UAE women hold the purse strings

Since getting married 14 years ago, Katie Limbrick has always overseen the household budget.

The British housewife, 45, who moved to Abu Dhabi in July last year with her son, 13, and nine-year-old daughter, says it works better if she manages the money rather than her husband, Sean.

“My husband is a brilliant mathematician – when it comes to physics and that sort of thing, he can blow my mind away with what he knows. But as soon as you talk finance, his eyes glaze over. He just can’t fathom it out,” she says. “I grew up being very aware of there not being much spare money about. So I got used to keeping an eye on it.”

While many married women in the UAE have the bills in their husband’s name because he is the main sponsor, they are increasingly taking their family’s financial matters into their own hands.

According to a 2014 survey of 500 UAE women by the regional web forum, more than 34 per cent said they take primary responsibility for banking in their households, compared to just 30 per cent of men. Whether it’s working wives with their own portfolio of investments or stay-at-home mums in charge of regulating a joint account, women are often making more of the financial decisions.

And there’s scientific evidence to prove why.

Despite the stereotype of women being impulse spenders that can’t exit a shopping mall without a new pair of shoes, a study by the American Behavioural Economist professor Colin Camerer, found women are more analytical when it comes to money.

The research, carried out at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in collaboration with Baylour Medical Centre, analysed people’s attitudes towards money through a simple trust experiment where one person has $10 which they can invest part of. That invested amount triples but is handed to a second person who is free to repay the first person or keep as much as they like.

Using early MRI brain scanning, the study found gender had a surprising effect on the outcome.

“When men decide how much to trust or repay, an area called the ‘medial cingulate sulcus’ is active,” explains Mr Camerer. “This is an area used to process potential reward, and calculate numbers. The male brains are just ‘doing the maths’ and turn off after they have made a decision.

“Female brains are quite different. After women have decided how much to repay, but before they know how their partner reacted to their decision, areas of the brain active in processing potential reward (ventromedial prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum) and in regulating worry and error-detection (caudate nucleus) are active. The women are worrying, and thinking about the reward consequences, after they have decided how much to repay.”

Caroline Domanska, a “money coach” with her own company, Money Mindset Coaching – which has clients in the UAE and the UK – agrees with the study, saying when women are in financial control they tend to minimise purchases for themselves because they fear the consequences for others.

“Everyone else will get a look-in first,” she says. “I find women that are good at controlling the finances worry about how they seem to others – not in a status-seeking way, but in an ‘I’m a good custodian, not wanting to be seen as greedy’ kind of way. Whereas when men are in control of the finances, they just see it as part and parcel of what they do in terms of providing to the household.

“You won’t find them cutting back on the golf membership, or a night out with the boys.”

Ms Domanska says this is because women tend to be more concerned about financial security, which can lead to better budgeting skills.

“It can be very easy to get into the ‘brunch lifestyle’ out here, spending money frivolously on things like hair and nails, and you have to pull yourself back a little bit,” says Ms Limbrick, a former accountant, observing the conservative nature of many wives.

“The men here tend to have the attitude ‘I’m earning lots of money, why do we have to worry about how much we’ve got?’”

Freya Jaffar, 40, a British housewife with Pakistani heritage, recently moved to Abu Dhabi from Dubai with her husband, an operations director and their four children aged 15, eight, three and one. Although he works for a financial company, in the home it’s Ms Jaffar who manages their finances.

“In terms of what we do inside and outside the house – daily outgoings, clubs, holidays, events, social events, that’s all me in charge,” she says. “My husband organises bills and rent, purely because his name is on the paperwork.

“Otherwise he would put that on me as well because he has a long working day and simply doesn’t have time. Being able to manage the finances makes me feel more like I am contributing, even though I am not working.”

Ms Domanska says women often become more involved in the finances when they take a career break to raise children, even if they didn’t involved themselves before.

“If the wife was an ‘avoider’ when it came to thinking about finances before giving up work, with time on her hands she might become the ‘worrier’ in the marriage,” she explains. “She will be more focused on questions like ‘how will we maintain what we have here?’ and ‘how can we make sure we go back with money?’, which will drive her to organise.

“When women are in a foreign country, rules are different, and it pays for them to be more aware with what is going on,” adds Ms Domanska.

For some women, being involved can simply mean taking charge of the day-to-day household spending.

