Money & Me: ‘My mother taught me the value of financial independence’

Children’s author Giselle Onanian says investing in personal growth and family are more rewarding than material possessions

Author Giselle Onanian says the Covid-19 pandemic transformed her relationship with money. Antonie Robertson / The National
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First-time children’s author Giselle Onanian calls herself a “UAE-lifer”. The mother of two, who is a self-employed creative communications and business development specialist, moved to Dubai with her family at the age of five when her father accepted a position with an airline in the UAE.

The British-Armenian resident recently launched her children’s book series, Alfie & Oak, which is loosely based on her experience growing up as a third-culture child in Dubai and addresses themes of belonging, relationships, diversity and multiculturalism.

Daddy Has Got A New Job, the first of three books in the series that is now available in UAE bookstores and online, is about title character Alfie and how he navigates the stress and anxiety of moving to a new country and making new friends, with his dog Oak in tow.

Ms Onanian, 34, lives in Arabian Ranches in Dubai with her husband, two children, aged three and eight months, and their dog Oakley.

How did money feature in your childhood?

When I was very young, my parents would give me Dh5 for doing little things around the house, like washing the car or cleaning my room, as a reward. As I got older and started going out with friends on the weekends, I would get a monthly allowance to spend.

I wasn’t allowed to ask for any more than the allotted pocket money that I would receive, so when it was gone, it was gone. There were times when I was a good saver and other times when I would indulge and regret it later.

Did being an expatriate family affect the way money was viewed at home?

My mother said that, as expats, we must always have a rainy day fund and escape plan. She said: “Always make sure that you have money for a taxi ride home.”

She encouraged me to be financially independent even when I got married. More importantly, my parents always made sure they were debt free, that’s a very valuable life lesson.

When did you start earning and what was your first job?

My first job after graduating in media studies from a UK university and moving back to the UAE was as a marketing executive at the Dubai Autodrome in 2008. It paid well and I remember taking my parents out to dinner when I received my first pay cheque.

As a mother, self-employment allows me to be a working professional without losing moments watching my children grow up
Giselle Onanian, children’s author

I was still living with them back then and my father used to take half of my salary as “rent”, but actually he was helping me create a fund to repay my student loan.

Why did you decide to take the self-employment route?

I decided to go out on my own in 2017 because the work I was doing as a full-time creative, business development and marketing specialist with big agencies had become stressful and was taking a toll on my mental and physical well-being.

I was also getting married that year and thought it was a good opportunity to reset. That’s when I set up my own consultancy, Plan G.

Now, as a mother, it allows me to be a working professional without losing moments watching my children grow up.

I like having the freedom to decline projects, depending on my priorities and personal commitments. It has also changed the way I view my finances.

What is your outlook on money now?

When I received a monthly pay cheque, I used to be very frivolous and spend everything that I would earn on impulsive buys, outings and frequent dinners with friends. I did not save anything in my early days as a professional because as a young adult, you want to try to “keep up with the Joneses”.

But when I started working for myself, money did not come into my bank account in the same way. I had to consider all the expenses that would impact the cash flow and carefully consider what I spent it on, like going on a holiday instead of that unnecessary purchase.

Giselle Onanian wants to be able to afford a life within reason and experience simple pleasures. Antonie Robertson / The National

When work dried up in 2020 due to the pandemic, it further transformed my relationship with money as I realised that you don’t always need much to live a good life.

Why did you decide to write the children’s book series?

I’ve always been that person who would write funny rhymes and poems on birthday and wedding cards. One day, someone suggested that I write a book in the same vein, but I didn’t know what to write about.

It wasn’t until I had my son and we began reading bedtime stories that the idea for a book struck me. I haven’t found children’s books that tackle the topic of being a third-culture kid and the questions that come with it.

I remember all the questions that I had growing up: why I didn’t see my grandparents often or why my best friend suddenly needed to leave the country for good one summer.

Alfie & Oak is not set in the UAE and is a good conversation starter for parents and children who have just begun their overseas journey anywhere in the world, be that in Dubai, London or Singapore.

What are you most happy investing in?

That would be myself and my family. Like investing in my own practice, having a family and now the children’s book series. They have been more rewarding than possessing material things.

If you could go back in time, would you change any financial decisions?

The one thing that my husband and I should have done when we got married was invest in property in Dubai. We’ve lived here so long and spent so much on rent that we could have taken that investment step back in 2017.

I wouldn’t call it a regret because we always wanted to make sure that we had liquid cash in case we needed it urgently, but we could have made it work even then.

Is this your current financial goal?

Yes, we are definitely looking to buy a house and make it a home, one that we can live in for years to come.

We want to be able to afford a life within reason as we are not extravagant people. We want to earn enough to be able to enjoy and experience simple pleasures and travel as a family.

If you could, what would be your guilty purchase?

An Aston Martin. I don’t think we will be in the position to buy one anytime soon. Even if we did, the windfall would most certainly end up in a fund for my children. But no harm in dreaming!

Updated: March 07, 2022, 4:08 AM