Money Monday: 4 Years in

It’s been almost 4 years now that we’ve been living the expat life, experiencing life overseas and away from home. Regular readers know that we’ve found this to be a challenging, but generally wonderful period of our lives. We’ve had children, we’ve traveled to corners of the globe we once only day dreamed about, and we’ve mingled with lovely people from all sorts of places we’d have never been blessed to meet otherwise. That said, one of the major stressors in anybody’s life, except maybe the privileged few from the one percent, is finances. Living abroad carries its own stressors, of course, especially after moving to a new location, but we’ve sought and found employment that allows us to significantly allay our financial stresses, and that’s a big deal.

Going rent-free and enjoying the reduced expenses of life in the UAE allowed us to pay off my student loans in 2 years, a task that seemed Herculean, though not impossible, in the USA; the best aspect of working in the UAE was that I, Shon, generated the income (if you subtract taxes) that it took 2 of us to make in the States. The income was one of the redeeming elements of the job, along with the shorter work days.

So where do we stand at this juncture, approaching 4 years into our adventures in ordinary life abroad? How are we faring financially? We are doing alright, I’m glad to say. We’re not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re able to put back a healthy nest egg, a significant portion of which came in the from of the 3 years worth of bonus pay (not really bonus, given that it’s contractually obliged) from working for ADEC; and we’ve been building the savings account nicely.

Besides the savings account, in 2014 we opened a couple of Individual Retirement Accounts and started contributing to them–only to discover that, as we should have known from reading about them, but failed to notice, IRAs are meant to be contributed to from taxable income only, and we would be looking at a significant tax penalty every year we had no USA taxable income (and, of course, one of the main advantages to working in Abu Dhabi was that we weren’t being taxed). So, with the assistance of our Edward Jones financial advisor, we shifted the money into an American Funds mutual fund which Edward Jones manages. That meant no tax penalties, happily. That was about all I could say about it–the mutual fund, called Capital Income Builder, which goes by the ticker CAIBX, had generated a reasonable return for years, and it seemed like a solid enough choice, given that neither of us knew much about investing. Whatever fees we incurred through using a financial advisor was of no consequence, because the advisor was, after all, being paid to help us navigate waters we didn’t know anything about.

However, during the last six months or so, I’ve been learning a great deal about investing, and I’ve discovered that our Edward Jones mutual fund account is probably a financial mistake, since there are plenty of other Electronically Traded Funds (ETFs) which perform better, and cost a lot less to purchase. Not only that, but 2015 turned into a terrible year for CAIBX, and instead of the upper single-digit return it had been generating, it turned -8.5%, making our ongoing investment into that fund seem like a bad choice. Not only that, but taxes on an actively traded mutual fund are higher than a more static ETF, and the fees that it once seemed reasonable to pay Edward Jones (which, by the way, are among the highest of the investment firms, at least according to my research), now don’t seem like such a good idea. After all, the waters of investing are evermore familiar to me at this point. We haven’t yet closed our Edward Jones account, but we will; we’ve reduced what we put into it, however. We will close it, though, and transfer that money into other funds in the near future.

Besides having a savings account and a mutual fund, we’ve also opened up a Scottrade account to manage our own investments with. Scottrade has low brokerage fees and has an excellent program called FRIP, wherein dividend payments are reinvested for free into stocks of your choice. We’ve established a portfolio there with a small number of stocks, and will be expanding it over time, confident that we can do better than -8.5%.

What brought on the interest in investing, you might ask? My friend read The Wealthy English Teacher, penned by a blogger with numerous years spent teaching abroad, and he recommended it to me. I found the book very relatable, and then perused the author’s blog. I’ve also discovered, again, thanks to my friend, blogs like Go Curry CrackerDividend Mantra, and many others, all of which helped show me what’s possible to achieve without much more effort than we were putting into being frugal anyway, and prompted me to get serious about my own investing.

