It’s difficult to imagine a Dubai where people don’t lament the high cost of living. From the rising price of imported fruit and veg, to the cost of education (almost Dh1 million per child, according to new research*), at times life can feel very expensive here. Unsurprisingly, family planning is a hot topic and the idea of expanding one’s brood amid a tide of rising costs can seem a scary prospect.

**Louise Emmet, 30, a teacher from the UK, married in 2015 but is so far putting off parenthood because of the current cost of living in Dubai. “I’m looking forward to a time when I can start a family,” says Louise. “But because of financial pressures it’s just not something we can consider at the moment.”

While Louise and her husband currently command what many would consider to be a respectable joint income, neither feel they are in a financial position to become parents. “People are losing their jobs all the time, and on top of that, life here is very expensive,” says Louise. “We have a figure that we need to get our savings to and once there we’ll be in a position to start a family.” 

Though Louise doesn’t disclose the figure she has in mind, it’s likely to be sizeable when one considers that from the start the cost of giving birth in a UAE private hospital can be upwards of Dh22,000, and that doesn’t include monthly scans and prenatal checks. Of course, Dubai Health Insurance Law stipulates that all employers must provide basic maternity cover, but here’s the rub – not all policies are created equal and some only go a fraction of the way to covering expensive birthing costs.

“In 2017 prices rose significantly, with education up 6 per cent, clothing up 5 per cent, and miscellaneous goods, which include services, up by a whopping 17 per cent”

After that there is the issue of maternity leave, which is another tough reality for new mums as most of those working in the private sector are still only entitled to 45 calendar days of maternity leave with full pay. So mums are then faced with the difficult dilemma of whether to return to work and pay for costly childcare or to stay at home and forgo an income. “It’s a difficult situation,” explains Louise. “When you actually begin tallying up all the costs you realise just how expensive it is to have a child here.”

Cavell Higgens agrees. Having married in 2014, the South African-born journalist and her husband initially planned to put off parenthood for a period of two years. “After we got married we knew we couldn’t afford to start a family straight away. We’d just paid for an expensive wedding and we didn’t have much spare money.” Fate however has a way of stepping in, and three months after saying her ‘I dos’ Cavell discovered she was pregnant. “Of course we were thrilled, but worry quickly set in when we realised the cost of having a baby. My company didn’t provide maternity medical insurance at the time as it was before the law made it compulsory in 2016, and I also realised I’d have to take unpaid leave. After that there were the childcare costs, which really mount up, and just the basics like strollers and cribs are so much more expensive here. We really felt the pinch and money was very tight for a long time.”

And some couples have even found themselves forced to relocate due to the high costs of raising children here. Annmarie Hawes moved back to the UK in 2015 before the birth of her second child. “The decision to move was entirely financial,” recalls Annmarie. “We had already been struggling with one child, so two would not have been doable. My employer didn’t provide medical insurance for offspring and we would also have been unable to cover childcare costs and education down the line. Moving home seemed like the logical decision.”

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Uncertain times

Louise, Cavell and Annmarie’s experiences are not unique. Many couples are finding it hard to make ends meet as regional austerity driven by low oil prices, volatility in the job market and of course the arrival of 5 per cent VAT on all goods and services, all continue to cause concern. On top of this, recent information from the Dubai Statistics Centre shows that in 2017 prices have risen significantly, with education up an average of 6 per cent, clothing up an average of 5 per cent and miscellaneous goods, which includes things like consumer services, up by a whopping 17 per cent.

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It can all seem a bit doom and gloom and as though some would-be parents are being priced out of the market. But there is a flipside, and while Dubai is, without doubt, an expensive place to have a baby and raise a family, it doesn’t have to become a financial crisis. If you get a realistic grip on the expenses you’re likely to face and do some advance planning, you may be able to save a bundle on your bundle. Here’s how:

Be prepared

Firstly, if you’re planning to have a baby, do your research, says Gemma Frankland, a financial advisor at Guardian Wealth Management. “You need to look into all the costs involved with having a baby. From health insurance (around Dh3,000 to Dh6,000 a year for a comprehensive policy) and childcare costs (around Dh2,000 to Dh3,500 a month for a nanny not including visa fees, or around Dh4,000 to Dh6,000 a month for full-time nursery), to day-to-day things like buying a crib, buggy and nappies, it’s important to be in possession of the numbers.

“Once you understand how much everything will cost, put together a budget so that you’re setting aside a bit of money each month, which will prepare you for the rise in costs when you have more expenses. If you’ve got the time, give the budget a practice run to see if it’s realistic and then revisit it every three months to make sure you’re on track with your savings. There are also some great apps you can try. Mint Budgeting, PocketGuard Budget App and You Need A Budget are all very good.”

Gemma also stresses the importance of thinking long term. “Education costs play a large part in many parents’ concerns as children start school as young as three-years-old and the average cost is Dh50,000 a year. Having a financial education plan that is set up to mature when your child is of school age is a good way to prepare yourself for the hit of school fees.” These funds are designed with inflation in mind, and can be purchased from a financial planner.  

