How a Research Manager Preparing to Live on a Houseboat in Cairo Does Money

nile river cairo flickr

Hallie (not her real name) is a 34-year-old Research Manager who is moving to Cairo.

So, Hallie, tell us a bit about your finances.

I was living in South Sudan for the past year, but am about to move to Cairo to be more peripatetic. I’m currently resident on my parents’ couch.

In addition to the culture shock of moving to South Sudan, one of the big changes in this job was going from a civil service job—with benefits, longevity, pension, etc. where I didn’t really have to worry about the future—to working for a small company with no pension or other benefits and having to start to think about it.

This is sort of my third career, having done 1) academia, 2) UK civil service in policy, and now 3) international development.

International development is very much something that’s full of youngish people, so I do feel a bit fogeyish worrying about retirement.

Were you working for a NGO in South Sudan, then?

It’s a private consultancy that does research. However, it’s a locally-registered firm that actually started in Juba, and pays on a local salary scale. We work with a lot of NGOs and the UN agencies, but we are for profit rather than funded.

So I went from about £30,000 plus benefits in the UK to less than £10,000 (plus housing) more or less on a whim.

Do you feel like it was a good whim to follow, in retrospect?

Definitely—but also one that I could only take because of existing cushions.

I had bought a flat two years ago in Edinburgh, and that’s now rented out. The money covers the mortgage, so I do have that in the background. And I do have parents who can house me if things go badly wrong.

The job is amazing, and becasue of the cushion I’m able to not think about the money portion of it… except for when I read articles about saving for retirement and get a bit worried.

Although the salary was low, and South Sudan is not that cheap, we did also get a local currency stipend which covered most expenses. But then the black market economy in South Sudan went a bit haywire, so the money which used to last a month as the equivalent of $500 changed to be about $200 of value.

So I ate into my salary a bit more than otherwise, using the USD to change with “the guys” who do money. (One time we desperately needed money for operations, and went to a guy who literally DUG WADS OF NOTES OUT OF THE GROUND to change our money.)

Oh, wow. How does the system of “finding a guy to do money” work? Does everyone find a guy? Or just the international people working on development projects?

That was something I had to learn when I moved! It used to stress me out. I spent the first couple of months in South Sudan as an intern for a different company, getting my stipend in dollars, and I had no idea how to change it into useable money.

So normally you find someone in the international community who recommends a guy. My favourite was a woman in a shop near a restaurant who never really spoke but was very surreptitious, so it felt like being a spy.

Generally there are always people looking to change money because dollars are hard to come by (the bank often doesn’t have any), and many people are supporting family in Uganda/Kenya etc, and South Sudanese pounds (SSP) is no good to them.

Why don’t they pay you in SSP?

My internship was with an international consultancy, and they paid all stipends in dollars, I guess, so staff could take advantage of the black market rate. My current firm does pay all stipends in local currency because we’re locally registered and there are laws.

Got it. So how does the cost of living in South Sudan compare to the cost of living in the UK? What’s more expensive?

Pringles are about $8 in Juba now! (They are my “I am exhausted and cooking is difficult staple.”)

Ha, fair enough. What about rent and cost of living? Were you living comfortably?

So housing is quite expensive, about $1,000 minimum for expat accommodation. Generally, food is imported from Uganda as there’s very little indigenous agriculture because of the ongoing conflicts.

How did your living situation compare to the locals’?

My first house here had solar power that was fine during the day, but didn’t last the night so you’d wake up about 3 a.m. with the fan off, drenched in sweat.

So it wasn’t field conditions or anything, but very hot, no fridge, and cooking on a gas burner. Which meant more eating out that otherwise we might have done–the cheapest pizza is now about $10 in Juba (bank rate).

I then got moved to my own apartment that had power (generator) from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., and an A/C so you could generally cool down enough to sleep.

The fuel costs also went up horrendously, meaning it was difficult to power up the office for long enough and keep the cars filled. So you could buy plastic water bottles of petrol for small amounts, but petrol stations often closed or had horrendously long queues.

For South Sudanese colleagues, the living situations varied. Most would have had generators as well, and fridges, etc. at home, but they would also be more likely to live with families and extended families rather than individually.

For me one big change was medical insurance. I went from the UK with the NHS—and I was in Scotland where even the medicine is free—to buying my own insurance.

Did the expats do the roommate thing, or did most of you want to live by yourselves?

Most expats there are with NGOs/UN, so they’re housed by them. The few of us in private companies varied. There were a couple of shared houses between people (still not much less than $1,000 to share though), but it was mostly set up for individual studios/shipping containers.

