...when the luxury lifestyle goes out of hand.
A candid look at how excessive shopping and trusting the wrong people can catapult one into a vicious cycle of spending and debt
by Hannah Jo Uy
“I don’t think I can control myself not to spend,” says *Celine. “When I feel just a little bit of sadness, I know I will get the impulse to shop.”
Dubai is a lot of things to a lot of people. While many have made their fortune in the emirate, there are also those that have lost it, having been seduced by the luxury lifestyle to spend beyond their means. *Celine is one such individual. Speaking candidly about her financial journey since moving to the UAE, she divulges how excessive shopping and trusting the wrong people catapulted her into a vicious cycle of spending and debt.
A shopping spree for the books
Like many expats, *Celine moved to the UAE, attracted by its global business environment. “I was perfectly happy in my home country,” she said. “But I came here because I knew there were great job opportunities. I know I’m lucky. Many people come here to provide for their families, and they have a lot of responsibilities and must be under a strict budget - I just wasn’t one of those people. I’m also an only child, and I didn’t have to care for anyone but myself.”
*Celine always enjoyed shopping. However, this habit kicked into high gear when she landed her first job in Dubai. “I would blow more than half of my paycheck on clothes, bags, and shoes,” she said. “Whatever I earned, I spent.”
At one point, *Celine recalled shopping for almost 24 hours to the point of buying a suitcase at 2 am, simply because she couldn’t carry everything she bought for the day. “I wanted to have fun in my first few years in Dubai,” she recalled pensively. “I was young then, and I didn’t want to pressure myself with saving, so I just wanted to enjoy life. I was shopping and partying every weekend.”
The newfound freedom in a city offering the best the world has to offer can be downright intoxicating. This is something that Steve Cronin, a financial independence coach and the founder of DeadSimpleSaving.com, has seen many times over. “When you first turn up in Dubai, you often don’t know that many people, and there is a strong pressure to fit in with those your meet,” he said. “How they behave and what they spend money on then seems to be ‘the way it is done here. One’s arrival in Dubai also coincides with a higher salary and more disposable income than ever.”
There are other aggravating factors that might make one get on a rocky financial start when moving to the city, said Steve. “It’s not clear how to invest for your future when in Dubai, so you spend the money instead. Also, being away from family and long-term friends can remove some of the natural brakes on your behaviour – it’s easy to reinvent yourself in a town where everyone seems to be forever young and have limitless supplies of money.”
Caught in a vicious cycle
In 2017, *Celine lost her job, and reality came knocking, but she was not ready to open the door. “I ended up not working for a year,” she said. “That was partly by choice; I wanted to enjoy after being burned out with nonstop work for four years, so I used a credit card to travel for a bit.”
When *Celine finally received new employment, she had to accept a slightly lower salary package than her previous position. “I started to feet the struggle,” she said. “I had loan and credit card payments at this point, and suddenly, I had to stretch what I would usually spend in one week for a month.” To cope with the expenses to maintain her lifestyle, *Celine used her credit card more aggressively. “It was a vicious cycle – you pay it off, but then you just use it again.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown only aggravated *Celine’s restlessness. While maintaining her work, the confinement and isolation became a trigger for a new obsession. “I don’t know what came over me, but I started to get interested in buying gold,” she said. After purchasing a Cartier Love Necklace, she was hooked. “I would buy a piece of jewellery almost every week, or at least three times a month. As soon my salary hits my account, I spend it on jewellery. If I came up short, I’d use my card.” At this point, *Celine took out another credit card.
This, Steve says, is a common move for people struggling with debt. “If you find yourself unable to keep up with the spending, there are always banks calling you weekly offering personal loans and credit cards,” he said. “The fear of not keeping up with your loan payments is less scary than the fear of being different and revealed to be less successful than your friends.”
Be wary of who you surround yourself with
While already struggling with her own impulses, *Celine was dealt another harsh lesson on how your bank account can be affected by who you decide to surround yourself with, as she found herself unable to say no to friends who started borrowing money from her. “I felt bad for them, they were in a tight spot,” she said. “It was small amounts at first. A few hundreds here, a few thousands there, until I would lend up AED 6000 to AED 10,000. I had a hard time asking for it and tried to hold off, but when my own needs pushed me to ask for their payment, one feigned ignorance and the other disappeared.” *Celine never got her money from her friends and with no written agreement and legal recourse expensive and troublesome, she most likely never will. She is left, at the end of it, experiencing first-hand betrayal from those she least expected.
“What you don’t realise initially is that for many people, the glamorous lifestyle is entirely driven by credit card debt,” reminds Steve. “They are often a couple of steps away from financial disaster and secretly panic about money. They have no plans for the future, so they keep on dancing. They won’t want to talk about money because they’re too embarrassed – it would show vulnerability. It would reveal that their amazing insta-lifestyle is only one credit card deep.”
The wake-up call
Eventually, *Celine’s most prominent wake-up call came in the form of a health scare. After a nagging pain in the neck led to an MRI check-up, she was diagnosed as suffering from blocked nerves and required urgent surgery. The operation did not fall under the scope of her insurance, and she was stuck with AED 110,000 hospital bill she continues to pay off today.
“It was definitely a wake-up call,” she said. “Looking back, I saw how I felt I needed material things to make me happy.” Today, as she recovers financially, physically and emotionally, *Celine is taking it a day at a time, facing her reality and her own self with utmost honesty she trudges forward hoping to create a new, and better future.
Drawing from his experience as a financial coach, Steve said that eventually, learning how to say no marks the end of one’s honeymoon period in Dubai. “Eventually, you begin to have real friends rather than just the first people you met. Some friends or partners who are not good for your sanity or wallet must fall by the wayside. Such social maturity ushers in financial maturity and you ruthlessly chop spending on things that don’t bring you value,control impulse purchases, and realise you are quite capable of saying no to yourself and others.”
Steve is also of the firm opinion that financial independence is within anyone’s grasp, but that women, especially, must be empowered to take control of their financial destiny. “I’ve had to help too many women who said, “I’m not good with money”, left it to their partner/advisor/bank and then were blindsided when they were separated or widowed, having to deal with their finances overnight,” he said. “Tell yourself, “I am good with money”. Your inner fears, your bank, your reckless friends – there are no other good candidates. It’s time to be the boss of your own financial life.”
*Celine’s name has been changed with respect to her privacy.