Monday, February 20, 2012

Going Broke in a Third World Country

It's remarkable to think of going broke in a third world country. Because I look every bit American, people here assume I have a fortune hidden somewhere. I don't.

I was reading this article about Dubai ( and I was very much struck by the homeless expat stuck there while her husband languished in debtors prison. Expats are vulnerable to the unique and particular laws of the countries they live in and the vagaries of how they are enforced.

People here can't understand why I'm broke. I'm told by some folks that I'm an expensive asset. I make less than half what I made in the States, but a lot more than the typical Indian office worker and pretty much the same as an Indian at my level. But some of my bills are different than Indians. Here's a breakdown of my expenses, bearing in mind, most expats live a far better life than me, being paid in foreign currency. (Okay, while I realize most people won't publicly declare their finances, I'm doing this as a service to those thinking of moving here and thinking they can live a cheap life here and save a bunch of cash to bring home with them. Seeing what a regular expat's expenses are would have been very useful to me before I moved here.)

  • Rent of 3 bedroom ground floor apartment = 30,000 rupees a month (US$ 615)
  • Car & driver service = 25,000 rupees a month (US$ 511)
  • Will's school = 20,000 rupees a month (US$ 408)
  • Electricity = 12,000 rupees a month (US$ 245)
  • High Speed Internet = 6,000 rupees a month (US$ 122)
  • Housekeeper = 5,000 rupees a month (US$ 102)
    NOTE: Her family of three also gets free room and board.
  • Yu Yu's Mobile = 4,000 rupees a month (US$ 81) 
  • My Mobile = 3,000 rupees a month (US$ 61)
  • Will's Mobile - 500 rupees a month (US$ 10)
  • Dog food = 2,500 rupees a month (US$ 51)
    NOTE: We have three dogs.
  • Satellite TV = 1,000 rupees a month (US$ 20)
  • Food & Entertainment = 20,000 rupees a month (US$ 204)
    NOTE: For four adults, 1 infant.
TOTAL = 128,000 rupees a month (US$ 2,412)

Sad, huh? :'-(

Liquor is expensive. We rarely go out for dinner, a ritual we miss. Will and I had a standing date every Friday night when we lived back home, for a nice meal in a fine restaurant when we lived back home, and I really miss that. Having wine is a rare event because the cheapest bottle of imported wine (think the 2-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's) is 800 rupees (US$ 16.33). A decent bottle of Austalian or Chilean wine will cost you 1200; American or European will be twice as much, so we never have wine anymore. We rent our ACs, so they're 20,000 each for the season. I have to pay for household repairs, which cannot be planned ahead of time. Will's UK exams are an additional 100,000 rupee cost we pay in the final school quarter each year. Did I mention that we have practically no furniture in our house?

Plus there are taxes that I can deduct but corporations make it very difficult to know what can be deducted pre-tax and what is taxable. It helps if you know and trust someone who is an accountant here. Companies won't help you.

This also makes me even more sensitive to being cheated. Just because I'm white doesn't make me rich. Just because I'm white, doesn't make me stupid. Everyone tries to make a little extra off the foreigners because it's easy. We don't bargain at all, don't know how, actually. We usually go into a store and pay the price on the tag. Here, there are no tags - when you ask the price, a shop keeper has the freedom to charge what he thinks the customer can bear and if your skin is white, expect that to be ten times higher than what a local would pay.

Will is looking at colleges and wants to go back to the States or the UK. I've been trying to convince him to get his bachelor's degree here because it will cost less than his expensive private international school I'm paying for now. He was planning to take a gap year to help pay the bills, but that's just stupid. Like I said, I somehow manage to make things with work. There were rough times when we were kids, but we still spent each summer, all summer, away at horse camp or girl scout camp and stuff. I asked her recently how they managed to provide us with all those expensive experiences and she said, "We robbed Peter to pay Paul." Eventually everyone gets paid...

The article above was written two years ago, and depressing as it is, it has to be far worse now than in 2009. Expats have been fleeing Dubai, and the economy has hit expats particularly hard - we're expensive assets - as Indian employers like to remind me (even though I know LOTS of Indians at my level making more money than I do). It's easy to lose the expats when revenues fall and it doesn't undermine the status quo like it would if an Indian leader in the same position were to be let go. The dynamics are different. I've watched whole teams leave at once from a company with the loss of their team leader. Expats don't build fiefdoms like locals do. Simply don't support their visa renewal and they disappear. Quickly, with minimal fuss. We're at the mercy of our employer. We can't just quit our job and look for something else - we have to go home if we lose our jobs or want to accept a new position. It makes it hard to accept another position because the cost to join is high, making it unattractive for an employer. For me, it would require sending my family back to New York for a week - two round trip tickets to New York are around 200,000 rupees, and there's a risk that the visa won't be approved. Most companies don't want to take that risk. They don't have to, in a country with a billion other people.

I've wondered whatever happened to that homeless woman because I could easily see myself in her position. I'm lucky to work for a company that supports me, maybe not with the salary I'd prefer, but in many other ways. They help me negotiate rents and services, helps me figure out how to extricate myself from legal issues or get payments from people who owe me money. These things they don't have to do for locals, either. Being able to travel and see how other expats live helps tremendously as well - it provides perspective and helps me appreciate everything the company I work for does for me.

Follow me on twitter (@jeanneleez) or foursquare, or friend me on Facebook. I usually post there when I travel. Cheers. :-)

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