Get your head round VAT

Then there’s sticky issue of VAT, with many families wondering if it might be the final straw for their time as expats. According to Shiraz Khan, a senior tax advisor at Al Tamimi & Company, this is not likely to be the case. “It’s important to note that with no personal income tax the UAE is still a largely a tax-free environment,” says Shiraz. “We have a VAT of just 5 per cent, which is the lowest indirect tax rate in the world, and I wouldn’t expect the cost of living to rise by more than 2-2.5 per cent for most families.” Shiraz also points out that while VAT will affect most goods and services, certain education and healthcare services are zero-rated, which is all positive for families.

Cut costs where you can

On top of this there are a variety of measures you can take both before and after becoming a parent to ensure you’re in a strong position financially. From buying fruit and vegetables in bulk from the likes of Kibsons, to purchasing nappies while they are on sale on stores like Sprii.ae, to asking friends and family to bring over baby wipes from your home country, where things tend to be cheaper, there are all sorts of ways to save. Grace Paras, a photographer from Canada, had her first child in 2014 and her second in 2016. “Firstly we didn’t start a family until both my husband and I had reached our savings goals,” recalls Grace. “Then, I saved up all my annual leave for a year, which meant I was able to pull together about three months’ time off including the standard 45 days. That meant I only needed to take a total of three months’ unpaid leave to get up to my goal of a six-month maternity leave, which was just about doable.”

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While Grace was actually made redundant after the birth of her second child, which undoubtedly put the family under financial pressure, she has cultivated a strict system of spending, which allows the family to live well, despite Dubai’s rising costs. “I have a shopping system in order to keep the whole household organic, from food right the way through to cleaning products,” explains Grace. “It sounds expensive but I take advantage of the

20 per cent off weekend at Organic Foods and Café and stock up on frozen meats that day. I also look at expiry dates of organic milk and yogurts at Spinneys as they tend to go half price close to that date, then freeze what we won’t consume right away.”

Grace has also been adamant not to cave under the pressure to send her children to nursery early, which has saved the family a lot in high-priced fees. “In Canada children don’t got to school until they are five or six and the only reason some go to daycare is because the parents work to earn a living. Our eldest child just turned three and is not yet in nursery. Instead, we sing, count, draw, talk, play, cook and involve her in a lot of things. We also try to go on play dates as much as possible to socialise her. The point is you don’t have to spend a bomb on nursery or pre-school to expose your child to age-appropriate activities.”

Go pre-loved

Having a baby is an exciting time and parents-to-be often want to be certain that their home is properly kitted-out for the new arrival. However, tempting as it may be to splash out on all the latest baby gear, much of this stuff will be used only for a very short period.

“There is a lot of hype about how much you need to spend on your baby,” says financial planner Keren Bobker. “It’s easy to be seduced by new things, especially for your first baby, but remember, babies grow so fast that it is far wiser to look at nearly-new items.” Consider visiting the likes of Baby Bazaar at Times Square Centre, which is held on the last Saturday of every month. Here, you can pick up a huge array of pre-loved baby and toddler items, from sleep suits to strollers and car seats, at vastly reduced prices. Or check out Momsouq.com or any of the many pre-loved items social groups on Facebook, where you can both buy second-hand items, or sell your own items later on down the line if you want to recoup costs. 

Alternatively, throwing a baby shower is another way that you can get some of the gear that you will need. You can create a gift registry on websites such as DB Babies, Just Kidding and Mumzworld where you can list everything you are looking for, and friends and family can pick what suits their budget.

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Save, save, save

Of course, you can’t get away from the fact that becoming a parent changes your life – and your finances – forever. But it’s never too early to start planning, says Gemma. “You should always be earning more than you’re spending,” she explains. “This starts with a budgeting exercise, but it’s also means actually putting aside some of your money. Initially you need to ensure you have cash savings, in order to build up an emergency fund. Once you have set aside around three months worth of ‘outgoings’, start planning for the longer term with more structured savings. If you can think about putting away 25 per cent of your income you will be prepared for changes, ready for emergencies and making headway to longer term planning.”

Mums’ money-saving tips

“Do your homework as to which restaurants children can eat for free at, and their specific days. Bystro have a great special on where kids eat free on specific days (5pm to 7pm every day except Sundays), so if my husband and I share a main (their portions are great) and my kids eat free, then we spend a lot less!”― Janine Mackenzie, mum of three

“I use Task Spotting, a Dubai-based phone app, which pays people in exchange for their feedback. Users accept and complete missions at the places they go to every day, including malls, shops and restaurants, in exchange for cash rewards. I use it to save money as I answer the surveys they send me, and then get free trial products delivered to my home for me to review.” ― Azucena May Paz, mum of two daughters

“Rent rather than buy certain big-ticket items that you might only use  occasionally. We love the Baby Zen YoYo travel stroller (which can fold into an airline overheard locker), but it’s so expensive to buy that we hire it from Hire4Baby.com instead, which costs a few hundred dirhams. Saves us having to store it too!” – Sophie Davies, mum of two boys

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*2017 Research by Zurich Life

**Name has been changed

Images by Shutterstock