Money & Me: ‘I cultivated the habit of saving to make sure I could follow my dreams’

Soniyaa Punjabi, founder of Illuminations Well-Being Centre, invests half of her monthly earnings into savings

Soniyaa Punjabi, founder of Illuminations Well-Being Centre, says money allows her to pursue her passion, contribute to the community and become the best version of herself. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Soniyaa Punjabi founded Illuminations Well-Being Centre, a platform for holistic healing, mental well-being and personal growth, to inspire people to overcome their limitations and discover their true potential. It has branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

An Indian born in South Korea, she moved to the UAE 14 years ago. Ms Punjabi, 37, lives in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

How were you exposed to money growing up?

My dad went to Seoul, $200 in his pocket with no idea what he was going to do. He became a very successful entrepreneur, making millions in textiles trading and garments, but my childhood was extremely humble – people were not really identified by how much they made.

My parents wanted to give us the life they could not have. We could travel the world, we grew up knowing we had privilege, but at the same time it never really defined my way of life.

How did you adapt to the UAE?

My dad found an opportunity here, went into a completely different area of business and ended up losing his wealth. He had 18 properties all over the world and had to sell them. We went from extremely abundant to really having to struggle.

I was around 16 and thrust into a culture in Dubai where Indians define themselves by their wealth. That is when I felt the limitation of not having spending power as people around me did. I began to understand money as a means to basically do whatever you wanted when you wanted; freedom, basically.

I went to London and my parents could barely pay for my college education. Unconsciously, I made a decision that I would never want to be in this “place” and would have a passion that would allow me to have the abundance I was once exposed to.

Did this encourage financial self-sufficiency?

I started earning from a young age, so I could find the time to discover what it is I really wanted to do. I tried my hand at pretty much everything … exhibitions, events, I modelled from the age of 19 to about 21, print and TV advertisements mainly. I graduated as a graphic designer in visual communications, took up an internship and part-time job here and realised I preferred interacting with people than being behind a screen.

My childhood was extremely humble – people were not really identified by how much they made
Soniyaa Kiran Punjabi, founder, Illuminations Well-Being Centre

How did Illuminations Well-Being happen?

A close friend passed away in a car accident prior to my graduation and I began questioning life. That led me to books on virtuality, yoga, meditation … I went to India where I began my journey as a healer and therapist.

Still doing odd jobs, I would invite healers and practitioners from India here to conduct courses and workshops and decided to make a non-profit event out of it, around 2005 to 2006. These teachers convinced me to make it a business. At the same time, I trained to become a holistic healer and set up my private practice.

Eventually, I decided to create my dream space in JLT. I had built up Dh500,000. I officially launched the first branch in 2011.

What is your spending and saving outlook?

I learnt from my father’s experience that making money is one thing, managing money is another. My dad could sell a comb to a bald person. I inherited his entrepreneurial spirit and had cultivated the habit of saving to make sure I could follow my dreams.

I read that a smart entrepreneur will always have several streams of income, so I decided I would diversify – if one operation went down, I would still be able to fall back on savings and manage my way of life.

How do you grow your cash?

If I earn Dh10,000, at least half is going into savings. I put money aside every month – that I cannot have access to – in stocks and funds. My US and India stocks have done extremely well. Amazon and Tesla have been the favourites. The discipline of saving has yielded a lot of rewards.

I also decided that if I invest more in my company, I could receive a higher return.

What are your smartest investments?

Investing in what I love to do. I launched Illuminations and invested Dh300,000 in the space. I was able to receive a return in less than eight months. The landlord wanted to do a distress deal and sell.

If I did not want to buy, I'd have to move out. However, lease prices were increasing and my clients knew the location. I did not have money to move to another location, so I took the plunge and purchased the property. I am saving so much on rent.

Any financial lessons learnt?

I opened a space in India in 2014 but did not think it through. I lost about Dh200,000. It is important to learn from your failures and how to benefit from failure.

When it did not work out, I found amazing employees and have a successful back-end office there that services our branches and saves me a lot of money in Dubai.

Do you have a money philosophy?

When you are consciously wealthy, money can make you very happy. You are not defined by your money. You have money as a means to help you to do whatever you want to do. It allows you to contribute towards your passion, your community and to help you to become the best version of yourself.

It gives freedom but the minute it starts to own you, that is when you start to lose your happiness. You may have it tomorrow, you may not, and if you do not build self-resilience, it is very easy to become lost in that illusion.

So, riches do not always bring happiness?

Wealth alone does not make you happy. Money can be your greatest liability. I see many privileged people who inherited so much money, who were raised with an entitlement mindset, finding it hard to navigate through life because life owes you nothing; it makes you very ungrounded.

Once you start to define yourself – and other people label you – by how much you have, you tend to have a false sense of who you really are. When those people go through a downturn, they are not able to have the same level of resilience.

Are you wise with money?

I always felt that rather than purchasing that extra handbag or pair of shoes, think twice. That cultivated a culture: today your work might be going really well, but …

During Covid-19, we had to close down for two months. Luckily, because of the culture I had set within the company and myself, it was not much of a downturn. It is all about your priorities and values. While my company might be valued at X amount and my personal wealth at X amount, I only feel I am worth the money I earn on a monthly basis. That is my spending power. It gives you discipline.

What are you happiest spending money on?

I spent a lot when I moved to my own place because it is something I use daily. It is not about the area you live, but making the best out of it.

Also, the luxury of travelling well. I live within my means when I am in Dubai. When I travel, I have more time to spend money, to accumulate experiences – that is invaluable. I enjoy nice handbags, but they are not my priority because when I think about the experience I had when I visited a certain country, it has more value, especially during Covid-19 because we have taken it for granted.

Do you plan for retirement?

From 2017 to 2021, I wanted to put aside money each month, build my personal wealth. It is not crazy amounts so I could retire forever, but it is good enough if I have a rainy day.

I plan for the growth of Illuminations but it has to be a holistic approach. It can't just be growth, growth in your business and your personal life gets cut off short.

Updated: July 11, 2021, 6:25 AM