UAE money bloggers share their tips on cutting the cost of Christmas

From a fake tree to low-key get-togethers and setting a budget on gifts, here are some ways to save money this festive season

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - December 05, 2018: Tuan Phan with wife Betty Omodamwen and children Morris 1 and Alma 2. Tuan is a meteorologist by day who blogs for non-profit community, which encourages investors to follow the investment principles established by Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard. He is one of the personal finance bloggers talking about their Christmas and Christmas advice to avoid blowing your bank account during the festive season. Wednesday the 5th of December 2018 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

If you write about personal finance, like these UAE bloggers, you have to know how to put the ho-ho-ho in Christmas for less. Is a real tree worth the money? What limit should you put on presents? And how do you ensure you don’t start the New Year in debt?

We ask Briton Steve Cronin (SC), 40, of financial education community, American teacher Zach Holz (ZH), 35, who writes The Happiest Teacher, Demos Kyprianou (DK), 36, a married Cypriot occupational psychologist and Tuan Phan (TP), a 41-year-old father-of-two and Australian meteorologist, of non-profit community, and British media manager David Hanson (DH), 40, a father-of-two, of Dubai Money Guy for their Christmas tips.

Where do you normally spend Christmas? 

SC: My grandmother is 102, so I spend Christmas Day in England with her and my parents.

ZH: My holiday is usually two weeks – that's not enough time to go to the States and deal with jet lag. This year, my girlfriend is coming to visit.

DK: Last year we spent it at a restaurant with friends. The year before, home in Cyprus.

TP: In the past, I've always worked so colleagues with children can have time off. This year we are making the trip to Melbourne to spend time with my mum there.

DH: We always spend Christmas in Dubai. Flights are expensive and our families live far apart in the UK. We are lucky to have all our parents in town again this year.


David Hanson has lived 13 years plus in Dubai and is now General Manager at IMAX Private Theatre. He freely admits he has made ���every money mistake you can in the UAE��� invested in high fee policies from financial advisers, bought off-plan before the crash, bought a brand-new sports car���. He had an epiphany after reading up more on personal finance literature and doing his MBA and is now ���very nearly��� financially independent, despite having two young children. 

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: Suzanne Locke
Section:  BZ

Do you have a budget for presents?

SC: No budget – it's the thought that counts. A useful or thoughtful present is worth so much more. Charity donations, endangered animal sponsorships, home-made items and events are more eco-friendly too. Cash is a bit miserable: make sure there's at least one nice-looking present under the tree.

ZH: I usually donate $50 apiece for my parents and brother to charities like Doctors Without Borders or Amnesty International. I'll still get something nice for my girlfriend – but nothing crazy. I have a Secret Santa gift exchange with friends and co-workers, capped at Dh100.

DK: We do a Secret Santa at work with a budget of Dh50-100. At home we try to purchase or create experiences rather than material things – Christmas festivals, travelling, cooking favourite meals for each other.

TP: We limit the children to one toy each, under Dh50, and one small present for each other of a maximum Dh100. My stepbrother has his birthday on December 27 – I got him a smart watch below my Dh500 limit in the sales.

DH: A couple of thousand dirhams for everyone. I treat December like any other month in terms of my savings targets, so any money spent on Christmas things will have to come from savings elsewhere. Our oldest son is two-and-a-half so we get him making Christmas cards and baking with me – a batch of vanillekipferl, an Austrian Christmas cookie. When we meet our friends at Christmas, we have a Secret Santa with a Dh200 limit.


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How do you plan ahead for the festive season?

SC: You know Christmas and New Year are coming, so it's worth some thought in advance. I jot down present ideas on my phone throughout the year. This year we are using Avios points for our flights from London to Helsinki, then taking Norwegian Air back to Dubai.

TP: There are lots of bargains and specials available throughout the year if you keep an eye out, are not under time pressures and are flexible, especially with flights. Three months out, the cheapest flights for a family of four to Australia around Christmas was nearly Dh15,000; four weeks before, the cheapest price is almost Dh22,000. I'm making a photobook of the children for Mum's Christmas present, which I'm sure she will proudly share with visitors long after we have returned to the UAE.

