Why women must grab greater control of money matters

Financial literacy is key to tackling changing circumstances and opening the door to a wealthier future

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Hilary Rowe, and her daughter Hannah Rowe, 17, on female financial empowerment, at Mangrove Village. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
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It was during her marriage when Hilary Rowe recognised that financial agility could be crucial should circumstances change for her young family.

When that relationship eventually crumbled and with three children to support, she also learned swiftly how to manage financial tasks previously handled by her spouse.

“I went from being married and in a position where someone else took care of money to being completely self-supporting and for my children,” says Ms Rowe, who lives in Abu Dhabi.

She says her ex-partner paid the mortgage, while she covered some bills and extras such as holidays.

Ms Rowe, from Northern Ireland, also balanced motherhood with her job as she worked towards financial security.

“I never felt that secure in my marriage, so I always kept my career in case his job was lost,” she recalls.

“One day it happened, around the same time we were separating … a seismic shift. I realised my welfare and my kids’ future was going to be down to me.”

Ms Rowe responded by accelerating her career. She moved to the Middle East in May 2009 as a divorcee with two sons and a daughter, then aged 10, nine and five respectively.

Now 50 and a human resources manager in the UAE capital, she personifies the importance of female financial empowerment.

“What that means to me is women are able to understand and control their finances … knowing how to manage money and difficult situations with money … and how they can monetise their education or skills,” says Ms Rowe, who saved earnestly and bought UK properties for rental yield in order to fund her children’s university tuition.

“Quite a lot of women in relationships think they don’t need to do that now, because they think it’s going to be like that forever.”

Carol Glynn - finance coach and founder of Conscious Finance Coaching.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Carol Glynn launched Conscious Finance Coaching to empower women to enjoy their money and make it work for them, be that in personal or business life. Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National

A knack for spending prudently in her earlier years combined with her awareness of potential financial vulnerability prepared Ms Rowe for upheaval. Her experience is a familiar scenario tackled by personal finance coach Carol Glynn.

The former accountant, also a mother of three, is on a mission to help women take better control of their finances.

She launched her Dubai-based Conscious Finance Coaching venture to empower women to “own and enjoy their money and make it work for them”, be that in their personal or business lives.

Ms Rowe had a timely realisation that her finances were not independent enough to sustain her and three children in changed circumstances.

I've seen detrimental situations, divorce, and suddenly women have to start picking these things up, figuring them out and protecting themselves

But some women don’t realise it until it is too late, says Ms Glynn.

“I’ve seen detrimental situations, divorce, and suddenly women have to start picking these things up, figuring them out and protecting themselves,” she says.

“In that situation, the last thing you should [have to] be worried about is your money.”

Part of Ms Glynn’s motivation is to change that mindset and empower women – be they stay-at-home mums or entrepreneurs – to take better charge of their finances and spending habits.

“I talk to friends and clients and it really saddens me – the consistent message is, ‘I don’t know what to do…I give that to my husband’,” she says.

“It’s not that husbands are taking it away, the husbands want them involved in most cases. In general … it is a difficult subject for women and they’re not confident to talk about it.

“When I talk about what I do, they open up. I help build confidence, belief in themselves, take away the fear and really help them enjoy their money.”

For some, change can be dramatic and bring significant benefits.

Reem Ahmed Al Suwaidi, 38, ditched an extensive shopping habit 12 years ago for saving and investing.

The UAE national says she could “easily spend” Dh10,000 a month on clothes and accessories, but changed more out of a “feeling of right and wrong”.

“There is a difference between buying something you need, buying something that makes you happy, and just buying out of trying to close the gap of your own insecurities,” says Ms Al Suwaidi, who lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and two children.

"I didn't change my habits for a financial reason … it didn't seem fair to me that I'd spend so much money."

That happened before Ms Al Suwaidi became a parent, although she identified family as a more beneficial route for her money. She also says a woman doesn’t have to be a mum or saver to alter spending habits.

Despite previous excesses, Ms Al Suwaidi, who is currently studying for a PhD, says she has a “very good mind for investment”.

