September is traditionally a high-spend month for Helen Farmer and her family.
“I think most people have had a pretty bruising summer on the financial front and we’re definitely no exception to that with holidays and then coming back to school fees and after school activities and I always feel like that the bills always arrive at the same time,” says Ms Farmer, a Dubai Eye radio presenter, who has lived in Dubai for 13 years. “So I decided to have a bit of a reset on the finances.”
She set herself a No Spend September challenge on her radio show and not only has she been saving money, she has learnt valuable tips that can be carried over into every month — not just September.
Rather than not spend any money for a month, No Spend September — also called No Spendtember — is a social media challenge that involves limiting expenses to the necessities.
"No Spend September is the equivalent of the detox diet. The tactics and discipline needed for losing weight and saving money are very similar. Just as you still eat something on a diet, you are still going to have to spend some money. Perhaps Low Spend September would be more accurate," says Steve Cronin, founder of DeadSimpleSaving.com.
“You try to reduce spend in as many areas as possible, cut out spend completely in some areas such as eating out or impulse purchases, and generally try to be conscious about your spending."
The concept has made the rounds on social media with Facebook groups and #nospendseptember hashtags. It has recently shifted into the fashion world with Second Hand September, a campaign organised by the charity Oxfam to encourage people to avoid buying new clothing for the month.
British TV personality and fashion expert Trinny Woodall posted on her Facebook page last month: “When September comes around, I’m putting myself on a three-month shopping abstinence. So I’ll be reworking old pieces that might not have made it out of my wardrobe for years.”
However, Mr Cronin says there “has been little mention of No Spend September in UAE media or Facebook groups — which is a pity, as many people in the UAE are drowning in debt, not paying off their card balances and not saving enough money”.
Ms Farmer, who has two children, aged 2 and 4, says No Spend September is a chance to make smart, budget-friendly choices and keep better track of spending. She brought two financial advisers from Finsbury Associates, Hannah Greenwood and Toni Hughes, on her radio show to do the challenge with her and she has resolved not to spend any money on new clothes or shoes for her or her children.
“We just bought uniforms — those are expensive,” she says. “I need to get some shoes reheeled, so I’m going to do that instead of buying new shoes.”
She has joined a couple of Facebook groups, including Shop Well for Less UAE and Dirham Stretcher, which share vouchers and discounts.
To control food spending, she spends more time meal planning and shopping around for the best deals. When on the go, she brings her own water bottle, snacks and lunch.
“For a lot of office workers — and myself included — it’s a very easy trap to fall into to order lunch every day. So I’m bringing in leftovers at least four times a week,” she says.
In addition, Ms Farmer is not eating out, not buying any new make-up or toiletries and opting for children’s entertainment options where she already has membership passes, including Fun City, Laguna Waterpark and Olly Olly. For the first time she also started tracking her spending on an Excel sheet.
“I’m just trying to make small changes and it’s definitely adding up,” she says. “I think I’m probably saving around Dh1,000 a week — that would be my guesstimate. And that’s across everything — from toiletries, groceries, activities, clothes.”
In terms of entertainment, she is limiting it to one night out every two weeks and doing more “staying in”. For example, she had an afternoon swap with friends, where everyone brought food, as well as items, such as clothes, shoes, accessories and perfumes to swap with one another.
“I don’t think it’s about being miserable or denying yourself. It’s just about making better choices,” she says.
Hannah Greenwood, director at Finsbury Associates, says that as a financial adviser, she is very diligent in making sure her family is on budget. “I have a minimum that I like to have as a cash reserve and the rest I put into investments,” she says.
But she also returned from three weeks of holiday in September with a decline in the savings pot. With two children, aged 2 and 5, she came back to the usual nursery fees, school fees and activity fees.
She says it is important to factor in the yearly expenses and make sure that the necessities are accounted for, followed by a “savings pot” and then a “luxury pot” for wants like holidays. She does not recommend allocating a certain percentage towards savings.
“Things like school fees come out three times a year, so you couldn’t do a percentage of your salary every month, because you actually have to budget for that,” she says.
She took on the No Spend September challenge because she felt it was important to be frugal due to all the added expenses that come before and during the month. Some of her changes include packing lunch for her and her husband every day, making home-made pizza instead of ordering delivery and not buying coffee.
“The benefits are that you really do see where you spend unnecessary money,” says Ms Greenwood. “You get a coffee every day and that could be Dh20 to Dh25 a day you’re spending.”
Toni Hughes, senior adviser at Finsbury Associates, has also axed his wife’s daily trips to Starbucks for the month and she now takes her coffee in a takeaway mug from home. Another expensive habit the couple aims to break are trips to Theatre by Rhodes, a cinema experience with food from Michelin-starred chef Gary Rhodes, at Dh168 at person.
“What we’ve done for September is, instead of going once a week, we’ve decided we’re not going to go at all,” says Mr Hughes.
He normally gets his car washed at least once a week, which costs from Dh35 up to Dh80. This month he has enlisted the help of his children, aged three and four, to wash the car themselves. When he drives to his office in Business Bay, he uses Al Khail Road to avoid the Salik fees.
"I always budget every month … but it's been good to reassess all those little extras," he says. "Going forward, I recommend people do it at least once a year."
When the month is over, Mr Hughes will be comparing last September to this September. "It will be interesting," he says. "I don't expect it be tens of thousands of dirhams, but it will be a difference."
More importantly, says Ms Greenwood, No Spend September encourages people to track their spending — a must at all times.
“This challenge is to see how little you can spend in a month. But outside of that, it’s how are you actually budgeting? What is coming in? What is going out? It’s making sure you do that regularly,” she says.
Dubai schoolteacher and personal finance blogger Zach Holz says the initiative is a way to “give your wallet a break and learn that you can be happy with a lower level of consumption", hopefully paving the way to lifelong habits.
“Humans are very adaptable, and if you realise you're OK not spending money, you can adjust to that as the new normal, which is a win for your bank account and the planet, as you consume less resources,” he says.