While many might be tempted to spend heavily, these winners all adopted a sensible approach after their payouts
UAE's big cash prizewinners offer tips on managing the urge to splurge
Like many people who win big prizes, Mariam Ahmed initially thought it was a prank.
The news she had become a millionaire came in a phone call in early January from one of the senior directors of National Bonds, who challenged her to guess how much she had won.
“I went up to Dh1,000 and he kept pulling me up and up and up,” says Ms Ahmed, who is from Pakistan originally, but moved to the UAE from Canada 15 years ago.
“When he said it was a Dh1million, I was thinking any second he is going to say 'it’s a bluff'. This was completely not even in my wildest dreams. I really didn’t believe it.”
Ms Ahmed told her husband, who also thought it was a joke, then called her mum, who advised her to ring the police. But after making several calls to validate the news, she finally accepted it.
Big prize wins abound in the UAE, where chances to net a big payout can be found at banks, shopping malls and even petrol stations.
But how do UAE residents handle their windfalls? Do they spend it all or save it carefully for a future need?
Before her big win, Ms Ahmed, for example, had never won more than a series of smaller prizes of between Dh100 and Dh500 through National Bonds.
“I was walking around with a big smile,” says Ms Ahmed, about her jackpot moment. “You just don’t expect these things. When I told the people at National Bonds they said it’s pretty standard to not believe that it’s them, that your luck could be so good.”
And after treating her extended family to a “very nice” dinner, she got back to normal life. She was tempted, but did not splurge – not even on a fancy bag, she says.
“I was very tempted. But I controlled my urges. I have been very sensible about it,” she says, explaining how she split the winnings between various investments, and has poured the majority into her pet salon, Pets in the City.
The entrepreneur already had some plans to develop the business later in the year when she won the money. And the win meant she could go ahead with the remodel and expansion of the mobile grooming services.
“This will feed us into the next plans,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that it will change my life but it’s going towards the business. It will help with the growth of the business. So hopefully that in the long run will affect us,” she adds.
Other winners have also adopted the sensible, like Ms Ahmed, when it comes to spending their cash.
Take Marc Khoury, 72, a Canadian national who won US$1m twice in the Dubai Duty Free Millennium Millionaire draw - once in March 2004 and again in October 2009 - through a strategy of buying two to four tickets each series.
Already earning good money, he already enjoyed some luxuries, so did not feel the need to splurge.
“I was the general manager for an American company for the region. So I wasn’t too bad off,” says Mr Khoury, who splits his time between Cyprus, Montreal, and the UAE.
“Obviously $2m is not exactly peanuts and you can do a lot with it, but when you have nearly everything, you don’t go trigger happy.”
However, the money did offer his retirement portfolio some reinforcement, he says.
With a pension already in place, he allocated a sum for his children to be paid out monthly over a few years in case something happened to himself or his wife.
And then he chose to invest the rest in precious metals and property. “Not Bitcoins and all this rubbish. I have a few brain cells left and I use them,” he says.
But for some people, winning big can change their lives – immeasurably.
Santheesh Kumar, 46, from Kerala in India, was a member of a syndicate of 10 people in his workplace who won $1m in the Dubai Duty Free draw in February. They each put in Dh100 each month to buy a Dh1,000 ticket from the airport each time one of them goes on holiday.
He has lived in the UAE for 15 years and works as a helper for a printing company, earning Dh8,000 a month.
He heard they had won while on holiday in India visiting his sick mother.
“One of my colleagues in the [syndicate] called me. I didn’t believe him at first but then I checked and I believed him,” he says.
He plans to spend his $100,000 share of the prize building a three-bedroom house back home in Kerala for his family. It will be the first property he has owned himself, as his wife and 15-year-old son currently live with his parents.
He aims to start building it in the next few months, although he has no intention of leaving the UAE any time soon.
“Building a home back in India will give me a smart bank balance. I will keep working in the UAE because it is my second home,” says Mr Kumar, adding that he plans to stay for a few more years.
" I have been working here for the last 15 years and my boss is a very nice person, so I want to continue working with him.”
However, the one thing all the winners share is their feeling of luck.
“It’s really amazing. I have never won anything before,” says Mr Kumar.
Ms Ahmed had never considered herself lucky before the win. But her opinion has since changed. “It could happen to anybody,” she says. "It does happen.”
However, Rasheda Khatun Khan, a wealth planner and founder of Design Your Life, advises only using spare money when entering a prize draw.
"These draws are a game and should not deemed as an investment avenue. The chances of winning, though possible, are very low, so only use money you can afford to lose" she says.
When it comes to prize-linked savings accounts, where residents can save their money and be in the chance of winning cash prizes. Ms Khatun Khan advises storing your emergency fund in there. "That way you have immediate access to the money if you need it," she adds.
Mr Khoury is arguably the luckiest of all after winning two $1million prizes – and more on the lotto in Greece recently, albeit less than he won in Dubai.
“After winning a couple of million dollars on the Duty Free and a few pennies on the lotto and having a wonderful wife and two wonderful children, yes, I am lucky,” he says.
“The luckiest part is my family, to be honest. I have been married 40 years and you don’t see that many people married for 40 years, happily married. Maybe there is someone looking after me out there.”