Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Money & Me: 'Facebook helped me clear Dh500,000 of debt'

Sarah Mohamed, a communications director, turned her finances around in two years after a business venture failed

Sarah Mohamed of Quill Communications is now building enough emergency savings to last a year. Antonie Robertson/The National
Sarah Mohamed of Quill Communications is now building enough emergency savings to last a year. Antonie Robertson/The National

Sarah Mohamed is half-Egyptian and half-Filipina and has spent most of her life in the UAE — in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi as a child and Dubai as an adult. She is director of communications for Dubai marketing communications firm Quill Communications and a board member for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), serving as the communications director for the EMENA region. Divorced, Ms Mohamed, 30, lives in an apartment in Damac Hills.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

Both my parents have come from quite a challenging background — my Egyptian father is the son of a building watchman and my mother comes from a family of farmers in the Philippines. They were just starting their professional journey in hospitality in the UAE when I was born (they retired to Alexandria in June after 35 years) so they left me with family in Egypt for two to three years. In grades five and six, they gave me Dh100 a month for lunch at school — Dh5 a day — and I would buy cheap things, like juice, crisps and French fries, and would save some. My younger brother and I were taught the value of money indirectly.

If I have a bad day I fall back to my spender days and make impulse purchases — anything from a new coat to a blender or Hoover.

Sarah Mohamed

How much did you get paid for your first job?

My first salaried job was in public relations for a yacht company and it was Dh2,000 a month. I got paid more before that doing promotional work at Gitex, Dh3,000 for the week. I was working for a computer company and memorised their brochure and software, as I had no idea what a promo girl was supposed to do. By the second year of working at Gitex, I was part of the sales team.

Are you a spender or saver?

I’m much better at saving now than I used to be but, if I’m honest, it depends on my mood. If I have a bad day I fall back to my spender days and make impulse purchases — anything from a new coat to a blender or Hoover. But it’s rare now. I aim to spend 30 per cent of what I earn every year. Hopefully I’ll bring it down to 20 per cent.

Where do you save?

I save in cash … I’m working to build a year’s salary in emergency money, so I’m not thinking of investments — and I’m not sure I want to invest right now, with the way the markets are.

What is your most cherished purchase?

For the past two years, I have made solo trips to Thailand — to Bangkok and the island of Koh Tao — the first holidays on my own. The first cost Dh10,000 (most of that a last-minute flight purchase, timing it to a public holiday) and this summer, it cost me Dh20,000 as I invested in an advanced diving certificate and taking myself out on ‘dates’ to fine dining restaurants.

Have you ever had a month where you feared you could not pay the bills?

So many! I set up my own business at 25, an agency to help other PR agencies with their workload. My first six months I made Dh300,000. But ultimately, I had no clue how to do it and it wasn’t sustainable, even though I had about 70 clients. I hired too many people and some contracts fell through. In 2017, I had to shut it down. I had to cover rent for the office, my apartment, pay salaries, gratuities, to cancel visas, penalties on rent … I ended up Dh500,000 in debt. I put my ego aside and went on Facebook to ask for help. Friends and acquaintances came forward to help, even relative strangers. I made sure it was all paid back (other than a little I still owe my family) by my 30th birthday in July.

Ms Mohamed says her best investment is her scuba diving certificates. Antonie Robertson/The National
Ms Mohamed says her best investment is her scuba diving certificates. Antonie Robertson/The National

What has been your best financial investment?

I don’t really have one but my best investment in general is my scuba diving certificates. I have the Scuba Schools International (SSI) Open Water and Advanced. Scuba diving gives me a whole new world to explore — one that’s much better than the world on land.

What do you most regret spending money on?

I used to try to buy happiness and to buy people with money. I would take clients or friends to Atmosphere in the Burj Khalifa, paying a minimum Dh500 per person. I also used to buy a lot of expensive branded bags and clothes. The most expensive? My Dh3,000 Jimmy Choo gold wedding shoes. Now, I wouldn’t spend more than a few hundred dirhams — and it happens rarely. I regret every dirham and fil I spent on trying to be happier and to be liked.

What financial advice would you offer your younger self?

I would like to tell my younger self to never borrow, not to buy things because you think it'd make you happy or buy things for others to make them like you … but I think my younger self had to discover that. I had a few lost years, but I needed those lost years to remind me to value money. The lesson was quite a hard one, as you can imagine, but it’s one that will stick.

Do you have a financial plan for the future?

No. The past two years have been hectic and I’m trying to get back on my feet. I just bought a car (a used Renault Megane) and I’m happy where I’m working and living, for the first time in a very long time. I’m building the foundations, saving cash and then thinking about what to do next. I owe it to myself to take a break from planning and from money worries.

If you won Dh1 million, what would you do with it?

I would wait for the crisis and then invest it. Absolutely, one is coming. I’d invest in real estate, stocks and mutual funds. I’d love to buy property in both Egypt and the Philippines, so I have my choice of countries one day. I’d buy a holiday home just outside Alexandria, near my parents, and a condo in Manila, maybe a house on an island in the Philippines — a whole island if I could afford it.

What would you raid your savings account for?

If it was invested, only dire emergencies — say, if I needed it for health or my family’s health. The emergency fund I’m saving now, I would use more frequently. For instance, I want to do an MBA in January, and I would use my savings for that as it’s an investment and could bring a good financial return.

What’s your philosophy about money?

I’ve lost a lot of money but I’ve also made it back. Money will always come and go but, if you are creative and resilient enough, you can always make what you lost and more. Don’t worry about money, but don’t take it for granted.

Updated: November 16, 2019 02:35 PM

SHARE

SHARE