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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Dubai blogger behind 'I Retired Young' on how he achieved financial independence

Former accountant David Cox quit his career at 48 after building up a sizeable property portfolio

David Cox retired at 48 after having enough of full-time employment. Satish Kumar / The National
David Cox retired at 48 after having enough of full-time employment. Satish Kumar / The National

Deciding to retire at the age of 48 was a decision David Cox made quickly.

Working as an accountant in the UAE construction sector, where he says business continued to be difficult in 2011 and 2012 following the global financial crisis, had taken it out of him.

And one day he had simply had enough.

“I said ‘do I really have to put up with this? I had this light bulb moment where I thought, ‘maybe I don’t, there is an option to stop’,” says the Briton, who first moved to the UAE 12 years ago and quit his job in January last year.

Mr Cox now documents his early retirement on his blog I Retired Young, which details exactly how he manages his finances as a retiree, including breakdowns of his monthly and annual finances.

He will be also sharing his experiences on Saturday in Dubai at a talk entitled" I Retired Young – My Journey to Financial Freedom & Early Retirement in Dubai" hosted by SimplyFI, a non-profit community of personal finance and investing enthusiasts, at Abu Dhabi University's Dubai campus.

However retiring early is not possible for everyone. As a diligent saver, Mr Cox, now 49, had the financial means to quit his career; in addition his wife, a teacher, still works full-time with her package covering the accommodation on their two-bedroom apartment in Sports City, which the couple moved to from a villa last June to cut costs. Another advantage is that his children have moved out of home, with his 22-year-old daughter now employed and his son, 19, studying at university.

"We pay for the costs associated with university (tuition, accommodation and a living allowance), for which we have a fund set aside, so we don’t count it as our normal day to day costs," says Mr Cox, who adds that his wife was supportive his decision to retire young. "As long as I’m happy and we have enough money to live the life we want then she’s fine with it."

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While in the past he had joked about retiring early, he says he had not necessarily been saving toward that goal.

“I have always been a bit of a worrier,” he says. “So I have kind of tried to save money so if something goes wrong we will be okay.

“And in hindsight some of those thought processes were a bit daft, because I've always worked on a catastrophic basis that if I lose my job, it is a complete disaster, but of course you can get another one. I always worried about that so I put money away.”

However, he did not have a regimented savings plan with a certain percentage of his salary set aside each month – instead, he and his wife strove to live a “balanced lifestyle,” where they could do what they enjoyed, but never to excess with any sort of bonus always squirrelled away.

In 2006, with his savings gradually building up, he decided to build a property portfolio, taking a large chunk from the proceeds of the family home in the UK, that had not rented out well since their move to the UAE.

The first investment was a house in St Neots in Cambridgeshire, UK, which they then rented out, with the rest used as a down payment for a house in Dubai in The Meadows – a decision he describes as the “most scary thing” which cost him many nights’ sleep.

“I was so terrified. We didn’t have to buy it,” says Mr Cox. “The property value went up and then it crashed. And we could have panicked and sold before now. And we didn’t, so we made nearly Dh3 million on that property. We sold about three years ago, literally the week before prices started going down. And I think it’s probably gone down 20 per cent or 25 per cent since.”

The couple then used the proceeds of the sale of the house in The Meadows to buy five more rental properties in the UK, and later dipped into savings to purchase another five. In total, they now own 11 properties – six of which are in St Neots, one is in the Midlands, and four are located in the north of England, an area they do not know but bought there based on the rental returns they would offer. They have purchased a 12th property - a ski apartment in France - which is currently under construction that they plan to rent out when they are not using it themselves.

"We did have some mortgages in the past but we paid them off as soon as we could. I really don’t like debt," says Mr Cox, adding that the portfolio provides the family with a monthly income of £5,500 (Dh27,969), £3,700 of which they use to sustain their lifestyle.

