How to live frugally in the UAE and still feel fulfilled

Zach Holz says you don't have to break the bank to make your life in the Emirates fun

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 09:  Visitors at the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum on January 9, 2018 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
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I could write a list of 20 frugal things you can do in the UAE. Those lists are certainly out there, letting you know all the cheap or free events happening near you.

There are a myriad of entertainment options to keep costs down from open mic sessions to poetry readings, beaches, improv comedy, libraries, movie deals, pot lucks with friends, people watching at the mall, enjoying art galleries, driving to the top of mountains, hiking in the desert ... I could go on but you know your interests better than I do.

You get the idea though; there are plenty of low-cost things to do if you get off your couch, grab a friend and go for it.  For me, however, a more interesting topic is how often we pay for expensive activities to entertain ourselves, and how easy it is to replace those with cheaper options. If we can become more content with our own company, can we lower our expenses and save money to reach our financial goals?

As a young child I wanted to play with my friends all the time and needed constant outside entertainment.  One day, my mum sat me down and said, 'Zach, if you learn to entertain yourself, you will be much happier, because people won’t always be around'.  So, I learned about the joys of reading and got lost in thousands of books.

I also spent hours building Lego houses and space ships, learning about my plastic dinosaurs and practicing an instrument. Over time I was able to to self-entertain - a skill has stuck with me to this day.  And this was all before the internet, social media, video games or the thousands of TV channels that we can now tune into.


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The internet has allowed us to be alone, but not alone, in a previously undreamed of manner.  I can now create a social group with the most specific interests and find others just like me. I can become immersed in an echo chamber of my own creation; socially isolated, but incredibly social.  For many, me included, this can make it far too easy to never leave my apartment and be permanently entertained from the comfy recesses of my couch. Add in food-ordering apps along with the gym and pool in my block and I could literally never leave my apartment.

This type of life also appeals to my frugal nature, because it's cheap to stay at home. I don't have to pay for a taxi, petrol or expensive restaurants. If I cook for myself or just have a friend over for dinner, I can cut costs further. There is great savings power in your apartment.

But then I worry that when I do emerge, I will be like Dracula - blinking, pale and hissing at the sun, unaccustomed to others and not properly socialised.  If I don’t go out, I will miss out on the many amazing things this country has to offer.  It’s about striking a balance: how many outside activities should I do versus how much I stay at home and still be social and healthy.

The answer for everyone is different.  For me, I need to do things outside my apartment or with others about four to five times a week. I am fine spending time by myself, in fact, the introvert part of me needs that to recharge from the often overwhelming nature of others. Ask yourself if you need to be entertained at all times, and if that entertainment involves going out?

There are two key principles at play here.  The first is the hedgehog principle; this states that most people like to be with others and get close to them, but then their "spikes" start hitting each other and they need to move away and have independent time. The spikes are the things about others that annoy us or drain our energy. Each person needs to know how much time they can spend with others before they need time to recharge. For me, it’s about four to six hours and then I need peace.

The second idea is the law of diminishing returns. This is a principle of economics that says the more we experience something, the less satisfying it is.  If you have a piece of chocolate cake, it’s great, but if you have chocolate cake every day for every meal, you’ll get sick of it quickly.  This applies to even the most exciting activities. If you’re a skydiving instructor, even that will lose its pizzazz over time. Our brains crave novelty.

The solution to these two principles seems to be to do new activities, but fairly infrequently so that the law of diminishing returns does not kick in. That way you can maximise the happiness from whatever it is you do. You also need to accept that it's OK to spend time by yourself or at home with your family.

There is no iron-clad rule as to how many times you should go out? You need to know yourself and experiment.  Try only doing stuff at home during the week and only going out on the weekends or try more free or cheap activities. You might find you like those more than the expensive options.

For those that have already mastered the balance between spending and having fun, the next step is to earn money from your hobbies. If you love photography, offer to shoot events for a company - this could lead to paid work further down the line. If you love music, start a band and practice until you can eventually secure gigs. There are tons of creative ways to monetise your life so that you get to do what you want and boost your wallet at the same time.

Dubai school teacher Zach Holz has won a huge following for his blog, The Happiest Teacher, which he launched in January to share his obsession with personal finance with others. Every fortnight he will be writing in The National about his journey towards financial independence and how anyone can ease themselves out of the habit of living pay cheque to pay cheque

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