You can do it! A very concise guide to investing sensibly by yourself

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expat concise guide investing yourself uae personal finance

Expat Saving & Investing 101 workshop – learn everything you need to know to invest sensibly and start making your money work hard for you.

Find out more and sign up for Fri/Sat 19/20 April in Dubai here.

The National has a Money Clinic every three weeks or so for readers’ questions.

This week was pretty much my dream question, allowing for a complete overview of investing by yourself, from mindset to transaction fees.

The newspaper kindly gave me 650 words instead of the usual 350. Still, I packed it in pretty tightly and felt I could write a whole blog about every sentence. If you find it a bit dense, I am planning to unpack and expand on it in future blogs, so there will be more time to clarify each point.

Let me know what resonates for you or what you are still concerned about in the comments section below.

Rather than use a financial advisor, I’d like to invest directly into funds. What’s the best way to go about this and what pitfalls should I watch out for? GH, Dubai

Financial advisors provide knowledge. Savings plans provide discipline. If you go it alone, you’re going to have to find some of both.

It’s worth it though, to avoid the hidden fees and exit penalties in the plans sold by most UAE banks and advisors. It has never been easier to invest cheaply and effectively by yourself.


First, work on your mindset – this will protect you against many pitfalls. Be prepared to spend at least a couple of hours learning investment basics. Become extremely conscious of cost and suspicious of complexity.

Commit to investing monthly or quarterly, even when the market is tumbling. You should be delighted when the market falls, as the stocks you will be holding for ten or more years are going on sale.

Spend ten minutes per month to invest your money and then get on with your life. You have better things to do than checking your portfolio.


The best book to get you started is “The Millionaire Expat” by Andrew Hallam. Websites like Monevator and This is Money have good advice, though less focus on expats.


How much do you want to spend annually when you retire? Divide the sum by 3 or 4% to find the portfolio size you will need on retirement. The compound interest calculator can then determine how much you should be saving annually to get there.

Are you saving for anything specific in the next 1-10 years? You can create a lower-risk sub-portfolio for it.

Asset Allocation

This is the single biggest driver of investment outcome, so it’s worth getting right. Make sure you always have at least 3 months of expenses in a cash account.

Your main portfolio should be for retirement and contain a mix of bond and equity funds. Equity funds provide a higher return but are also more risky.

Assess your risk appetite – how much money are you prepared to lose in a bad investing year in return for higher gains in other years? Risk is also linked to your time horizon. If you have 20+ years to retirement, you can (and should) ride out the ups and downs of the equity markets.

A conservative guide is to have your age in bonds, i.e. a 40 year-old should have 40% bonds, 60% equities. [This is far too conservative for me by the way – 20% should be fine for anyone with more than 10 years of saving left to go.]

Sub-portfolios for specific needs, e.g. a house deposit in 3 years, require a more conservative allocation such as 70% bonds. Manage sub-portfolio allocations on a spreadsheet – you only need one actual investment account.

Regional diversification is important. Most of your portfolio should be in developed markets such as the US, UK and Europe. Avoid niche investments in whatever did well last year.


Platforms like TD Direct Investing (Luxembourg), Saxo Trader GO (Dubai) and Interactive Brokers (US) [who I use] allow expats to invest in funds and ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds). Note any platform fees and transaction fees, especially whether they are percentage-based or a flat rate.

The platforms will encourage frequent trading, exotic funds, leverage and options, as that’s how they make their money. Stay ruthlessly focused.


Prioritise passive index tracker funds over active funds – after costs, their performance is superior in good times and bad. Emerging markets might be an exception. Avoid any fund with large upfront fees or management fees of more than 1%.

Vanguard and iShares offer very cheap ETFs with wide regional diversification. You won’t need more than 2-5 funds. A UK expat investing in GBP for example:

  • 50% Global stocks – Vanguard FTSE All-World ETF (VWRL, 0.25%)
  • 20% UK stocks – Vanguard FTSE 100 UCITS ETF (VUKE, 0.09%)
  • 30% UK government bonds – iShares UK Gilts 0-5yr UCITS ETF (IGLS, 0.2%)

For those investing in USD, it’s hard to beat VWRD, which is the USD equivalent of VWRL above. Avoid US-domiciled products, which could expose your heirs to estate tax.


