Money & Me: 'I want to be financially independent by 40'

Entrepreneur Dana Al Sharif says making the right financial decisions for her family keeps her up at night

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Urban RetrEAT founder, Dana Al Sharif at Yas Mall. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
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Dana Al Sharif is the co-founder of Urban RetrEAT, a food incubator she rolled out in Abu Dhabi a year ago. Based on Yas Island, the food court concept, which has vendors offering everything from Venezuelan to Emirati street food, is a community, bringing together aspiring new businesses and helping support local talent. Ms Al Sharif, 34, moved to the UAE from her native Amman, Jordan, in 2008, to follow her foodie passion after graduating with a degree in agri-business. In 2013, she set up the Calle Tacos food truck in Dubai. The entrepreneur lives in Motor City, Dubai, with her husband and two children — a son, 7, and daughter, 5.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

For as long as I remember my father owned his own businesses. Throughout my childhood he had multiple projects of his own, some of which were successful and others not as successful. He always taught my siblings and I the value of money, enlisting our help in the family business and giving us a small wage. It taught me that money doesn’t grow on trees. Having worked hard to earn my money at a young age, I think hard before buying things that aren’t necessities.

I have a lot of retirement goals and am always conscious of that when I want to buy something.

How much were you paid in your first job?

I worked part time as an office receptionist at a small IT company in Amman. It was during my first year of college and my monthly salary was 150 Jordanian dinars (Dh750).

What is your most cherished purchase?

When it comes to expensive purchases, I’d rather spend money on experiences. In 2017, I planned a trip with my family to Cancun, Mexico, with my parents and children. We stayed in a beautiful house on the beach and we have so many wonderful memories from that trip. This is how I treat myself; through travel.

Where do you save?

I try to save on more expensive items that people would consider luxuries such as big brand clothing and accessories. I save in a bank and convert it later to real estate. I do my shopping at Spinneys and Carrefour but I save money by bulk buying and finding offers, especially on things we use a lot of like detergents.

What's the best way to eat out cheaply? 

Eat out less often.

Are you a spender or a saver?

Definitely more of a saver. I have a lot of retirement goals and am always conscious of that when I want to buy something. If it is not important to have, I'd rather save the money. One of my main goals is to be financially independent by 40.

What is your biggest financial milestone?

In our 20s my husband and I made some smart investment decisions which means that by the age of 30 we were able to buy and fully pay for an apartment in Jordan. This investment is still providing us with a steady annual income.

What has been your best investment?

I’ve made a few sound investments with my husband including real estate, business start-ups and even in digital currency, however, none of them have been wildly more successful than the others.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Urban RetrEAT founder, Dana Al Sharif at Yas Mall. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Have you ever struggled to pay the bills?

Absolutely. When I first married and moved to Dubai 12 years ago, we were young and I was still looking for a job. We had to rent a house, furnish it and get used to life in Dubai. At that time we had several months where we feared we could not pay bills. Everything was so expensive. I remember living in a one-bedroom in Dubai Marina for Dh160,000, and as rent payments usually came in two annual instalments, we found ourselves under pressure to make the second payment. We had to be very careful with our spending for a couple of months to make sure the cheques cleared.

How did you cope?

We planned our monthly expenses and set categories for expenses and saving. We do not spend from any category at the expense of another category, hence in months where we have a financial change in our investments or a big change like moving jobs, it crunches our expenses allowance as we ensure we keep our savings untouched as much as possible. We split our spending based on annual income; accommodation up to 25 per cent, car up to 15 per cent, groceries and home supplies 10 per cent, entertainment 10 per cent, eating out 10 per cent, other expenses 10 per cent, savings 20 per cent. Now that we have kids, a lot of savings and other income goes to schools and kids-related activities.

Do you use a financial adviser?

I’ve met a few financial advisers but have not found the right fit yet. For the time being I make my own financial decisions.

Do you have any financial regrets?

As a rule, I do not have regrets, I learn a lot from my experiences and apply them in my future decision making. One important lesson I learnt is never to go with the ‘cheapest’ option.

Do you pay off your credit card every month? 

When I had my first job I was offered a credit card. I used — or misused it — and suffered for months afterwards. I ended up not being able to pay the bank on time, which resulted in a payment plan that took a year to pay off. I do not use credit cards anymore; I'd rather pay in cash or use my debit card. It was a hard lesson I’ll never forget.

Do you plan for the future?

Ensuring we make the right decisions for our family is what keeps me up some nights. My husband and I have clear plans for retirement and the kids’ upbringing, and every financial decision we make is another drop in that bucket. I’m working hard to achieve my plans for my family’s future. The plans may change along the way but ultimately, I know what our goal is.

How much do you have in your wallet right now?

I am not a cash person, I usually pay with my debit card. It is so easy now, paying with a tap.

What car do you drive?

I’ve been driving my Toyota Prado since 2013.

What luxuries are important to you?

With the current global economic climate, I consider being able to travel a luxury. Travel always gives more than it takes; it leaves you with experiences and memories and sometimes helps in shaping the way you look at life. I love to find authentic experiences like going to the local markets, experiencing new things like going to tobacco farms in Cuba or working in rice fields in Vietnam. I also love staycations with the family. My favourite was about 18 months ago when we went to Qasr Al Sarab Anantara. There is something magical when you spend your time in the desert. It just lets you disconnect from the daily hustle and bustle.