DH: We buy online in the UK and have relatives bring the presents out. We also have our family bring us a Christmas pudding.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - December 05, 2018: Tuan Phan with daughter Alma 2. Tuan is a meteorologist by day who blogs for non-profit community, which encourages investors to follow the investment principles established by Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard. He is one of the personal finance bloggers talking about their Christmas and Christmas advice to avoid blowing your bank account during the festive season. Wednesday the 5th of December 2018 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Do you get a tree?

SC: I have a little plastic fibre-optic tree that has been with me for years. It stays out on the landing all year undecorated.

ZH: My favourite thing in the world is a real tree. I tend to get a smaller tree, so it costs about Dh250 to Dh300.

DK: We bought an artificial one a while back for about Dh150.

TP: Living in a small apartment, it was hard to get a big, real tree, so we ended up with a small 35 centimetre artificial tree from the local bargain store.

DH: We have had the same fake tree for years and years. It took a lot for me to give up on a real tree as I always had them growing up, but they're expensive - Dh350 to Dh1,000 - and all the needles have dropped off by mid-December.


Zach Holz, English teacher, at his home.

When Zach Holz set out to eat all of his meals at home in May, he was fairly sure he was going to reconfirm the findings of one of his favourite bloggers on the subject of financial independence, Mr Money Moustache. 

He was expecting nothing short of a money-saving epiphany. 

“I totally didn’t I didn’t feel that way at all,” says Mr Holz, a 35-year-old American teacher living in Dubai. “I felt trapped. I felt like I wasn’t able to hang out with people I enjoyed hanging out with, because they were going out for dinner. I learned a few recipes, but I’ve cooked my whole life, so it’s not like I learned a new skill. And I didn’t save that much money either, so it kind of failed all around.” 

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Section: BZ

What makes a special Christmas meal?

SC: I hate turkey. Bah humbug. Anything else is preferable.

ZH: I make it a pot luck with friends all bringing a dish. I can do that for Dh100 a person, even if they're making something very nice.

DK: My wife is a pescatarian so we typically eat salmon. We buy treats like chocolates and cheesecake and spend a little more on Christmas.

TP: I don't have a special Christmas meal so I'm happy to get anything that's on special. We may spend an extra Dh50-Dh100.

DH: Our biggest Christmas indulgence is ordering a turkey in – we have spent Dh550 for the bird and all the trimmings.

09.09.17. Demos Kyprianou one of the four founding members of Bogleheads in Dubai. 
Anna Nielsen For The National.

How do you avoid going over-the-top for Christmas?

SC: Since you know Christmas is coming, you can save a small amount each month in preparation. Buy your decorations in the January sales. If you have a huge family or a big group of friends, agree to only buy one present each.

ZH: Realise that most people really don't need more stuff, but that your donation to a worthy charity can help those who truly need it.

DK: Budget in advance, just like every month. Naturally we make some accommodation for Christmas by increasing our spend – but we still stick to it.

TP: There's always a lot of pressure to spend and over-consume for Christmas. I prefer to keep it low-key – this extra financial burden will linger months after people have forgotten about your gifts. Set a small limit – and communicate it to family and friends to manage expectations and help them reduce their costs too.

DH: It's important to remember what makes a Christmas memorable. For me that's spending time with my family. Digging yourself a debt hole for the brand-new year doesn't help anyone.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 28 NOVEMBER 2018. A Practical Guide to Financial Independence event, Steve Cronin. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Alice Haine. Section: Business.

What parties do you attend?

SC: If you're in the UAE, you can have a party on the beach, in a park or your own home. It's all about the people. Having said that, you're allowed a blowout meal sometimes.

ZH: I like to host Christmas get-togethers at my place, where we decorate the tree and watch movies. At New Year my band, the Part Time Sinners, is booked to play at the M Hotel in Business Bay.

TP: For the past few New Years, I've spent the night celebrating with other tenants on my building rooftop on Reem Island, with good views of the fireworks.

DH: We go to the Christmas Fair at the Madinat Jumeirah every year and we get together with 10-15 friends at someone's villa on Christmas Day or Boxing Day.


Read more:

 'I've made every money mistake you can in 13 years in the UAE'

The five-step guide to low-cost offshore investing for UAE residents

How to achieve financial independence

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'Happiest Teacher' blogs about saving money in Dubai