How overseas Filipinos can win the battle against unbearable utang

San Francisco (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Tony Ranque worked for years in Saudi Arabia where he faced a dilemma other overseas Filipinos have probably encountered: The longer he worked abroad, the bigger his debt grew.

¿Imagine the worst situation, when my credit cards, all five of them, were used up to their maximum credit limits," he told me.

Eventually, overwhelming financial burden combined with the strain of separation led to the collapse of his marriage.

Today, Tony is one of many Filipinos using their experiences to take on a pressing need: Helping other overseas Pinoys and their families become smarter with money and debt.

There¿s so much to explore on this subject. Readers have helped me do just that by sharing their own stories on their struggles with financial burdens - particularly with unbearable utang.

One U.S. reader tells of a Pinay whose relationships failed over disagreements over her desire to send US$700 a month to her family back home.

Another reader spoke of Filipinos who worked on cruise ships who told him how ¿the amount they sent [to families] amounted to nothing later on." One of them turned to drinking to forget his anger and frustration, he said.

An OFW from Saudi also wrote me about how she moved to the Middle East in order to pay off her debts, but the process has taken longer than she expected. She¿s struggling to explain to her family ¿why I¿m not sending much," she said.

But she¿s also gearing up ¿toward the positive side," she added, ¿after having the strength to say NO to some requests."

By the ¿positive side," she meant that state in which she¿s in control of her finances. It¿s an important state to be in as the world slips into another time of economic uncertainty.

Dr. Macky Galvez, a pediatrician based in Manila, spoke of his own work with OFWs and their families, in a local cooperative. That experience brought home a key realization.

¿OFWs should and must undergo financial literacy to protect and harness their money which is more often lost and squandered," he said.

Let¿s affirm a key premise here: Overseas Filipinos perform a vital role by sending money back home to help their families. But there¿s also a growing need for families to find better ways to manage funds coming from abroad.

And we¿re not talking about totally avoiding debt. In many cases, as I¿ve noted, debt is necessary to meet a need.

But there¿s such a thing as smart debt and dumb debt. Worse, there is unbearable utang - debt that becomes so overwhelming that overseas Filipinos end up wearing themselves out as they find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle.

Charito Basa, an OFW advocate based in Europe, listed four general principles for overseas Filipinos and their families (which actually applies to everyone in this time of crisis):

Have a budget and stick it to it no matter what

¿There¿ll be special requests from family and friends that will tempt migrants to deviate from their budget," she says. ¿Be firm. People will eventually understand that they are doing it for the good of everyone."

Save first, before spending (not the other way around)

Set aside a fixed amount for savings. Charito recommends at least 10 percent of one¿s income. She and Tony Ranque point to the tested formula for sound personal finance management: Income minus Savings equals Expenses.

¿Saving a portion of your income is a must, not an option," Tony says. ¿If you cannot develop the habit of savings which is founded on discipline, force yourself to save by getting pension plans and other types of pre-need plans."

Have insurance (health, education, retirement, pensions)

¿When done through reputable companies, insurance plans can guarantee that needs are attended professionally and that funds are available when most needed," says Charito.

Stay away from ¿get-rich-quick¿ schemes

This rule also applies to everyone.

Imagine this: Someone¿s offering you some investment plan with eye-popping returns. Sounds tempting. But the smart approach is to ask very tough, detailed questions. Or simply walk away. Chances are it¿s either a wild scheme, or even a scam.

There are many groups offering financial literacy training to overseas Filipinos and their families.

Charito cites the work of Atikha Overseas Workers and Communities Initiative which gives hands-on budgeting training. The group also conducts training sessions for overseas workers on such topics as ¿How to say NO," ¿When to say NO," and ¿Why the need to say NO."

For some Filipinos like Tony Ranque, getting out of the debt cycle meant making tough, even painful, decisions.

This happened when he turned 50 several years ago. Frustrated with the seemingly endless cycle of work and debt, he began setting a different course.

¿I slowly paid all my debts until I was debt free." He then quit his job in Saudi Arabia, and started all over - back in the Philippines.

He invested his savings, including starting an e-learning center/Internet café in his hometown in Bohol.

Tony¿s story may be unique. Other Filipinos, especially those helping out families with serious needs, may have a harder time breaking out of the cycle. But his experience at least shows there¿s a way out for others.

Tony eventually became a regular speaker at financial literacy seminars geared to overseas Filipinos and their families. During one seminar, he told his audience about some of his former fellow workers in Saudi Arabia who, to his surprise, asked to be rehired in that country - even after they had reached retirement age.

¿Sino kaya ang mas mapalad sa ngayon? Ako na nakauwi na, na ang buhay ay halos masasabing ¿isang kahig, isang tuka?' O iyong mga dati kong kasamahan sa Saudi na inabot na ng retirement age doon eh nagpa-rehire pa?" (¿Who¿s luckier? I who was able to come home and now lives a simple life? Or my former colleagues in Saudi Arabia, who ended up working there until they retired ¿and now is asking to be re-hired?")

He makes less money now than when he was working abroad, Tony told me. But he¿s happier. ¿I believe I am now living a more fulfilling life than ever before."

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