Money & Me: ‘The less I have, the more at peace I feel’

Arva Ahmed, founder of food tours company Frying Pan Adventures, says she is frugal but investing for the future has become a priority

Arva Ahmed, founder of Frying Pan Adventures, says she has always lived a frugal life, a trait she picked up from her father. Photo: Victor Besa / The National

Arva Ahmed has eaten her way through every gastronomic nook and cranny of Dubai’s Old Town since she launched her walking food tours in 2013.

Frying Pan Adventures has been an outlet for Ms Ahmed to broaden her knowledge on the mélange of cuisines in the city and its cultural relevance, enabling her to weave the stories of their sometimes offbeat and occasionally contested origins and create a satiating experience for residents and tourists alike.

Ms Ahmed, 38, grew up in Dubai and only left for a few years to complete her higher education in business and finance in the US. She returned in 2010 with the intention to join her father’s business but, within a year, realised she couldn’t ignore her passion for food.

“It started with blogging about food, but you aren’t really interacting or sharing a meal with people,” says Ms Ahmed.

“I wanted to influence behaviour and have an impact at a level where I was physically taking people into these places that I thought showcase the local and regional diversity housed in the city.”

Ms Ahmed lives in Deira with her three-year-old daughter Yara and is surrounded by her extended family.

How did money feature in your childhood?

Money matters never really came up at home. My sister and I received pocket money, but I don’t remember spending much of it because our parents always made sure we had everything. In fact, my father continues to give us pocket money and the amazing thing is that it has increased more than inflation.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I have always lived a frugal life. I think this is something that I’ve picked up from my father, who I never saw as being frivolous. He uses things for many years, like his car, even though I know he can afford to replace them. Like him, the less I have, the more at peace I feel.

When did you become financially independent?

Even though I have my own business, I don’t think I can ever consider myself as being financially independent. My father has always been a big part of my life and continues to support his daughters.

During the short time when I worked in New York, I was technically paying my own rent and buying my own food, but I never had student loans to pay off and did not have to pay my father back for it either, otherwise I’d still be paying off that debt.

How did the concept for walking food tours come about?

I had been exposed to food tours during a business trip to Delhi, India, so that seed had already been planted in my head as one possible way to pursue my passion for food, which I had picked up in college.

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My father continues to give us pocket money and the amazing thing is that it has increased more than inflation
Arva Ahmed, founder, Frying Pan Adventures

When I did my first test tour, where I went about eating dishes that were delicious in Dubai, I realised it was boring and nobody would want to do just that.

I had to figure out how to create conversations around the food and keep people engaged. I started to read books about food history and culture. The one that really moved me was Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo.

It taught me that giving context beyond the plate is an important part of savouring the food. I started getting my hands on white papers and research so that we aren’t just satisfying food cravings but our guests’ mental curiosity as well.

How did the pandemic impact your business?

It was devastating. We had to refund everyone who had booked tours with us and that took a while because our processor in Canada went bankrupt.

We were in emergency mode and had to prioritise our refunds first and then all the expenses and overheads. Unfortunately, our freelance guides lost out on everything.

Arva Ahmed says having some savings during the pandemic helped to prevent her business from going under. Photo: Victor Besa / The National

We couldn’t even do online tours because it wouldn’t be enough to address our costs. We were lucky the community was very supportive and even people in other countries who knew they’d never return to Dubai bought gift certificates during that time.

What did you learn during this time?

I was so glad we had a buffer and that we never overspent in the business. We have always taken things one step at a time.

I had always reinvested whatever little profit we made back into the business, so there was enough to support the team for a year even without work. Having some savings during this time helped, otherwise we would have gone completely under.

We have three full-time members, including my sister Farida, and four freelance guides. Work started to look up around October last year, although it has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

Has your relationship with money changed over the years?

It changed after I had my daughter, Yara. Despite having a background in finance and knowing that I should make personal investments, I don’t think I ever took the time out to do it.

I would only ever put all my money into my business and never planned for what needs to happen with all my personal savings, so investing has become a priority.

The other thing that has changed is that I am less frugal now. I’ve realised that I cannot do everything by myself in my business and that I need to outsource some things so that I can focus on the others.

I’ve also learnt how to let go and if time can be saved by throwing money at a problem, it is worth it. I now put a much higher price and monetary value on my mental well-being. It saves me a lot on medical bills.

What are you happiest spending money on?

I will pull out all the stops for my family and friends. That gives me the most joy. Spending on food does, too.

What was your last significant purchase?

I prefer spending on experiences, so the last one was a staycation with my daughter.

Updated: March 21, 2022, 4:28 AM