Money & Me: 'I've always been a saver but right now I'm in survival mode'

HR consultant Claire Donnelly says she is lucky to have money in the bank to get her through the pandemic

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 04 JUNE 2020. Claire Donnelly is an HR professional and founder of The Alpha Group. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: David Dunn. Section: National.
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Claire Donnelly is a human resources professional who runs HR and business consultancy MHC with her husband. Born in Essex, near London in the UK, Ms Donnelly previously worked for a British supermarket chain, a subsea contracting firm and in telecoms. She lived in Kuwait before moving to Dubai in 2008. Ms Donnelly, 53, recently relocated from Dubai Investment Park to Ras Al Khaimah with husband Mike and their six rescue cats.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

My father was a policeman and my mother worked in retail. Both worked incredibly hard. I have one younger brother and the attitude was, ‘money doesn’t come easily, you have to work for it’ from a very early age. If you wanted something, you either waited for your birthday, Christmas or worked. I never felt I lost anything by not having parents with deep pockets. When you don’t have a lot of money you become money conscious. From that I gained a massive work ethic and independence.

I'm not bothered about the latest this, that and the other. I'm still using an iPhone 5S; if it ain't broke, why replace it?

How much were you paid in your first job?

When I was about 16, I got a Saturday and summer holidays job in the store my mum worked in, for £7 (Dh33) a day. I started my first adult job at 18, an administrative clerk in the Ministries of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for about £5,000 a year. Dad bought the paper and we circled the first job we came to. They put me in personnel [human resources]. That was the beginning of my HR career.

What brought you to the UAE?

Mike joined Al Tayer Group as head of F&B. I joined a start-up, then moved into telecommunications, then oil and gas. Money we put aside from working in Kuwait and our first few years here allowed us to purchase our house, and start our business in 2012. He’s a business consultant/executive coach, I do the HR part; a husband and wife company, keeping it lean.

So you were already a saver?

I’ve always been more saver than a spender. We drive a Pajero that we lease, we don’t go out that often. We’re both ‘unless you really need it, what’s the point of having it’. We’d rather have money sitting somewhere to do what we need it to do when we need it.

As long as I’ve got enough to live comfortably I’m happy. I don’t want to be a multimillionaire, but don’t want to struggle in the future either. I’m not bothered about the latest this, that and the other. I’m still using an iPhone 5S; if it ain’t broke, why replace it?

Does that mindset influence your business?

It’s amazing how lean and efficient you become. You cut back a lot. Working with small businesses, we see mistakes people make. When you’re running your own business, it makes you recognise a lot of things you don’t need, the ‘nice to haves’ and non-necessities.

When you’ve got a salary, you know what you’re getting and when you get it. Managing your own business, there’s no flatness to the curve of income. You can get a long way down the line and a project will be put on hold. It’s a constantly moving ocean of uncertainty.

Did this prepare you for the effects of Covid-19?

We’re lucky we’ve got money in the bank to keep us going through this. You have to have that buffer, because if it’s not Covid, it’s summer, or it’s Christmas. In the first quarter we were down 50 per cent on last year, at a point we were starting to see things pick up business-wise. The second quarter is going to be the same.

A lot of tenders are going out – if some of this is signed we’ll be super busy. For all the freedom you get managing your own company, the constant concern is ‘how much am I getting every month?’ We reduced our outgoings years ago. That reality’s hitting a lot of people now they’ve got to start.

Are you still managing to save?

At the moment we’re not in the position to, we’re in survival mode. The plan is once we moved, reduced outgoings and some stuff in the pipeline converts, we will know exactly how much we need to live on. Everything over that every quarter we’re going to scoop into an account offshore. We also work with a financial adviser, an ex-client of ours, getting decent financial advice. Everything is low risk and perhaps low return, but at least it’s a return.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 04 JUNE 2020. Claire Donnelly is an HR professional and founder of The Alpha Group. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: David Dunn. Section: National.

What is your best investment?

Our three-bedroom town house in DIP was a good investment. We bought in 2010, at the previous low. We’re happy with the price we’ve just sold it for. If we worked out how much we saved in rent versus what we’ve been paying in mortgage … we’ve got something at the end of it and it’s allowing us to put money away for the future, earning additional interest. We walk away with a fair amount we wouldn’t have had we been renting.

But we’re switching to renting again. The cost of living is cheaper in RAK, we’ve been working from home and don’t necessarily need to be in Dubai.

What is your most cherished purchase?

My grandmother passed away just before I relocated to Kuwait. I received £3,000 in the will and knew if I just put that in the bank it would be swallowed up. Mum and I flew to New York. I went to Tiffany’s, Fifth Avenue, and bought a diamond and platinum necklace, nothing ostentatious but I know that money allowed me and mum a trip we’d never go on again, just the two of us, and I’ve a necklace I’ll always remember my grandmother by.

What do you enjoy spending money on?

We’re both passionate about our health. We do a lot of runs and spend on entering them, like 10-kilometre runs. We’re both vegans and cook every day. It’s a stress reliever. We also go to a retreat every year to concentrate on our health.

Have your spending habits evolved with age?

Your lifestyle changes and therefore your attitude to money. Back in the ‘old days’ it was clubbing and brunching … at some point you wake up and think there’s only so many times you can go to these before it becomes boring.

It’s quite humbling to see some of the [pandemic-related] stuff happening. Many people have had salaries reduced or are on no pay. People spend Dh500-Dh600 on a brunch – that could be a month’s worth of food for a person living on the street. It’s a case of understanding the value of money.

Do you plan for the future?

As you get older you have to think how you’re going to be living your later years, and what kind of finances you need for that. When people get to 40-plus and haven’t started thinking about what they’re going to live on in their 60s, 70s, 80s … there’s a problem.

RAK will be for a good couple of years. Our long-term plan is to move to Asia in retirement, live in perhaps Bali or Thailand. I think I’ll end up working most of my life … I get bored easily.