Oh, wow—you see the shipping container home in a few U.S. cities where it’s all “hipster cool” but I hadn’t realized it was a thing in South Sudan.

It’s getting less so, but there are still some places where the offices and housing is shipping containers. It used to be that the fanciest hotel in town was all shipping containers.

Most of the UN offices in the PoCs are shipping containers. (PoC = protection of civilians camp.)

I know what PoC is; I used to work for a think tank! 

Ah, okay! Too easy to slip into meaningless acronyms in development…

You’ve mentioned retirement twice so far, so it is clearly on your mind. Do you have any retirement savings at this point?

My parents have recently retired, aged just 60, and I am kind of aware that’s unlikely to be when I get to stop working. Though I am priming my sister’s sons (aged 1 and 3) that they will have the burden of my care on their shoulders.

I have about four years of a civil service pension, and a savings account with £3,000 in it. My flat will be paid off in ONLY 22 years, so that is kind of my savings. I am looking into making voluntary National Insurance contributions to be able to access a state pension.

I did a calculator recently and found out that I would be able to get £35 a week if I retire at 68.

Here’s where I understand less of your lingo because I am not familiar with the UK system. What do you mean by insurance contributions and a state pension?

National Insurance is like a separate tax system that funds our Social Security system. Usually it’s paid straight out of your earnings. The number of qualifying years you’ve paid affects your entitlement to contributions-based benefits like jobseekers’ allowance, employment support, NHS non-emergency care, and state pension.

(You can still get jobseekers allowance and other means-tested benefits if you don’t have income and savings over a certain level.)

I’m a bit hazy on the actual details of the pension, but basically the state supports everyone past 65 (currently, but due to go up) with a small pension, plus things like a winter fuel allowance.

Got it.

So I want to keep contributing to have the state pension, but I also need to start thinking about other forms of supporting myself when I stop working.

Which is at odds with my desire to go on lots of holidays!

So you’ll get £35 a week at age 68, which is clearly not enough, and you are priming the next generation by telling them bedtime stories where the prince and princess bravely support their aging auntie.

Exactly.

What about your life has to change, do you think, for you to get the retirement you want?

I think I need to prioritise savings more. I definitely could start siphoning off salary straight away, which I used to do but stopped with the drop in income.

I am a little worried about moving to Cairo because I will have access to ATMs and credit cards and SHOPS which I didn’t have in Juba. And I am not a huge shopaholic, but I was in a mall in Jordan recently and actually said “oh HELLO” to an H&M store out loud.

Ha! Yes! So tell us about the Cairo plan! What’s prompting the move?

I got promoted!

Congratulations!

I was the Research Manager for our South Sudan office, and I’m going to be the Director of Research Programming for all our operations.

My salary is now just under half of what it was before I moved to South Sudan, but I get to live on a houseboat on the Nile, which is worth it.

I think some of the retirement angst is just that I need to think differently about what it’s going to be like. It was going to be “work for the civil service for 20 years or so, with a great pension, and then retire and live off that comfortably but not extravagantly.”

For some reason I’m picturing your life like one of those movies where a woman moves to a houseboat on the Nile and starts helping people and, like, becomes the hero of the local community and learns how to FEEL WITH HER HEART.

Oh—I don’t help people. I tell NGOs how they are failing to help people with their programmes.

That’s indirect helping! Anyway. Two more questions. First, what has surprised you about Doing Money as an adult?

I grew up with a family mostly in the public sector, so I assumed that you just worked and then your job took care of your pension.

And it’s not like that at all! I have to THINK about it and make actual plans!

And I also realise how much of the planning and advice centres around having a stable partner and children, neither of which are in my plans, so I sometimes get grumpy about having to do it on my own.

True story. All the single ladies put your hands up. Lastly, do you have any advice for Billfold readers?

My advice is:

1) if you work in South Sudan, make someone introduce you to their money guy IMMEDIATELY you get off the plane so you don’t go hungry the first couple of nights because you have loads of USD but no way to buy a chapatti (bitter experience).

2) That there are quite a few cautionary tales about flitting about instead of buckling down when you first start working, and later on doing the pensions and property thing, but actually my way of first pensions and property and then some flitting about is also something that can be problematic.

Though that’s not advice as such, because I wouldn’t have changed what I did, it’s just that you don’t stop having to think about it just because you did the “right” things early on.

Oh —and this year has been the first time I’ve ever had to pay my own taxes, and I recommend not learning to do that in a country with shaky power and internet.

 

Photo credit: Clarence

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