x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Age-old dilemma for expats

For many expats the decision to return home can be far more complicated than the one they took when first deciding the move to a foreign country.

The spending habits that can come with an expat's salary in the UAE may be very difficult to abandon after returning home. Sarah Dea / The National
The spending habits that can come with an expat's salary in the UAE may be very difficult to abandon after returning home. Sarah Dea / The National

For many expats, the decision to return home can be far more complicated than the one they took when first deciding on moving to a foreign country.

While returning to a home nation to enjoy a missed lifestyle may relieve homesickness, it may not provide any relief to a bank balance.

The UAE and the Middle East have long symbolised a region where expats can enjoy greater financial rewards and new opportunities.

According to HSBC's Expat Explorer Survey 2012, almost seven out of 10 expats in the UAE moved here for that very reason (along with eight out of 10 expats in Qatar and seven out of 10 in Saudi Arabia).

"The sentiment is the same across the Middle East. Expats come here to earn money. If it wasn't for the higher salary and the tax-free element, the majority wouldn't be here," says Richard Taylor, a chartered financial planner at PIC Middle East.

"However, it is amazing how people come here with the objective to save and end up doing exactly the opposite. They either save nothing or find they can't command the same salary elsewhere and they've got used to an artificially high income. It makes it much harder to go back. Effectively they have become hostages to their salary and they are trapped here."

While Mr Taylor says the biggest risk for UAE expats is the temptation to spend all of their earnings on fancy restaurants and big cars, elsewhere in the Middle East the spending opportunities do not come with the same frills.

Take Saudi Arabia. While 76 per cent of expats polled expect to earn more money there, Saudi Arabia ranks near the bottom for expat experiences. Expats complain that their social lives have suffered and say there is little for families to do, with 63 per cent complaining that their children watch more television since moving to the kingdom.

As a result, almost a third are looking to leave, with the majority preferring to go home rather than move to another expat posting.

But the financial draw of a tax-free lifestyle leaves families in a quandary.

For the financial adviser Frank Reilly, this is a scenario he sees too often. Mr Reilly is the chief executive of the San Diego-based Reilly Financial Advisors, which manages assets for 600 clients, a third of whom are Americans living and working in the Middle East.

He tells how one American couple was deadlocked about when to move home from Saudi Arabia. The husband felt strongly about staying longer to boost their retirement nest egg, but the wife was unhappy and ready to quit.

The husband worked for a large oil company, which would pay employees' health insurance post-retirement once they reached the age of 50 and had worked for the company for 10 years. He had five more years to reach that mark, and the couple agreed they should stay at least that long. But deciding what to do after the five years was causing tension.

"They didn't have any facts on whether they could or should stay, and it was putting a huge strain on their marriage," says Mr Reilly, who asked the couple to fill out a questionnaire to assess their retirement goals.

The couple's most important goals were for the husband to retire at 60 and to spend their retirement travelling.

They had about $700,000 in retirement savings and were hoping to boost their savings to a total of $3.4 million by the time they retired.

While the husband's IT job in Saudi Arabia earned them $225,000 annually, they estimated he would earn only $50,000 per year in their rural US hometown.

Based on those facts and figures, Mr Reilly presented the couple with three scenarios.

In the first, the couple could move back to the US in five years and not make any changes to their planned retirement lifestyle. But the significant drop in income would require the husband to keep working until 65.

In the second scenario, the couple would stay in Saudi Arabia for 10 more years, ensuring they easily saved enough.

For the final option, the couple would stay five more years, until the husband was 50. He would go back to the US to work, but to retire by 60 they would need to halve their estimated $8,000 in monthly retirement expenses.

The couple chose option three, agreeing to make cuts on their future expenditures as well as their current spending to help them save more.

The compromise pleased both of them and they told Mr Reilly he had saved their marriage.

"I don't ever want to tell clients that they need to work to 65," he says. "It's about being an honest source of information, so they can make decisions for themselves."

Mr Reilly's measured advice is certainly something UAE expats can take notice of. While almost one in seven expats is earning more money since relocation, a higher-than-average proportion - compared with other countries ranked in the HSBC survey - are looking to leave because of rising living costs and family needs.

Mr Taylor advises expats to consider the consequences of leaving.

"It pays to stay that little bit longer and save a bit harder to make going home less painful," he says. "People always ask me how much I should be saving and the general rule of thumb is that you should save half your age as a percentage of your income.

"However, I think they should aim for 40 per cent of their income. I know many would baulk at that figure but people here are living in a parallel universe. Their economic worth is so much more than it would be anywhere else and it becomes much harder to go home.

"It's very easy to go up a level but once you've got used to a certain lifestyle, it's soul-destroying to go backwards."

* with Dow Jones Newswire