A survey released last November by the Glasgow Consultancy Group revealed that women in Dubai influence 80 per cent of a household’s consumer purchases. Nine in 10 of the 250 women questioned buy groceries once a week and purchase clothes, accessories, cosmetics and jewellery once a month. But despite the stereotype women only buy shoes every three to six months, and watches, electronics and home furnishings once a year.

Abu Dhabi resident Vanessa Boson, from the US, the co-founder of the lifestyle group the Real Housewives of Abu Dhabi and who also runs childhood edutainment company Hallabolou, says she is responsible for the daily and monthly financial obligations.

“It is not that my husband is not capable, I just like to know what is in the bank as I make most of the daily consumer choices for the household,” she says.

But when it comes to investing, Ms Boson prefers to team up with her husband, something Ms Domanska typically encounters. “In my previous life as a financial adviser, I rarely had a woman make all the financial decisions for the couple when it came to actually going ahead and signing paperwork,” she says. “It is in a women’s nature to share and collaborate. On the flip side I have found many men make the decisions, will sign the paperwork and even say his wife doesn’t need to worry about it.”

But there are exceptions.

“I do it all,” says the Dubai business executive Kathryn Khan, 40, a mother-of-two from the UK. “I manage the monthly budget and assign my husband a spending summary so he knows how much he has to give me to meet any obligations and how much he has for himself.

“I then oversee all the investments, our property portfolio and our retirement planning. I’m better at it and our household works more efficiently that way. I worked part-time when the children were small and had to rely on my husband more. It didn’t work – we ended up arguing about money.

“He prefers me to take financial control and just tell him what to do.”

By 2018, women retail investors will form 40 per cent of advisory clients in the UAE, according to a September survey from Natixis of 150 UAE financial advisers.

In the GCC, females able to invest independently spread their investments in diverse asset classes, according to a March report by Al Masah Capital.

It quoted a Barclays Wealth Insights survey, which revealed almost half of GCC women invest in individual stocks and shares. Other important investment vehicles are commodities (such as gold), property, personal pensions and bonds.

The diverse nature of their investments suggests that women in the Mena region believe in investments that carry limited risks, the study showed.

But taking the reins of the household finances is not always easy. With many women choosing not to work, financial documents and bills are invariably in their husband’s name – something Mrs Limbrick finds frustrating.

“The one-time password for internet banking goes to my husband’s phone, and credit cards and investments are in my husband’s name here because they have to be. This makes payments tricky if he’s at work or away on business,” she says. “I don’t like the fact that when I got Dh600 cash out this morning, he knew about it too.”

Mrs Jaffar faced the same scenario when she attempted to make a couple of financial transactions in the UK two years ago.

“They needed proof of my address – my name on a utility bill – but all the bills here are my husband’s name. It really hit me that I’ve got no authority or identity apart from my residence visa,” she says.

But not all women want to get involved in the family financial affairs.

“They are either completely hands off trusting their partner, or highly involved,” adds Ms Domanska. “There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.”

Sharing the financial burden

Money coach Caroline Domanska offers her six tips on marriage and managing money:

Talk before you commit

Many couples do not talk about finances before they tie the knot, so make sure that money and how you deal with it is something you discuss early on. So often, opposites attract when it comes to money. So one will be a spender and the other a saver, or one will avoid money management and the other will be the worrier about it.

Create a money file

Fill a ‘black box’ with all your financial matters so if something were to happen to either you or your partner, or even both of you, someone could see your financial situation at a glance and know who to contact and where to start. I always remind my husband that we have critical illness insurance, and if I wake up from a coma and find he hasn’t claimed on it because he didn’t look in the box, then I will be angry.

Have a shared vision

Discuss what you really want money to do for you. Unless you both understand your visions, and what each individually drives you around money, you may find that money arguments are a constant source of stress.

Someone has to take the lead

Psychologically, it is said two people will never be exactly equal in their behaviour so if you get two spenders for example, one will just become even more of a spender than the other. The best solution is where one person does the groundwork and the other is kept informed and involved; this generally works well.

Ignore the gender-biased advertising

Women are told to be content with a new candle, the latest vacuum cleaner, or the new improved wings on a personal hygiene product. And men … they are told to aspire to top-of-the-range watches and cars. Instead think about your own real thoughts and desires.

Beware of gimmicky credit cards

If people feel they can manage a credit card, I encourage them to look for the best tangible benefits. Women are capable of logical and rational financial thoughts and I find the idea of a perfumed card as an incentive (Al Hilal Bank launched a scented credit card for female customers in January this year) quite opposite to that.

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Jessica Hill

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