Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

How UAE residents are reining in the cost of Christmas

From shopping in advance to making homemade gifts and using vouchers, residents reveal their money-saving tips for the festive season

Michelle Silva likes to give plants as gifts, decorated with bows that she buys in bulk. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Michelle Silva likes to give plants as gifts, decorated with bows that she buys in bulk. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The festive period can be an expensive time of year with many consumers overspending on their credit cards to pay for gifts, food and entertainment.

As a result some borrowers around the world start January with substantial debts to clear. About 28 per cent of US residents, for example, go into debt over the festive season, thanks to the cost of gifts, new outfits, holiday travel and eating out, according to a November survey of 2,000 Americans by review site Yelp and market research company OnePoll.

An idea gaining popularity is the four gift concept of ‘something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read’ ... for a return to slightly simpler times.

Keren Bobker

“Many get carried away over the festive season,” says Keren Bobker, a financial adviser with Holborn Assets and a panellist on The National’s Debt Panel. “Always shop with a list and set yourself a budget per person. Look at all the selling groups and websites as there are always lots of items being sold and in perfect condition. Crosscheck prices on different sites and in store as they can vary hugely, but don’t forget to factor in delivery costs."

Ms Bobker says those that find it too easy to hand over a credit card should withdraw what they can afford to spend in cash and set that amount as a spending limit.

"An idea gaining popularity is the four gift concept of ‘something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read’ which many parents are introducing for a return to slightly simpler times," adds Ms Bobker.

Not everyone overspends during the festive season, however,. Here a group of astute UAE residents explain how they rein in their holiday spending.

Dubai resident Michelle Silva says a small plant from Satwa or Warsan with some festive decorations can cost as little as Dh25. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Dubai resident Michelle Silva says a small plant from Satwa or Warsan with some festive decorations can cost as little as Dh25. Chris Whiteoak / The National

"Expand what you give as gifts": Michelle Silva, PR executive

“There are bargains if you know where to find them and if you’re able to think out of the box,” says PR executive Michelle Silva, from India, who has lived in Dubai for over a decade. She has fine-tuned her Christmas shopping to bulk purchases in Deira’s Naif area and Satwa’s back streets, as well as stopping by Global Village and the city’s wholesale markets. She buys bows, ribbons, gift tags and boxes and wrapping paper once or twice a year in Deira.

“Plants make great gifts," she says. "A small fresh plant from Satwa or Warsan with some festive decorations takes just five minutes to decorate and pack, and costs just Dh25 in Satwa. Since I buy lots of bows and bits and pieces in bulk, I always have them in my decoration boxes. A packet of 30 pieces costs less than Dh10."

Ms Silva says many of her gifts are homemade. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ms Silva says many of her gifts are homemade. Chris Whiteoak / The National

A keen cook, many of her gifts are home-made foods such as cookies, pickles and spice powders with ingredients purchased from the central fruit and vegetable market at Al Aweer. For unusual gifts, she heads to Global Village. “The Africa pavilion has the most exquisite figurines that represent the Christmas mood for around Dh10 per piece," she says. "Many are made from natural fibres, so they’re beautiful and sustainable — perfect for hampers or Secret Santa gift bags."

Charmaine Cristobal takes advantage of buy-one-get-one-free vouchers from The Entertainer app. Pawan Singh / The National
Charmaine Cristobal takes advantage of buy-one-get-one-free vouchers from The Entertainer app. Pawan Singh / The National

"Cash in on vouchers and discounts": Charmaine Cristobal, finance executive

Charmaine Cristobal, 39, brings her professional knowledge to her personal life. “I love shopping and dining out, but you have to be responsible also,” she laughs. “I work in accounts, so I know about budgeting.”

Her approach is to use buy-one-get-one-free vouchers from The Entertainer app. Ms Cristobal, from the Philippines, eats out every week, and from January to November, she has saved nearly Dh3,000 on the app alone.

As she works on Christmas day, she plans to go out to dinner with friends on another evening, avoiding blackout dates on the app and saving the group about Dh400. “There will be four of us, so that’s 50 per cent off a buffet worth Dh199,” she says.

Ms Cristobal has cultivated a savings mentality. As well as a cashback credit card, she uses the Beam mobile wallet, which offers retail rewards such as free coffee at Tim Horton’s, and also regularly cashes in loyalty points from Etisalat’s Smiles programme.

She also fills the Christmas gift boxes she sends home to the Philippines with items bought at warehouse sales and annual events. “I am always looking for bargains,” she says. “Landmark Group has a yearly warehouse sale, for example. I bought scented candles and decorations there earlier this year.”