So there you have it. I’m happy to say that we’re doing rather well for ourselves at this point, especially considering where we came from with quite a bit of debt, and we’ve learned a lot about investing our hard-earned cash for ourselves. It’s nice to actually have a net worth these days, and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to expand.

Surprises

New teachers have arrived. We’ve met several of them, and some report reading our blog and finding it helpful. The whole point of chronicling this experience is to give others an accurate idea if what it’s like to teach and live in the UAE, so we are delighted that some people are finding it useful as they decide whether to come over to the desert.

One thing that’s surprised the new teachers, and which just made it’s debut this fall, is that new folks have to pay a housing deposit when they receive their quarters. The figure seems to be 5% of whatever the assigned housing rents for (usually around 65,000 AED in Al Ain, so the deposit would be approximately 3,200). While the idea is doubtless to make those who would flee the, er, challenges of this job think twice before abandoning all their stuff and leaving without paying any of their bills, etc. (and to cover the expenses left behind by those who do run), it’s been an unexpected wallet whammy for newcomers. As one told me, of the 20,000 AED you’re given as a furniture allowance upon arrival (or somewhere near), fully half is now going into the deposit and other necessities, such as the 1,000 AED deposit to have AADC turn on your power, the one for gas (1000 + in our case), whatever it is that Etisalat charges for establishing a phone and internet connection and installation (don’t remember, and don’t wanna look it up), the cost of new SIM cards or new mobile phones (we recommend just getting a new SIM for your GSM compatible smart phone), and so on. That means that the amount of money to buy new furniture is nearly half the amount you’re allotted. If you’ve shopped for furniture lately, you’ve noticed it’s not cheap, and that 10,000 AED ($2700) won’t buy you much.

Dirhams!

Dirhams!

Another surprise of sorts is that even those newcomers who’ve been in the UAE for over a month now haven’t been paid. They got the furniture allowance, yes, but ADEC only recently got around to communicating that they wouldn’t receive their pay until the end of September. Here’s hoping these people set aside enough money to live for a couple months without pay. That is ADEC’s recommendation, after all, so at least one thing isn’t hugely surprising!

Money Monday: My Chains Are Gone!

Shon & I have been married for a little over 6 years now.  Today, for the first time in those 6-something years, we are debt free.

We don’t own any property, I don’t have any designer shoes, our phones are not the latest thing on the market, and our baby doesn’t have an iPad, but we don’t owe anybody any money.

And it feels so darn good.

 

 

About Money. About Getting Paid. About Expectations.

For today’s Money Monday post, I would like to share about some of the financial things that I deal with working for ADEC. I consider myself to be a fair-minded individual, and that’s the perspective I intend to write this from. Too often I see folks complaining about the way things are here, and I soon start to call their judgment about those things into question, because I usually find those people are the ones who have made no allowances for living and working in a foreign land.

When I was researching job prospects in the UAE, I spent time on websites like Dave’s ESL Cafe and many others, and that was a good way to determine what schools an organizations played fair with their employees. Of course, I tempered my reading with knowledge that people who get themselves in trouble out of their own idiocy are often to be the loudest Internet complainers.  So I’d like to address the issue of pay (not the rate as much as other aspects) in a level-headed fashion, because it’s the kind of thing I’d have liked for someone to elaborate upon when I was job-hunting and when I was trying to figure out what to expect.