Invest regularly but in large enough amounts that transaction and currency fees aren’t more than 1%. Consider investing in USD-denominated funds if you’re paid in dirhams. Find a good currency broker to change currencies, as your platform might charge you a bigger spread.

Rebalance your portfolio to maintain its asset allocation by adjusting how much of each fund you purchase. Do not try to time your purchases to what the market is doing.

And finally, teach others – they’ll thank you with a spectacular dinner in 30 years’ time.

Have a look at the original article in The National here.

Expat Saving & Investing 101 workshop – learn everything you need to know to invest sensibly and start making your money work hard for you.

Find out more and sign up for Fri/Sat 19/20 April in Dubai here.

Who would benefit from this post? Share here:

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14 thoughts on “You can do it! A very concise guide to investing sensibly by yourself”

  1. A packed set of guidelines Steve. Looking forward to more detailed posts on each of the sections. Would consider adding options for Shariah compliant investors as well. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Fayad, yes there’s definitely more to say on each section! iShares has some Shariah-compliant ETFs for world stocks etc but fees are more expensive at around 0.6%. There are also some sukuk funds out there for retail investors, especially in the Middle East.

  2. Hi Steve, just stumbled on your site. Manna from heaven for an expat like myself after wading through all the financial ‘advisors’ offering offshore bonds with outrageous management fees. Please keep up the great work and I’m very much looking forward to reading through the rest of the site. Thanks again!

  3. Steve, all I can say is keep up the good work man. I’ve been wondering the web for the past week looking for accurate information relating to expats investing while in Dubai and after a post in The National Business section I just had to check your site out and Thank God I did. Really good content man, can’t wait to read the rest of your posts on investing. Thanks again, I will be sending people to this site for sure.

      1. Thanks again Steve for your great advice. I’ve got a lot of questions but, don’t want to end up writing an entire essay for you read through. My main question would be what are your thoughts on the newly developed Fintech company “Sarwa Digital Wealth Limited”? I’ve had a read of Andrews article on the company and its pretty sound (Andrews book was great by the way, just finished it today, Thanks for the recommendation) and I have done some research on them, too fresh in the game I think but, I would really like to hear what your take on them is.

        1. I like Sarwa and what they are trying to achieve – there is very little choice in the region. You could always put some money with them and the rest with an offshore broker. The DIY approach is definitely cheaper if you are into that.


    Found this site 6 years too late. Fortunately started off with small dispensable amounts
    An article on how you can insure yourself in a cost-efficient manner would be highly appreciated
    I’m off to set up my interactive brokers account!

    1. Well done for taking action! Term life insurance is usually the most cost-effective – it has no savings component. Much better to save and invest your money separately from your insurance.

  5. Hi. I am resident in the UAE (getting paid in AED) and I’ll retire in Europe (will need Euros after retirement). Should I use IB or Saxo as my broker? Should I make most of my investments in Euros (variable exchange rate with AED) or Dollars (Fixed exchange rate with AED)? How do I keep it as simple as possible? Thanks.

    1. It depends a bit how close to retirement you are but if it’s more than 5 years… I prefer investing in USD, as then you don’t have to worry about currency fluctuations. It’s one less thing to put you off investing regularly. You’ll also save money on the exchange process. I use (the mobile app of) IB because they are cheap and large. Good luck!

  6. Hi..thanka a lots steve.its great information. I am an indian. Kindly let me know whether i can follow the same route of investment suggested or i need to do more specific checks pertaining to my country. Kindly suggest as i am a totally new beginner to overseas investment. Thanks

    1. Hi Ashish, I believe that Indian residents and expats can use IB and invest in Vanguard ETFs through them just like anyone else. If you live in India, there may be cheaper brokerages that you can use, but I doubt it?

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