Living a Frugal Life doesn't have to be boring!
Updated: Feb 22, 2019
You can live a fulfilling and frugal life here in the UAE (or most places, really), it's not even that hard.
I would love for this article just to be a list of 20 frugal things you can do in the UAE. Those lists are certainly out there, check “Time Out” or “What’s On” for weekly updates of what’s happening in this great country. A lot of their lists are for cheap or free events.
If that’s all you’re looking for, there are tons of options: Open mics almost every day of the week, poetry readings, beaches, improv comedy, libraries, 2 for 1 Movie deals, pot lucks with friends, people watching at the mall, enjoying art galleries in Al Serkal Avenue or City Walk Dubai, bean-to-bar chocolate factories (also in Al Serkal), the Corniche in Abu Dhabi, driving to the top of mountains all over the UAE, hiking in the desert, biking at Al Qudra lakes. I could go on for a long time, but you know yourself and your interests better than I do.
You get the idea; there are tons of free or cheap things to do if you get off your couch, grab a friend, and go for it. If you’re looking for people to go with you, meetup.com is a fantastic resource with hundreds of groups already organized to find like-minded souls who would love to meet you and be your friend.
To me, a much more interesting topic is how often we need to pay for expensive activities to entertain ourselves, and how often we can stay frugal with cheaper options. If we are more content with our own company, can we lower our expenses and save money to reach our financial goals? Can we even turn the activities we love to do into ways to MAKE money instead of spend it?
When I was a four years old, I wanted to go and play with my friends all the time. I needed constant outside entertainment. One day, my mom 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, with my family's help, I learned about the joys of reading and got lost in thousands of books. I spent hours upon hours building lego houses and space ships and learning about my plastic dinosaurs. I practiced an instrument and built up musical skills that have never abandoned me. With practice, I was able to increase my ability to self-entertain, and that skill has stuck with me to this day. And this was all before the internet, or social media, video games, or one thousand channels of TV came to infinitely add to our self-entertainment options.
That internet has also allowed us to be alone, but not alone, in a way previously un-dreamed of. 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 a lot of people, 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 like Zomato or Talabat, and my gym and pool upstairs, and I could literally never leave my apartment and have everything I “need”. It is a siren song that far too many people succumb to.
This type of life also appeals to my frugal nature, because it’s cheap to stay home. I don’t have to pay for a taxi or gas. I don’t have to pay for expensive restaurants or drinks. 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 have to emerge from my apartment, I will be like Nosferatu; blinking and pale and hissing at the sun, unaccustomed to others and not properly socialized.
If I don’t come out, I will miss out on too many amazing things that this country has to offer. It’s about striking a balance, as in so many things in life: how many outside activities should I do vs. how much I can stay 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 4-5 times a week. I am fine spending time by myself, in fact, the introverted part of me needs that to recharge from the often overwhelming nature of others. For you, ask yourself if you need to be entertained at all times, and if that entertainment needs to take the form of going out. Can you develop your independent entertainment skills in ways that promote your mental health AND save you money?
There are two key principles at play here. The first is the hedgehog principle. This states that for most people, they like to be with others and get close to them, to an extent, but then their "spikes" start hitting each other and they need to move away and have independent time. The spikes aren't real (usually), but they're the things about other people 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 4-6 hours and then I need peace.
The second idea is the law of diminishing returns. This is a principle of economics that says that 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. If you love going to the most happening nightclub in Dubai, but you do it every day, or even every weekend, it will lose its appeal. 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 doesn't kick in and you can maximize 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. In this internet laden era, that doesn't have to be a sacrifice. Staying home can give you the opportunities to learn new skills or mentally recharge. Have people over and do something together.
Is there an iron-clad rule as to how many times you should see others, or how many times you need to go out? No. You need to know yourself and experiment. Try only doing stuff at home during the week and going out on the weekends. See if that's too much or not enough. Try doing free or cheap activities like those at the top of the article. You might find that you like those as much or more than the more expensive options that are all around us here in the UAE.
For those who already have this mastered, see if you can earn money from your hobbies, and that's the ultimate frugal way to do what you love. Do you love doing photography? Volunteer for a company to shoot their events, that can often turn into paid work. Do you love to play music? Go start a band and practice and improve so you can eventually get gigs and make money from that. There are tons of creative ways to monetize your life so that you get to do what you want, and it helps your wallet!
Your life can be creative and fulfilling and fun, and you don't have to break the bank.
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This article was also published in The National, thanks to them and my editor for helping spread the word!