So I’m going to talk about what it’s like to be receiving pay from an Emirati organization. First, let me address expectations: I was told that ADEC gives annual raises, and having that expectation in mind, I was disappointed to see that it’s not in my contract. My grade level coordinator has an older contract from a year before I came, and the wording of his contract is different–he is promised the raise. But he hasn’t ever gotten it, since one of the Sheikhs issued a decree last year freezing all pay. So that expectation was quashed. Another expectation has to do with timely pay for the first major payment into our bank accounts–our housing allowance, with which we purchase necessities like furniture for the empty apartments we’re provided.  This allowance didn’t arrive until the end of August, meaning that I spent nearly a month in Abu Dhabi without the means to purchase any of the things I would be needing very soon.  When the money arrived, I scrambled to get all the stuff I needed.  But then, before I’d managed to get any bedroom furniture, ADEC moved me from the Intercontinental to the crappy Hilton in Al Ain, where I had one day off before being shuttled to various orientations.  At the Hilton, we were told upon arrival that we’d be given up to two weeks to get our housing all squared away, and then that was suddenly changed after four days, when it was unceremoniously announced, via a slip of paper under the door, that all ADEC teachers were expected to check out the next morning.  The wife and I spent the next night at a friend’s apartment, and then slept on our own couches, before a friend lent us mattresses to throw on the floor until we got our bedroom furniture from Ikea.  So the expectation to receive the initial housing allowance in a timely manner was quashed.  I’m not sharing these experiences because I’m bitter, but because it’s the way things happened.

ADEC pays teachers on the 25th of each month.  After the initial month’s pay didn’t arrive, I had to wait until September to finally be paid.  At the end of September, I’d been without a paycheck for quite some time.  ADEC did pay me, on September 25, a prorated salary for August, and they paid me my regular amount for September, so that paycheck (or direct deposit, actually) was pretty large.

ADEC provides tickets to get teachers from their country of origin to the UAE.  Until today, the only complications in this area were due to different expectations–we were told that I would be issued a ticket and that the wife would have to follow me at a later date, and that we should plan accordingly.  If you’ve read our old posts, you know this isn’t what happened at all.  At the end of July, ADEC’s travel agency sent an e-mail verifying our travel information, and then they sent an itinerary for both of us to fly at the same time.  Plans were already made, and unable to alter them, we contacted the travel agency and had them issue only one ticket.  After waiting a month to get my passport with work visa back, we gave up waiting and bought our own ticket for her to come join me.  That resulted in a few complications, but nothing difficult to deal with.  ADEC reimbursed us fully for her airfare.  Today there is a new complication, however.  Rather than buying tickets for all teachers to go home during the summer months, ADEC provides funds for you to purchase your own tickets.  This amount is supposed to vary based upon your location, of course, but they have always been generous and provided plenty of money for folks to buy tickets on nice airlines like Emirates or Etihad.  This year there seems to have been some kind of goof–some of us, including yours truly, aren’t receiving anywhere near enough money to cover our flights.  I say it’s a goof because word is that ADEC honestly messed up–“a clerical error,” some say, resulting in wild variances and discrepancies.  At any rate, the allowance to go home generally seems to be substantially less than it has been.  As I write, I still have hope that this will be corrected, because I’m scheduled to receive, for my family, a mere 9450 AED, or about $2,600, and at the moment the cheapest flights (not even ones via Emirates or Etihad) to Atlanta are showing up at $1,800 a piece via SkyScanner.  This is disconcerting for obvious reasons.  We’ll see if ADEC fixes this.  If not, there will be much justifiable anger.

And what about sick days?  Are we paid for them?  Yes, as long as we go to a doctor and get a certain form rubber stamped and then submit that to our school’s secretary and to ADEC itself, via their clumsy and unintuitive webpage (hey, that’s true, not bitter or angry).  I had an issue pop up when they tried to deny me pay for one of my three sick days I took over the course of the year.  It turned out I needed to go get a stamp that was missing applied to my doctor’s note.  That was a bit of a pain in the neck, but after re-uploading my form with the required stamp, I was all set.

Another thing that impacts some people’s wallets comes in the form of what people are told when they interview for the job.  Besides not receiving the annual raise, teachers who come in the summer having just completed their degrees (I’m speaking of Master’s or higher), will end up only receiving the pay for the degree they had before.  My friend and coworker, who shall remain here unnamed, finished up with his Master’s degree in Education after he interviewed for his position in the spring.  “Don’t worry,” they said, “You’ll get paid on the Master’s pay scale.  All you will have to do is turn in the authenticated copy of your degree and we will make sure you’re paid accordingly, since you’ll have had the degree prior to actually working for us.”  That hasn’t happened.  In fact, after much hassling to make sure he had everything done right, and after being congratulated for an upcoming pay raise by a woman in the Al Ain ADEC office, he received an e-mail from the lady in charge of OK’ing stuff.  What did it say?  All pay raises were frozen as a result of the decree I mentioned earlier.  This defies logic, you say!  Yes, I agree.  You’re getting the idea of what it’s like to live and work in the UAE.

