Ben Bolger, 31, is a British financial planner in Abu Dhabi who just launched a podcast and YouTube channel The Expat Blueprint. A retired rugby league player, he moved to the UAE eight years ago to play for the Abu Dhabi Harlequins, and captained the national team for two years. He lives on Al Reem Island in Abu Dhabi with physical education teacher wife Vicky, who he met at school, and their four-month-old son Bradley. His brother Sam, a fitness trainer, lives nearby.
Is your attitude to money the same as that of your parents?
Not at all. As a child, we had a rule in the house that we don’t talk about money. My dad, a London black cab (taxi) driver, had a live-for-today mentality. My mum, a special needs support teacher, was the polar opposite – risk-averse, a saver, always looking for offers.
I value the importance of helping Bradley and any future children understand how money can work for you. As I’ve grown into my career, I feel I’m educating my brother, sister and even my mum – she’s been reading my site and asking questions.
How much did you get paid for your first job?
At 14, I was on a part-time professional rugby league contract, earning £50 ($70) a week. I thought I’d made it! I was paid to play! Actually, it didn’t even cover the train fare across London four times a week.
When I went full time, I was earning £18,000 to £25,000 a year, plus match bonuses of £500 a game. There’s a huge discrepancy between rugby league and rugby union. A friend played for London Irish and earned £75,000 a year.
What brought you to the UAE?
I achieved a childhood dream by playing rugby but realised I was only ever going to be a journeyman. I decided to move into finance. There’s an employment site for rugby players. I’d been on holiday to Dubai, so I picked the top two clubs in the UAE and emailed them from this site.
One came back 10 minutes later and said he owned a financial planning company – that’s how I ended up at the Abu Dhabi Harlequins. My brother and I lived together when we played rugby. He moved here about seven months after me; that’s the longest we’ve been apart.
Why did you create The Expat Blueprint?
There’s lots of crazy, unqualified advice here, and I worked pretty hard to achieve the qualifications I’ve got, so I wanted to build an unbiased, trusted resource of information as a starting point for expats.
So often, people have been here three or four years and done nothing with their money. Then there’s a reality check – why did I come here? Not just to have a good time, but also to build something for myself and leave in a better position.
Do you think people need a financial adviser?
If you have the capability to do things on your own, then great. But realistically, the majority of people want some support. The reason people don’t succeed or have the wrong portfolio is because they fail to manage their emotions and behaviours – the same way we all know we shouldn’t eat two tubs of Ben & Jerry’s. I’m biased, but a good financial plan is worth its weight in gold.
Are you a spender or saver?
I’m not a massive spender – I’m not going out to buy flashy watches or expensive cars. Everything revolves around building for my family’s future. Vicky’s been with me a long time and had to sacrifice a lot, travelling around the country to watch me play and moving here.
What do you spend on?
I’m more about experiences – we went to South Africa last Christmas as a family. Vicky and I probably spent Dh30,000 for a couple of weeks in Cape Town.
Do you own property?
We rent a two-bedroom apartment in Al Reem Island. I’ve moved seven times in eight years. My brother and I are in the midst of selling a one-bedroom investment flat in Southend in England. We’re going to switch to higher-yield areas in the north-west, maybe Liverpool, and out of commuter-belt London.
Maybe we will buy something that can be turned from a two- to a three-bedroom house to rent. Financial independence is about building income streams.
What is your most cherished purchase?
I spend a lot on education. Everything I’ve learned in this industry I’ve taught myself, and I wanted to learn this job properly. That’s why I just got the new CISI Level 7 diploma – it’s the highest-level financial planning qualification in the UK. I also just finished my MBA at Cass Business School. That was expensive – it probably cost me close to Dh200,000.
I’m massively into self-development and listen to a lot of books and podcasts when I go for a run. I like to feel that I’m moving the needle as a person, an athlete, a dad. My wife will tell you: I hate the thought of sitting still.
Have you ever had a month where you worried about the bills?
Yes, especially in the early stages of being in the UAE. I stayed with a family in their villa for eight months, and dinners tended to be a shawarma and a banana milkshake eaten in the club car park. I was only on commission – no salary.
Does money make you happy?
It’s never about money itself. Money allows you to have time with the ones you love. It facilitates you to spend more time on the things you want to do.
Are you wise with money?
I think I’ve learned a lot and I’m fortunate to do the job I do. It’s such a massive life lesson that we’re not taught at school. I was earning decent money as a professional rugby player while a student at university. Some weeks, I was earning £500 a game, yet I had a student loan and still ended up with an overdraft.
I thought that’s what we all did as students. I’ve actually reached out to my wife’s school to offer to do a money presentation.
Do you have a financial plan for the future?
I’m long-minded and fortunate enough to do the calculations to know what I need to accrue at certain times in my life to make things happen. I’m chipping away at that goal. I’m happy to work but want to be in a position to slow down and spend more time with my children, perhaps work part-time later so, if Bradley’s playing rugby at school, I can watch.
Any advice for the rest of us?
Work out what your expenses are going to be in retirement and multiple by 25 – that’s the pot you need. When you see that on a piece of paper, things become real. The average retirement income in the UK is just £15,000. That knocks the wind out of expats here. But when we forecast forward, we can say, ‘Now how do we deal with that?’
Perhaps increase contributions now, retire later or reduce income in retirement. That’s what a financial plan is – a benchmark. Your portfolio is the easy bit, but building a plan and committing to it will make sure you’re comfortable in retirement.