You see, I enjoy the life over here. I go to all the things and “Do Buy” all the things. Because I like nice stuff.

However, I did not let my day job define my earning potential. I worked at my side hustle like you wouldn’t believe. The UAE is a country just brimming with opportunity. If you can see it, grasp it and work it into what you want you can go a lot further than you suspect. So yes, I have a couple of properties in SA, and enough money squirreled away to start a business back home. Two salaries means twice the opportunity.

Come to the UAE, enjoy the life here. But be very, very realistic about returning to SA. Because like death and taxes, it’s inevitable.

Would you like to come to the UAE? Is there anything I didn’t cover that you’d like to know? Hit me up in the comments or email me. 

Until next I blog, 



3 thoughts on “How to Save Money as an Expat 

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