So that more or less sums up my experience with the topic of being paid.  Although I was late being paid my housing allowance, I’ve been paid on time ever since.  If ADEC fixes my family’s flight allowance for this summer, I can’t complain.

More Dubai: Mondial 2012

It’s supposed to be Money Monday.  And I’ll find a way to make this work: I’ll talk about the price of admission for this nifty event we attended today.

Anyway, on the the subject.  Today’s recreational event: go to Dubai.  To do this, we have to find our way past at least two closed roads to SkyDive Dubai, within sight of the Palm Jumeirah, which is hosting the Mondial 2012 world parachuting championships.  Our agenda is simple enough: watch skydivers from all over the world compete.  What we end up doing instead is watching them practice their formations on the ground and pack their chutes.  While this is kind of interesting, there isn’t anyone actually coming down in parachutes.  So we hang out and talk for a while, and basically do a bit of baking in the sun.  ‘Cause it’s still pretty hot.  Shorts weather, easily.  And finally, after what seems like forever, we almost leave when there’s still no parachutists descending.  Our friends, Frank and Melissa, who have their baby in tow, are getting restless, and so are we.  “Let’s wait five minutes,” I say, hoping, but quite doubtfully, that we might yet get to see some action.  And then, as we are on the verge of leaving, to our delight, the distance championship event begins.

In the Air Chutist1 Duo Windsock Sign

Here’s what it’s like: you’re standing in the sun, a tad too warm, the sun blazing right at the point that the plane has just dropped sky divers from.  That makes it hard to see them, because you’re squinting and covering your eyes.  But you can see them, nonetheless, even though you’ve scrunched your face up like a kid who just sampled his first lemon.  And you watch as they gently float along the air currents, turning now and then.  Then one of them, a bit lower than the others, kicks up his feet and tugs on the lines, and he leans forward, the leading edge of the parachute tilting, and he picks up speed like mad.  You hear the speed, the sizzling of air cut by the parachutist and his canopy, and then he’s skimming the pool in front of you, before he pulls up at the end of it to try to gain some height and fly the greatest distance possible before he touches the ground.

Now, in between all of this boredom and drama, we decide it’s high time to grab some lunch.  There’s a camel tethered near the gate, on display for tourists like us (and like the Asian skydivers who were posing and photographing each other next to it when we arrived).  It’s keeper, an old Emirati guy wearing a tan kandora, spies the beast spread his legs a little and start urinating.  What’s the old fellow do?  He goes over and sticks his hand under the stream, cups it, and lifts it to his face.  “What’s he doing?”  Asks Melissa.  “Is he smelling it?” says Frank.  “I don’t know,” I say, but I have my suspicions.  We can see more clearly the next time he does it.  Yup.  He’s drinking the urine.  It is like a horrific car accident–you can’t take your eyes off it, it’s so terrible.  Sadly, or fortunately, in Jenia’s opinion, we are too far away to capture this singular act on film.  Anyway, the women making repelled faces and Frank and I wearing rather more intrigued ones, we we make our way to the dining hall.  And when we get there, we end up, quite by accident, with front row seats for a stunt show by a young Polish motorcyclist named Rafal who goes by the moniker Stunter13.

Our friends were posing for a lovely shot with this camel, well before the urine drinking took place, when suddenly he started sneezing.  Melissa was a little taken aback.

Now, allow me a switch to the past tense as I finish up.

There were also BMX stunt riders and a motocross team on hand doing hourly shows. At one point there was a standing invitation to go take a leap from a tower into a huge airbag below.  Would’ve done it, but by that time we were all ready to go.