There is a difference between buying something you need, buying something that makes you happy, and just buying out of trying to close the gap of your own insecurities

Her strategy has included buying property in her husband’s home country, Egypt, to ensure her children have something to fall back on.

“I made an Excel sheet with all our income and spending and categorised them,” she says.

“We decided to add in amounts we are planning to spend on property and charity, then I get to see what extra is available.”

Ms Al Suwaidi also has a rule not to buy anything unless she removes something used from her wardrobe.

She and her husband also stopped exchanging birthday and Valentine's Day gifts and purchase only for their son and daughter. That cash feeds their travel budget.

Such wise spending habits also inspired the children who now save their eidiyah and birthday cash towards air tickets, “which gives them leverage on choosing the destination”.

While part of Ms Glynn’s coaching process can involve jarring examinations of credit card bills and outgoings, she aims to bring positivity rather than focus on negatives.

One of her skills is helping clients “figure out goals … their values when it comes to money and are you spending in line with your values?”

Then they can spend on what they believe in and without guilt, she says.

“The big thing for me is not restriction. I’m not going to start telling you, ‘you can’t do this or you shouldn’t have done that’.

“It’s not about not being able to enjoy yourself, it’s about being able to enjoy yourself more. Let’s look at where we are and what you want to do for yourself and your family in the future.”

Alicia, an American educator who requested her surname not be printed, is on top of her personal finances now. She realised the perils of fiscal inertia 20 years ago. Photo: Courtesy Sultan Al Suwaidi
Alicia, an American educator who requested her surname not be printed, is on top of her personal finances now. She realised the perils of fiscal inertia 20 years ago. Photo: Courtesy Sultan Al Suwaidi

Alicia, 55, who requested her surname not be published, is on top of her personal finances.

However, the American educator admits she felt at “financial risk” earlier in her life despite coming from a family of economists and bankers.

Financial independence was talked about more from a masculine perspective, although she discussed it with her mother.

“I never took on debt, but I didn’t save much either,” says Alicia, now married and a mother to three children.

“If I didn’t have the money, I went without. I did have the good sense to understand money can be dangerous if you don’t know how to use it and save it.”

A media article 20 years ago also woke her up to the perils of fiscal inertia. The article revealed that women who didn’t add to their retirement plans when not working outside the home would find it tough to catch up, Alicia says.

“That left me unsettled as I wasn’t working at the time. I was a young mother and hadn’t had much chance to start a career and thus a retirement fund,” says Alicia, who lives in Abu Dhabi.

She browsed sites such as Investopedia Daily and The Wall Street Journal Marketwatch to "quietly educate" herself before discovering a "game-changer" layperson investment book for women by Alice Finn.

It switched her into developing a financial plan and “gave me the tools to put worries into action”.

That included mobilising savings with a US investment firm, allocating annually to her retirement fund and setting monthly expenditure schedules.

“I went from feeling at risk to feeling empowered,” says Alicia, who also created an emergency fund, ethical investments and plans to add property to her portfolio.

“It’s a progression of financial steps that have brought me to where I am.”

She’s passed on her financial knowledge to her children, instilling savings goals and monetary values while ensuring she’s in a stronger financial position for them.

Ms Glynn cites part of her vision as helping women to “unlock financial freedom”, often by reviewing financial or spending decisions.

She admits that is, in part, driven by personal experience.

“I’m not going to present myself as perfect; I’ve made mistakes, same as everyone else,” she says.

“That helps me have empathy with people, compassion and understanding.”

Ms Rowe also believes others can gain from her experience. Although now in great shape financially, she says all women – married, parenting or single – should review their strategy, take greater control and consult qualified, trusted advisers where required.

“Other people can prove unreliable, so why would you place all your future financial chips on one square with one person who may let you down?

“Exploring, understanding and educating yourself is key, so that you can make choices; have a plan, be able to support yourself, be smart and aware about finances and think about your own future and retirement.”

She adds: “Living my life post-divorce and providing for my three children 100 per cent, putting them through university and giving them a great start in life is my proudest achievement.”