I receive many requests for financial assistance. Many of them are from complete strangers who either “know” me through this column or are my Facebook “friends.” I have been asked to fund education, graduations, weddings, house building projects, land acquisition and even travel abroad. Most of the aid-seekers are probably genuine about their requests, though it is always hard to tell a scam-artist from a misguided correspondent.
During my visits to Uganda, I am frequently accosted by people who expect me to hand over cash, with some not even bothering to tell me its intended use. Many have ordered me to buy them alcohol. I always refuse to do so, for I neither consider alcohol to be a lifesaving remedy nor do I wish to be an enabler for a struggling brother’s addiction. I have at times been abused and cursed by people whose demands I have declined.
One man who had come to attend my mother’s funeral in July 2013 asked me to pay for re-roofing his house. When my older brother died nine months later, the same man pressed his demand again. I refused. His frown was an essay on entitlement.
Whereas I am a crusader against such bad cultures, the main reason for declining people’s requests and demands is a practical one. I simply do not have the money to spend on things outside my budget. I know there is an old myth that we who live and work in the developed world have a lot of money. That myth is enhanced by the false belief that people in certain professions, mine among them, are rich.
The truth is that I am not financially rich at all. I am very rich alright – rich in spirit, a contented soul, rich in family ties and love, rich in friendships and utterly happy living the life I have – but I am not loaded with cash. I afford to live comfortably because I am a very careful husband of my investments and of the money that remains after the Canadian taxman has taken more than 50 cents of every dollar I earn.
Prudent fiscal responsibility is a practice I urge young Ugandans to adopt the moment they start receiving money from any source. Routinely save 5 to 10 per cent of all income before spending the rest. Invest wisely. Trust me. You will need that money one day. There is no escape from that need.
Second, live within your means. It is simple mathematics. How much do you earn after taxes? How much do you spend? Ignore public opinion and comment. Do not spend Shs2,000 for every Shs1,000 that you earn. Do not try to keep up with the Okellos, Mugishas and Mukasas. Just keep up with yourself by having a very clear idea of what your real needs are, distinguishing them from your wants.
For example, all that a university or college student needs is an education, a certificate of graduation and a list of good job interviews. She does not need a graduation party.
A young couple in love, having decided to get married, do not need an expensive wedding party. Wise are they who keep it simple, with a very small guest list. They certainly do not need multiple ceremonies that are neither culturally mandatory nor a prerequisite for a happy marriage. Likewise, a wedding guest only needs to be clean and respectfully dressed. She does not need a designer dress or new shoes. There is nothing wrong with wearing the same dress at five successive weddings. It is a wedding, not a fashion show.
A bereaved family needs time to mourn and bury their dead, not to spend a fortune on expensive caskets and food and flowers and all the stuff that Ugandan funerals have morphed into. (More on this in a future column.)
Unless your doctor prescribes it, Tingasiga, you do not need a daily drink and roast meat at your favourite joint. You certainly do not have an obligation to buy “a round” of booze for all members present at your table. It may cost you “just a little money” each time, but it adds up to a fortune lost.
Likewise, you do not need to offer a feast to lunch or dinner guests in your home, not even your in-laws or bishop’s entourage. Why do you serve - at one meal - sweet potatoes, Kigezi (“Irish”) potatoes, millet bread, chapati, rice, pork, beef, goat’s meat, chicken, fish, groundnuts, beans, peas, ntula, spinach, malakwang and muzigo Muganda (soft cheese from Nkore cows’ milk). It is lunch, not an agricultural show.
Then there is the car, that money hungry contraption that many consider an indispensable signature of success. How much do you spend on fuel and maintenance every month? How much of that fuel generates revenue for you? How much do you spend on boda boda or other taxi rides? Could you get to your destination by walking? Is carpooling an option when you go to bury your friend’s cousin’s husband’s sister’s father-in-law in Rukungiri District?
Can you live without a car? I have lived without one for two years now. I live in a community where the car is an essential tool because we do not have public transport to my neighbourhood. However, when my 10-year-old car died, I could not afford to buy a replacement right away. I had other projects and obligations to meet.
My wife kindly agreed to offer me rides to and from my work, much to her inconvenience at times. I am saving money to buy a car when I can afford to, not because society expects me to. It does not matter to me what people’s imagination and expectation of a mythical doctor’s lifestyle must be.
I share this message in the hope that younger Ugandans may avoid the dangerous path taken by many of their seniors, and by their government, which has borrowed, and borrowed, and borrowed to spend money without much regard for the burden that must be borne by future generations.
Save as much as you can today. Invest the money for the long-term with a goal of becoming financially independent. You will not need to beg anyone to pay for your needs and wants. A time will come when you can afford to spoil yourself with all your wants. However, it takes hard work, financial prudence and patience.