Oh, I forgot to mention the part about money.  Want to guess the asking price? All of this was entirely free.

Tired of baking in the sun, regardless of the nifty stuff going on, we moved on to the huge Mall of the Emirates to eat a real meal (because there wasn’t much available at the Mondial) and enjoy some air conditioning.  Thank goodness for technology, and particularly for navigation systems, because Dubai’s roads are nothing if not confusing, and several were closed so we had to take more circuitous routes.

Russian Team

The Russian team enjoys the sunshine while packing their ‘chutes.

For some video of the parachutists and the motorcycles stunt show, click here: (I shot it myself, using that dandy iPhone of mine).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0P2jiPKghYE

Flexible Pricing and Cheap Translation

Flexible pricing is one of the odd things to be aware of here in Abu Dhabi.  Even big, shiny, reputable looking companies do it.  Case in point: the company that we were recommended (Let’s call them IfS; the name has been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike). They don’t have prices for some of their services posted anywhere. I have, like several others, paid 110 dirhams per document for translation services. I also paid 200 dirhams to have my marriage certificate attested. Yesterday I left my driver’s license with them to get it interpreted, again paying 110 dirhams, which is what I paid for the marriage certificate translation.

I have since discovered that there are also several people who got things translated for 60 dirhams and attested for 150 by the very same folks in the very same establishment. That’s a considerable difference in pricing, with no difference in service or explanation for the discrepancy.

IfS is also not the most affordable place around (at least not when they decide to charge folks the higher prices). There is talk about a place on Hamdan Street behind the Etisalat building (that would be the one with the golf ball on top, if you know AD) which translates for 75 dirhams per document. Other folks tell about getting a quantity discount because they went in a group. A reliable source tells me that the driver’s license facility actually will translate it while you wait for 60 dirhams.

dirhams

Here’s the moral of the story, kids: ask around about pricing for services, and insist on the lower prices if you hear of a place which, like IfS, has flexible pricing. Sadly for me, I didn’t know that other folks were having things done more cheaply until I’d already paid up front for the service.

As a sort of footnote, don’t underestimate the helpfulness of the hotel concierge, either. The concierge can give advice on a wide range of things. It’s very possible that the concierge could have recommended a place that would be reliable and more affordable for these services. One of my colleagues got a laptop fixed very cheaply because the concierge steered him in the best direction.

When it comes down to it, the 420 dirhams ($114.50) that I’ve paid for having my license translated and marriage certificate both attested and interpreted isn’t just totally outrageous. I mean, Jenia is worth that much to me and then some, and I’ve got to have this stuff done in order to get her here. But if you make this journey, bear my words in mind, because you might save some hard-earned cash if you are a bit more savvy than me.

Money Monday II: The Dollar Strikes Back

I’ve been sitting here trying to think of something funny to write–something having a little kinship with my allusion (above, in the title, if you somehow missed it) to George Lucas’s brilliantly conceived Star Wars sequel (wow, it’s been a while since those words have been said, huh?)–but I’m coming up with nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  Zero.  Punch it Chewie, I’m done.

What I set out to blog about today is obvious: money.  Jenia and I have been discussing finances a bit today.  Always depressing.  At least it is for me–maybe you come from better circumstances or the Lord has been kinder to you in that regard.  Anyhow, regardless of how far down the road to financial failure any of us maybe, the wife and I are managing to squirrel away a decent amount of savings.  That would be because at heart, we’re both cheap, penny-pinching Scrooges (sorry, honey, but you know it’s true).  It would also be because when I arrive in Abu Dhabi, I’m supposed to have a couple grand to make it through the month, to last me until my first pay period.

Now, different people advise you to take different amounts of money.  So I’m sure that with my miserly ways, I could probably survive on about ten bucks, but we want to be safe.  In all seriousness, folks have said that a thousand dollars can get you by until your first pay check.  We’re playing it safe and trying to put back about twice that, so that in case there are any unexpected financial burdens that rear their freakishly ugly heads, we can tame them without any undue stress.

