Money & Me: 'With six children, there’s not a huge amount left'

Deborah Thomson of JA Hatta Fort Hotel, says her offspring's university and school education is costly

Deborah Thomson is general manager of JA Hatta Fort Hotel and Dubai Creek dinner cruise boat JA Bateaux Dubai. A mother of four children and co-parent of two, all aged between 17 to 25, she was born and raised in southern England and moved to Dubai 14 years ago. Now 47, she shares her time between Hatta and Damac Hills where she lives with her husband, also employed in hospitality, and her youngest daughter.

How did your childhood shape your attitude towards money?

My father’s an engineer by trade. He loved cars and was a professional racing driver who went into rally driving. My mother owned bookmakers in her younger days, a family business. She was very good with figures; all settling was done in her head, while everyone else was on calculators. Alongside that we come from a market trading family. I had an older and younger brother and grew up in a household where you didn’t really talk about money; it was considered a bit rude. We had two holidays a year, a big house. Dad was very old fashioned and sent me to beauty school - I hated every minute. My brothers were offered private education and went to business school. It took me a while to realise openness was the way forward when it comes to money.

We've added a certified helipad for about Dh55,000. There's good return on investment (via landing fees); the other day we had three landings in one day, suddenly that's Dh7,500-Dh9,000.

How much were you paid in your first job?

My first job was working the market stalls. I’d have been eight, shifting boxes and setting up. We mainly traded brassware (ornaments) and had a stall where everything was £1 (Dh4.74). I would get paid about £15 (Dh72), although it depended on who I worked for and if they had a good day. It was a family orientated industry; I’d go to whoever gave me the most pocket money for the day. Mum was unwell a lot of my childhood so we were expected to help. I’d do the housework; get paid £7 to clean from top to bottom.

What brought you to Dubai?

I came as a single mum of four 14 years ago for a completely fresh start, personally and financially. My youngest was five and eldest 12. Having had a few years off looking after my two boys and two girls, I began work for a British developer and then in investment property. I’d put a lot of emphasis on how important education was and education in Dubai was considerably less at the time than (private education) in the UK.

Are you involved in the financial aspects of your hotel?

Very involved. I’ve got a financial controller but spend time with him going over everything; then you’ve got your revenue team so you’re always learning. I’m very much a figures person now. We’re thinking ahead, always planning - certain items you want to buy.

We’ve added a certified helipad for about Dh55,000. There’s good return on investment (via landing fees); the other day we had three landings in one day, suddenly that’s Dh7,500-Dh9,000.

How do you budget personally?

When I was working in property it was very much commission based. Basics were low, so I had to be selling X amount of property just to cover outgoings. Now I know, end of the month, what I’m going to get paid. I can budget. I’m an excel sheet girl. It’s more a security thing; because I’ve had challenging times financially when the kids were young in the UK, I need a certain amount of control now. Everything I know about money is self-taught. Also I’ve common sense by the bucketful.

Do you pass that on to your children?

We talk about money openly. I wasn’t well educated around money; with my children we’ve made a conscious effort. When you come from a background where you don’t discuss the realities of money it’s a challenge when you go into the workforce.

I’m a real believer that you give them security, unconditional love, but when it comes to materialistic things I’m not one who thinks you flourish your children with everything they want. When you do, or they know they can always rely on mum and dad to bail them out, they never reach their full potential. They're getting the best education, but they have to have the drive to go forward and make something of themselves. We’re giving the tools and support.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I would love to be a saver. Unfortunately, with six children our outgoings on education are major; there’s not a huge amount left. That’s in a bank account. We’ve got five in education, four at university, one daughter in the last year of school in Dubai. It’s not forever, but we’ve probably still another five years. In the UK I’d already spent £250,000 on education before coming here.

Have you missed any financial opportunities?

When I first arrived here Arabian Ranches was just completed and there was some off-plan available. At the time I didn’t have the deposit. Many of my friends did and really set themselves up. I knew financially it would have been fantastic - I just didn’t have capital. That’s the only thing where I think ‘if only’, but I’m not really someone who regrets anything. Everything’s a learning curve that shapes you into who you are, what you do.

What is your best investment?

Our family home in the UK and what I’ve invested in myself; I’ve spent Dh100,000-plus on courses. I’m very much about self-improvement and self-awareness. I’ve done life coaching, business coaching, counselling courses, hypnotherapy. It’s time and money investment, but for my form of work - working with people - it helps me and also helps me to help other people.

Do you prefer paying by cash or credit card?

Debit card. I like to pay for what I’m getting there and then. That’s something I discuss with my children; if you can’t afford it now and put it on credit card, with interest, it’s going to be more difficult … save and wait. I have a credit card for when they don’t accept debit cards, paid off end of the month.

What is your most cherished purchase?

When we’ve created memories - family holidays. We go skiing yearly and holidays we’ve done to Florida, South Africa - they’re priceless.

What has been your key financial milestone?

I purchased my family home from my mum. She retired, needed to downsize and we were looking for a base that accommodates all the children - and hopefully grandchildren one day. Mum was selling so she could have a nice retirement. She still lives in and looks after it. Being in a position to buy it was good for her and a good investment for us.

So you plan for the future?

I visualise my future constantly. My goal is to have another property, somewhere sunny so we can split retirement between two countries. I want to be in a situation where I can enjoy my grandchildren … there could be a lot of them.

If you won Dh1 million how would you spend it?

Pay the mortgage off. My daughter’s getting married next year and we’re going to have a graduation every year for the next five, plus it’s one son’s 21st birthday - we’re hoping to do a trip around Europe.