Kinan Ismael says that workers often have the will, but not the skills, to invest in their future.
We need the 'psyche' of a saver, National Bonds chief urges
By the time Marie Nelson has covered her rent, school fees and general living expenses, she has little spare cash left for savings.
Rather than put away the 30 per cent of her and her husband's joint income that she would like to, Mrs Nelson only saves Dh6,000 to Dh7,000 a month - which equates to 10 per cent of the couple's earnings.
"Once everything is paid for, there's not a lot left in the pot," says Mrs Nelson, 29, a sales manager from the UK who lives in Dubai with her consultant husband, Alan, 39, and their two children. The couple spend Dh160,000 a year on their four-bedroom villa in Jebel Ali, almost Dh55,000 on education fees for their four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son and Dh30,000 on a full-time maid.
"We started saving this year, which was a big thing because we weren't saving anything before. But although we planned to save 30 per cent of our income, it's just not possible with the current cost of living," says Mrs Nelson, who also has monthly outgoings of Dh4,500 for groceries and Dh5,000 to maintain the couple's two 4x4 cars.
Mrs Nelson is one of the many UAE residents who have a desire to save more but neither the means nor the confidence to do so - a phenomenon illustrated by this week's release of the 2011 National Bonds Savings Index.
According to the study - the second from the Sharia-compliant savings scheme - almost 90 per cent of the 501 UAE residents polled are not confident in their current savings and almost half saved much less than they planned to last year, a rise of 13 per cent on the 2010 index.
The research also shows 86 per cent of respondents believe they do not have enough set aside for the future and 71 per cent say they do not save regularly, with just under a tenth admitting they have not made any attempts to save at all because of rising expenses and debt repayments.
"There has been a slight decline in the UAE's overall savings sentiments apart from the savings potential, which tells us while there is an increased desire to save, people's ability to save is decreasing," says Kinan Ismael, the executive director of marketing for National Bonds. "Factors that affect this include the general economy and the cost of living as well as a person's own outlook to their income, job or financial stability."
The index works by amalgamating the answers to three questions about a person's savings potential, the savings environment around them and their own financial stability in the near future, into three base values that can be used as a reference to measure changes in savings sentiments.
While the overall index score of 99 is a minor decrease from last year's establishment wave, it does illustrate the "healthy saving habits" message that National Bonds is so keen to promote is not getting through.
"The culture of saving is not yet ingrained in the expatriate psyche," says Rupert Connor, a senior financial consultant at Acuma Wealth Management. "As is often the case, people put off organising their own financial affairs, which is ironic as most expatriates will never have a better opportunity to put away savings in a tax-free environment."
This worrying trend towards not saving enough is highlighted further by the nation's higher expenditure on everyday expenses, with 58 per cent of all respondents saying they now spend more on groceries, 40 per cent on transportation and 39 per cent on household items. However, there are clear distinctions between emirates, with Sharjah residents spending more on necessities and Abu Dhabi dwellers spending more on the luxury items, rents and eating out.
"Of course, different emirates are more ostentatious than others," says Mr Connor. "It is a lifestyle choice where one lives and the mentality that comes with that choice. There are certainly more temptations to spend in Dubai and Abu Dhabi than, say, Sharjah and, of course, living expenses are higher."
There are also differences between nationalities. Forty per cent of Emirati and Arab expats save less than a tenth of their income compared with 24 per cent of Asians and 15 per cent of Westerners, who generally save more than other segments of society.
But while saving does not appear to be top of the nation's priority list, whatever their nationality, National Bonds believes there are ways to ensure the message gets through.
"We have seen while there is a willingness to save, there is a lack of understanding of how to save," says Mohammed Qasim Al Ali, the chief executive of National Bonds, which launched in 2006 and now has 622,000 customers representing 200 different nationalities.
In a bid to combat the poor survey results, Mr Al Ali says the company has decided to launch a financial education roadshow later this year to educate different segments of the community on how best to save.
In fact, it's one of many initiatives introduced by the scheme this year as part of its drive to inspire the nation to invest their income more wisely. They have also introduced the Employee Savings Scheme, which allows workers to save a portion of their monthly salaries directly into the scheme. This has attracted 1,200 new customers from companies such as du, Dubai Financial Market and Dubai Airports. There has been the dollar-linked sukuk for customers who prefer to earn dollar returns on their dirham savings and several e-initiatives such as a standing order with banks to make it easier for customers to make direct payments.
But despite its clear commitment to promote a healthy financial future for the nation's residents, Mr Ismael says National Bonds cannot do it alone.
"All these things help us attract customers because they see us as an attractive savings option with the best profit rate on the market, but from a National Bonds perspective we can only do so much," says Mr Ismael.
"It's up to the Ministry of Economy and the Central Bank to look after the well-being of the UAE economy. At the end of the day, we are a company and while we can devise our marketing and educational resources as much as possible to cover these issues, it will never be sufficient to convert the entire nation to saving. And that's why we need financial institutions to educate their own customers as well to this issue."
So how can the wider financial community help foster a savings culture in the UAE?
"The education levels simply do not exist in the local banking sector," says Mr Connor. "But the news that the World Bank has advised the Dubai Government to offer pensions to foreign workers has been enthusiastically received as a step in the right direction for everyone concerned. At the moment, the average expatriate worker has been left with no choice but to make personal arrangements to save for their retirement through offshore investment schemes, or simply go without."
Pension schemes aside, it is still clear that the nation needs to save harder, not only for their retirement but also to meet more immediate demands such as children's education and ensuring they do not get into debt when things go wrong. So what percentage of their income should residents save?
"There is no excuse for anyone not putting away 15 to 20 per cent of their income for a rainy or sunny day. I would say the message needs to be clearer and people need to take a closer look at where they want to be in, say, five, 10 or even 15 years time and plan for it," adds Mr Connor.
For Mrs Nelson, who wants to save for retirement and her children's education fees, having a goal is no problem, but finding the means to save is the roadblock.
"We currently save in an offshore account and whenever I've got a spare Dh200 I save it into the children's National Bonds savings accounts. It's a little savings pot for when they turn 18 and want to buy their first car. But while I want to save a lot more like many of my friends do, it's just not possible at the moment."