"Shop overseas and well in advance": Colin Mackenzie, stay-at-home father

By the end of last month, Briton Colin Mackenzie, 39, had bought all the gifts on his Christmas list. Many were purchased earlier in the year, either during shopping promotions in the UAE or ordered online and sent to his parents in the UK and brought over in the summer.

“I’ve bought brands like L.O.L. and Paw Patrol for my two girls and easily saved 50 per cent,” he says.

The stay-at-home dad, who runs the Facebook group Shop Well For Less UAE, sits down with his wife every payday and budgets for the month ahead. “That way we know exactly what we need to pay for, and we always usually get 99 per cent of what we want by buying early or by being patient,” he adds. He also makes lists of things the family is likely to need far in advance, and as the year goes on, he buys at sales or on discount, ticking them off the Christmas list as he goes along. “The aim is never to pay full price. The small changes make a massive difference.”

His other strategy is to buy and pay for festive experiences in advance; the payments are then out of the way and there’s no stress afterwards. “We’ve already paid for two dinners on the QE2, which we paid 50 per cent for, and I’ve booked a holiday stay which we paid for three months ago.”

The Mackenzie family also reuses an artificial Christmas tree they bought five years ago, and they buy new decorations in the sales each January.

Claude Hachache makes pet-friendly candles at home as gifts. Reem Mohammed/The National
Claude Hachache makes pet-friendly candles at home as gifts. Reem Mohammed/The National

"Make your own presents": Claude Hachache, salon owner

Claude Hachache’s life revolves around her dog Gigi and her two cats, Shadow and Storm. So when she discovered the paraffin scented candles she loves to have around her flat were toxic for her pets, she decided to make her own. “Pet-safe beeswax candles are also much safer for humans, but they’re significantly more expensive than regular candles,” says Ms Hachache, co-partner and creative director at Carla k powered by Claude, a Dubai salon. “This year I’m making my own beeswax scented candles with organic essential oil, cotton wicks and glass jars. I can easily customise them based on a person's favourite smells or jar shape.”

Ms Hachache, from Lebanon, who has lived in Dubai for over a decade, has always had a knack for crafting, making home-made photo frames or coffee mugs and mixing together organic beauty products.

Ms Hachache says the easiest gifts to give are expensive branded items, but they don't show the same amount love or effort as her homemade candles. Reem Mohammed/The National
Ms Hachache says the easiest gifts to give are expensive branded items, but they don't show the same amount love or effort as her homemade candles. Reem Mohammed/The National

“The easiest gifts to give are expensive branded items, but they don’t show any effort or love. I like to make my own gifts as they’re much more personal,” she says. “My sisters are getting pure, organic hand and foot cream which I make from cosmetic-grade beeswax (from Amazon), pure shea butter from Global Village and locally bought organic essential oils."

The candles alone have saved Ms Hachachae about Dh2,000, while she estimates total savings of 50 to 75 per cent on the other items.

"Focus on experiences": Charlotte Borghesi, kindergarten owner

Mother-of-seven Charlotte Borghesi says the most memorable Christmases are those spent together doing family activities. “Large volumes of gifts are quickly forgotten — I can’t remember one thing I got for Christmas when I was younger," says Ms Borghesi, 41, from the UK. "What I can remember, however, are the years we did special things together as a family — a picnic in the woods on Boxing Day, the year we got a karaoke machine, how my mum took us to serve Christmas lunch to the homeless at the shelter. Since our own family has grown, we now spend our money much more on experiences. That also tends to be much cheaper.”

Mother-of-seven Charlotte Borghesi is looking forward to her first zero-waste Christmas. Antonie Robertson/The National
Mother-of-seven Charlotte Borghesi is looking forward to her first zero-waste Christmas. Antonie Robertson/The National

Like others in the UAE, Ms Borghesi, the owner of Children’s Oasis Nursery and Kidz Inc, wants to live more sustainably. She’s banned anything wrapped in single-use plastic and is looking forward to her first zero-waste Christmas. With such a large family, she says "Santa" only brings one gift per child “because he has so many to bring, he can’t fit any more”.

The focus is on gifts the children need and want. “It could be a school trip they want to go on, for example,” she says. “We don't place value as a family on exchanging loads of gifts. We create the excitement for the kids in the buildup: discussing the Christmas list, writing it, the elf’s arrival to take the list, the anticipation of whether Santa read their list or not, and so on.”

For the last three years, the family have also teamed up with another family on Christmas Day to share the preparation and costs of Christmas lunch. Each person attending is nominated to get one gift for someone else — which are often home-made. “What we spend on Christmas lunch is not much more than we spend on a family meal — we just add friends, set up the table, play lots of music and ensure lots of craziness."

Updated: December 17, 2019 08:51 AM

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