Money & Me: 'We contracted coronavirus but our finances haven't suffered'

While Covid-19 affected lighting designer Jaspal Bal directly, quarantine is helping him save up to Dh7,000 a month

Jaspal Money & Me

Jaspal Bal, 39, is a British lighting designer who moved to Dubai 11 years ago. A year ago, he set up his own business, Light Link, based out of Dubai Marina Plaza, with clients including Snap and PwC. Mr Bal lives in his own three-bedroom villa in Arabian Ranches with his maths teacher wife Reena and 10-month-old daughter.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude to money?

A lot of people influenced me – a mix of savers and spenders. I’ve always been drawn to people who are successful but know how to have fun – spontaneity costs money. My mum and dad were factory workers and we moved around when I was a child, from Birmingham in England to northern Punjab in India when I was two, then back to England, to Derby and then to Nottingham. Then we got our own grocery stores. I spent my life living above shops in inner-city areas and my siblings and I (my older sister and younger brother) would help out a lot, either in the shop or going to the Cash & Carry to get stock.

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Financially we are not paying gym or nursery fees, not going out and cooking a lot more at home, so it has not been a strain: we're saving Dh5,000-Dh7,000 a month.

Were you paid for the work?

It was a family business so, no. My first paid job was at McDonalds as a 16-year-old on the British minimum wage then. I still remember it – £2.88 (Dh13.47) an hour. I didn’t go to university until I was 21 and then I moved to London to pursue graphic design. I ended up doing security work at the Disney headquarters and then got a job with a lighting company. They took me on because I had a creative side and taught me the technical side of lighting.

What led you to the UAE?

I was working for a consultancy in London and could see things were going downhill as projects started to get put on hold in 2008. A friend in the industry knew someone in Dubai. I’d never been to Dubai but looked at some images online and thought, ‘that looks good'. I had a phone interview and was offered a job at the end of the call. By December 2009 I was packed up and ready to go but then I got a call to say my job in Dubai had been put on hold – but by then I’d quit. Luckily, three weeks later they asked me to come over. Two months after that, I was moved to Sharjah and my salary was cut by 30 per cent. I didn’t recover that salary for several years [as] it became the industry benchmark.

Why did you set up your own business?

I felt the need to do something with my life that was more fulfilling and that gave me more freedom in the long term. Being a good salesman is a fast-paced and, at times, stressful lifestyle. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it at the highest level forever, so I needed a contingency plan: to manage and grow a business my way. Having had a good career in sales, I was able to save to fund the business myself – and have control over it by self-funding. For the first six months, I didn’t pay myself as I wanted to ensure my staff were taken care of before anything else. I only paid myself when the business was funding itself. It was very close to the bone: if it wasn’t funding itself by then, we would have run out of money. Luckily we didn’t.

How has Covid-19 affected your finances?

We have personal experience with it, as my family contracted the virus in May. We don’t know how we got it, as we have only been to the shops and back and we have been very careful, especially with a baby in the house. It goes to show how contagious it is. Thankfully my daughter was only sick for two days with a fever. My wife and I were sick for around six days. It was like having a flu but with a loss of taste and smell for a week. We have been self-isolating for a month, to be on the safe side, and now have negative test results. Financially we are not paying gym or nursery fees, not going out and cooking a lot more at home, so it has not been a strain: we’re saving Dh5,000-Dh7,000 a month.

Has it affected your business?

As I had to self-isolate, I relied heavily on my staff to take more responsibility for jobs outside of their remit. I am lucky to have understanding clients, who were able to ease off on deadlines while I recovered. As there are a lot of people in the same boat, everyone is showing camaraderie. Because we had such a successful first year in the business, I had recuperated the money I invested. Ongoing projects are moving forward: we’re still delivering, but at a slower pace, which means we are getting paid. Another stumbling block is that one of my key members of staff is stuck in the Philippines; however, she has adapted to UAE times and it has been like she has been in Dubai the whole time.

What luxuries are important to you?

I like spending money on holidays. A few years ago, we went on a big safari trip for two weeks – Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Rwanda to see the gorillas. We spent Dh35,000 on it. A really nice watch or car are not something I define as success; it’s more what experiences I’ve had.

Does money make you happy?

Yes, I guess so, as it allows me to do things. I’m not bothered about having £1 million in savings. Are we financially secure? Can we do what we want to do? That’s what makes me happy. Being able to pay my daughter’s nursery fee even after investing in the business: that made me prouder than anything. I didn’t want to use my wife’s salary.

Do you have any financial regrets?

I spent Dh10,000 on a road bike I never use, even though I live next to a cycle track. I also became reliant at a young age on credit cards, especially here, where you can get credit quite easily and rack up a huge bill. At its worse in 2012, I had Dh50,000 on cards. It’s a bad habit. There’s that fear of missing out and you want to be everywhere – it costs money to be everywhere. When I got into sales and started to earn commission, I had it cleared within a year.

Do you have a philosophy on money?

Someone said once, ‘You don’t get any extra points for being the richest man in the graveyard.’ That’s always stuck with me. I have to be responsible now and I have a family but the family I grew up with were savers and didn’t live their life. Why do we make money? We have to enjoy it. I earn enough to live comfortably. Anything else, I enjoy and have an experience.

Do you use a financial adviser?

I used to but now I manage my own savings. They’re always trying to sell you something. I keep very little in my account: I make sure savings are in my wife’s name, so she and our daughter have everything they need.

Do you own property?

I bought our three-bedroom villa in Arabian Ranches in 2016 for Dh2.25m. It’s probably worth less than Dh1.9m now but we live there so we’re not paying rent. This is my family home, to do what we want with while we’re here.

Do you have a financial plan for the future?

The pandemic has put a lot of long-term planning on hold. We planned to buy property at home this year and start a saving account for my daughter. The future is in the business, growing in other regions. How I see myself retiring is still being a part of the business, albeit a smaller share. My retirement plan would be in properties as well, which takes big cash injections. But if I build the business correctly, I’ll be able to do that.

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