We do not want this to happen!

Let’s shift gears a little bit from actual money in the bank, to the sort of spending device which causes many people to have virtually no money in the bank, and which can easily lead to a complete lack of financial security: a credit card. We all have them, we all know they’re great if handled wisely.  In a way, a credit card is kind of like a pen in George Lucas’s fingers: it can be responsible for some great material, but if the individual wielding the thing gets stupid with it, the outcome can be pretty disastrous.  Oh, boy, look at me tossing Star Wars references around like The Phantom Menace just came out a couple months ago.  Hm.  Actually they did re-release it in 3-D round about March, didn’t they?

Jenia and I, anyway, are Discover card people.  Not because of any particular preference, but it’s just ended up that way.  I’ve been really happy with my Discover experience, but Discover is an unknown quantity in many countries abroad.  When we went to London over Christmas, the card was useless.  Nobody in England takes Discover.  And I do mean nobody.  It appears that England and the Emirates have something in common (besides trying to teach their young English with varying degrees of success): Discover is, well, undiscovered.  So since we’ll be unable to use our credit card there, we spent some time digging around on the internet for a good card which works abroad (Visa or Mastercard is fine in that respect).  If you watch more TV than I do (which is likely, because, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the only thing I’ve ever watched is obviously Star Wars), you may have seen Alec Baldwin hocking Capitol One’s Venture Visa card.  Turns out that Capitol One’s Venture cards have no overseas use fees, which is wonderful.  And they’re Visa cards, too, so they’ll work most everywhere.  Partly because the card will simply work overseas, and partly because they have a pretty stinkin’ good rewards program, we decided to apply for one.  Look what came in the mail the other day:

New Venture Card–no, you cannot have my card numbers. Get your own.

Not only did Capitol One approve me for a card, they set my credit limit at fifteen thousand dollars.  Yikes!  I can just imagine how much they’d like for me to spend a sum that large–they’d be making big bucks off me, as I struggled to pay off my balance.  That’s right, even in Abu Dhabi, I will not be paid well enough to pay of a fifteen thousand dollar credit card bill overnight.  Fortunately for me, the folks at Capitol One didn’t know what a ridiculous tightwad I am.  Please don’t go and tell them.  They might revoke my card when they realize they’ll never make a penny off me.  I know how to work a rewards card, baby.  Or so I say.  Those sound like famous last words, don’t they?  I wouldn’t want to be cocky.  But used right, a rewards card can really work for you, and that’s how we intend to use this one.  We’ll not make any silly purchases with it.  We’ll pay it off every month, and the little buys we make will add to the rewards balance, and in a while, we’ll have free airfare to somewhere interesting.

Anyway, with the savings account growing and a credit card that will work overseas, I think we’re going to be financially prepared for our upcoming adventure.  I think that should do it for this entry.  May the force be with…never mind.

Money Monday

Well, it’s time for Money Monday.  Yup, I figured anyone interested in traveling or working or living in Abu Dhabi is probably curious about what the proposition costs.  So here we go: today I spent more money than ever before at the Post Office.

Yup, I got my documents back from Atlanta, and turned around a put them in the mail to DC, along with a money order for $239.  The money order covers the cost of document authentication at the State Department and at the Embassy of the UAE.  It also covers a $125 fee for ProEx Delivery Corporation.  Their fee isn’t cheap, but it does expedite the whole process.  I’ll tell you more about ProEx another time.  Anyway, with priority shipping to and from DC, and the money order, I spent $251 at the Cuthbert Post Office today.

Thus far, the authentication process has cost me $30 at the Secretary of State’s office, too, plus shipping to and from Atlanta (which has to be included twice, because they sent it back once and I had to reship it–another $7) at $14, and the total comes to $295.

My next post will discuss the authentication process.  Alright, enough of Money Monday.  Sleep well.