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My parents and I live in Dubai, UAE. I’ve recently been accepted into Cambridge university. I am eager to attend but since I’m not a home student, the annual fees there are very high and amount to £50,000 a year and an expected additional £10,000 a year for living expenses.

I am feeling quite guilty about passing this burden on to my parents (they had always planned on paying for college) but I want to judge how big of a burden this would be on them. I have an option of attending a slightly less expensive university which is about £35,000 a year without living expenses. The length of both courses is 3 years.

Through my interactions with them over the years, I have gained insight into their finances but only titbits of information and I don’t know the whole picture. They earn a combined total of about 160,000 dirhams a month or about 1,920,000 dirhams a year (£412,000). I think the UAE is tax-free but I’m not completely sure about this. Additionally, they spend about 180,000 dirhams annually on the house (£40,000). They don’t have any significant investments. I’m not sure about other living expenses. I also have a younger brother who is 3 years younger than me.

What worries me is although they have always talked about paying for my education, they tend to be quite conservative in their spending otherwise. For example, we always fly on the cheapest flights and my parents plan well in advance even for flights that have quite small fares. I don’t know if this is due to their personality/values or due to personal finances. However, I feel their income is quite high for this to be an issue to be worth spending time on.

Please can you help me understand their condition better so I can make an appropriate decision. Information on potential expenses that I can’t see and general understanding of living expenses as an adult will be appreciated.

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    There's not enough information to know their financial situation - and it seems quite likely you know less than you think they do. If they earn 420k annually, they have investments (earn that salary for 5 years at the expenses you have listed, and they would have likely many millions tucked away), and the fact you think they don't, means there's a lot you are not aware of. Whether that's something you should even consider is maybe a question of relationship dynamics with your parents, not really a question of finances. Feb 27 at 20:04
  • @Grade'Eh'Bacon Yes this is exactly what worries me. This is why I was wondering of potential things that I am not aware of. Could you give some examples? For context, they are both highly qualified doctors on a salary and are not business owners. Could the living cost of Dubai be a factor?
    – Boson
    Feb 27 at 20:09
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    You just don't know enough to even approach answering this question. That's not a problem you have to solve. Many parents hide financial information from their kids. Personally I think openness about finances is very good for helping your kids, but that is not universal, and is heavily influenced by the culture someone comes from [earning probably in the .1% of world incomes and being tight with money, is possibly a sign your parents are part of such a culture]. Feb 27 at 20:13
  • "although they have always talked about paying for my education, they tend to be quite conservative in their spending otherwise." - you need to turn your prepositions around! To my guess, in order that they will be able to pay for your education, therefore they are quite conservative in their spending generally
    – AakashM
    Feb 28 at 16:58

2 Answers 2

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They're Probably OK

If your parents tell you they can afford your college, believe them.

The median income in the US is about $75k. Table C-1 from this US CBO document implies that your parents would be in the top 5% of earners in the US. Obviously the context is different in the UAE, but I imagine they are still probably doing well there.

I do doubt that your 40k annual cost of housing is correct -- that number would be very unusual in the rest of the developed world [most people in the US pay ~20%-30% of their income for housing, and this is less than 10%]. Although if they've paid off the house and that's just taxes and maintenance that might make sense.

In my mind, this is one of the most important aspects of going to college. I didn't really understand finances until I was trying to pay my own expenses. Keep asking questions.

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    RE: 40k housing. First, housing expense ratios don't scale to somebody in the 1%+. There's only so much house you need. Second, in Islamic countries, like the UAE, mortgages are far less common than in the West. 70-80% of Dubai real estate is purchased outright in cash. A major factor is due to Islamic restrictions on charging interest. Thus, if they have a huge house, 40k/year can come from ongoing ownership expenses, without capital expenditure.
    – user71659
    Feb 28 at 22:56
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    @user71659 - It's certainly possible that OP's parents are only paying 40k / year for housing. In the US salaries and costs of living tend to be tightly coupled - to make 400k you'd basically have to live in NYC, SF, DC, etc where housing is expensive. If housing is cheaper in UAE, or if OP's parents have paid more / all up front then it makes more sense.
    – codeMonkey
    Feb 29 at 14:11
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You do not have an inherent right to more information than they are willing to give you.

Ask them how much tuition they can afford, for how many years. Take their word for it

Remember that you can almost certainly afford more than that amount by taking out student loans, plus you can bring costs down if you can qualify for scholarship money, plus you can produce some money by finding a job you can work during the school term. I did some of all three.

To qualify for scholarship money, the school may want to ask your parents about their finances. That's between them and the school unless they bring you in on it; just pass the request along and tell them who to talk to in the finance office.

If you really want to know for the sake of knowing, I think your best approach would be to remind them that very soon you're going to be managing your own money, and seeing the approaches they have used would teach you a lot. They may still say no, but that's a better argument than trying to second-guess them in the tuition budget.

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  • In my case the answer was "If you can get into a top school, we'll figure out how to make the finances work. If not, the state school is nearby, respectable, affordable, and we know you can get tuition assistance there."
    – keshlam
    Mar 1 at 2:58

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