Mr Cox now writes about his retirement experiences on his blog I Retired Young. Satish Kumar / Gillian Duncan
Mr Cox now writes about his retirement experiences on his blog I Retired Young. Satish Kumar / Gillian Duncan

In addition, Mr Cox holds a substantial amount in mutual funds, low-cost Vanguard funds and stocks and bonds - though he does not want to reveal the value of his holding - plus another £50,000 in cash.

It was thanks to this financial portfolio, that he felt comfortable enough to retire, but he says he still worried whether he could actually afford to give it all up and what he would do with his spare time.

“I thought it was going to be really expensive because I would have 10 hours every day where I would need to entertain myself and that would cost money," he says.

But instead, it cost him less, partly because the family no longer needed two cars any more and because he has made a number of lifestyle adjustments to ensure they have enough. These include downsizing their home and swapping Spinney’s for Carrefour for the supermarket shop.

His spare time is now spent writing his blog and managing the property portfolio. He has also come to realise he does not need to go skydiving and scuba diving every day as he is comfortable filling his time with chores and meeting friends.

"I spend more time on my blog," he says. "I meet up with friends for coffee, chats and cycling; I do the household chores and I plan the four months of travel we have coming up in the second half of this year.

“I still get up and start doing stuff at 9am until 5pm, so it’s a bit like work,” he says. "Everything I do I choose to do. Sometimes I clean the toilets or the bathroom, and people say that’s terrible but don’t 99 per cent of people in the world do that? It’s just normal."

Mr Cox does not tell others he has retired as it makes him feel old, so when he is asked what he does he tells people he is a lifestyle specialist, “because I am specialising in my own lifestyle,” he explains.

So would he ever go back to work? Perhaps, he says, if work means making money, but never to do anything of a corporate nature.

“There is too much that I don’t like about that type of life,” he says. “But I can see me doing work, but it will be work that I want.”

Mr Cox could see himself and his wife renovating houses in the UK. Whatever it will be, it will not involve tying himself to anything - not even as a freelance consultant.

“If you become self employed or maybe a consultant, you may end up being tied to that and trying to make a success of that.”

Besides, he does not ever foresee a need to earn any more money. They have enough to sustain their lifestyle for the rest of their days.

“We set our budget this year and we are going a little bit over, but in reality if we spent double I think we would probably still be okay.”

David Cox's December expenses

Graphic by Roy Cooper
Graphic by Roy Cooper

Before David Cox gave up work he used to be more relaxed about his expenses. Now, every dirham is accounted for.

He publishes his monthly expenses on his blog to show others how it can be done. His post about his December costs – see the table – shows how the family’s increased spending due to the Christmas period resulted in overshooting the budget by $1,989, at $6,547 in of actual expenses, compared to the budget of $4,567.

“Christmas increased our costs. We bought gifts (for 19 people) and also our grocery bill skyrocketed,” he wrote on his blog.

“Our kids were back home, so we shopped for a family of four again, and also bought treats and more expensive foods. My routine went out of the window and we mostly shopped in the expensive supermarket which costs 20 per cent - 25 per cent more ... ouch!”

While Mr Cox acknowledges that the costs were high in December, he says that is “the reality” of life.

“You get some higher months and some lower months. December happened to have Christmas gifts, Christmas groceries, car insurance renewal and sick pets.”

The post also reveals how the family overspent against its budget in 2017 – with actual costs standing at £50,111 ($61,853), compared with a budget of £44,400 ($54,804). “That doesn’t sound good, it’s 13 per cent over budget,” Mr Cox wrote. Asked how he feels about missing his financial targets, Mr Cox says his budget for the expense target is conservative as it is less than the passive income they receive from their rental properties.

“Therefore, if we overspend a little, it’s not a problem,” he says. “I also think that Dubai can be quite an expensive place so that pushes the spend up now, but we will see some reduction when we relocate in the summer."

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Read more:

Lessons learnt from 'keeping up with the Joneses' in the UAE

20 tips to get your finances back on track in the UAE

Improving financial literacy in the UAE still needs attention

The financial lessons I've learnt after a decade in the UAE

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