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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Saving money on food a struggle for singles in the UAE

While families can eat cheaply at home, those living alone must search harder for more cost-effective options

Sarah Zakzouk says cooking a big batch of food does cut costs, but she quickly tires of eating the same meal. Antonie Robertson / The National
Sarah Zakzouk says cooking a big batch of food does cut costs, but she quickly tires of eating the same meal. Antonie Robertson / The National

While the prevailing financial wisdom that cooking at home is cheaper than eating out may be true for families, people living on their own in the UAE say the opposite can sometimes apply.

“I do think it’s more expensive in Dubai to buy fresh food and fresh vegetables,” says Dubai resident Danae Mercer.

Although she does not eat out often, Ms Mercer, a health magazine editor-in-chief says her favourite reasonably priced meals in cafes include an egg white omelette and toast at Heat in JBR for Dh35. And while it can cost Dh30 to buy good-for-you but “not very exotic” blueberries at a Dubai supermarket, there are ways around the high cost of nutritious food.

“It’s very affordable to buy frozen spinach, frozen cauliflower, frozen mixed veg, and you buy a massive bag of that for Dh12 to Dh13 and that’s very very cheap,” says Ms Mercer, estimating her weekly groceries cost around Dh600 to Dh700. “I buy a lot of bananas, very very cheap, watermelon, cheap.”

When it comes to singles and food, the only way to ensure you are actually saving money is to do the maths, weighing the cost of a healthy meal out costs versus a healthy meal in, says Steve Cronin, the founder of DeadSimpleSaving.com, an independent community for financial education in the UAE, and a member of The National’s The Debt Panel.

“It's probably hard to beat the economics of cooking up a large batch of food that will last for days in various combinations,” he says. “But nobody likes to think more than 10 minutes ahead these days.”

Cooking a big batch of food does cut costs, but for 32-year-old Dubai-based Sarah Zakzouk, who recently left the corporate world to work as a trainer and in PR for Reform Athletica, as well as freelance writing, it’s not always the answer.

While she loves to cook for other people, she struggles with doing it for herself. Another issue is getting tired of leftovers, says Ms Zakzouk.

“By the third time, I don’t want to be eating it, just to be saving money on the food or the time I spent making it,” she says.

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When she was working full-time, Ms Zakzouk says she ordered lunch five times a week – something her new schedule has helped her alleviate.

“I’m not saying I’m preparing all my meals, but I’m doing things like going to the store and going to the salad bar, for example, or getting little dips and things and preparing a little salad,” she says. “So that’s more how I’m eating now, which is saving me money.”

Ms Mercer is also a fan of the Spinney’s salad bar, as is Bianca Ross, a South African senior model booker. In addition to getting a different mix of salad every day for Dh15 to Dh20 per serving, she has her breakfast down to just a few dirhams a bowl: bananas, Bran Flakes and cashew milk.

Ms Ross also has some other at home go-to salads, tries to cook at home at least once a week and is a master of The Entertainer – she only offers her friends social options from the two-for-one app.

She also likes cheap ladies night deals that offer dinner, sometimes three courses for Dh100, as in the case of Dubai International Financial Centre’s seafood eatery Crazy Fish.

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The amount Ms Ross spends varies according to how busy she is at work and socially, and how much attention she is paying to being “frugal”. On a good week, she can spend Dh200 to Dh300; on a “bad week” it could be more than Dh1,000.

Overall, she approaches her finances with the same motto she uses in her goal of living a healthy lifestyle.

“Don’t beat yourself up, just do the best you can on that day, in that moment,” she says. “I try my best. Some months I save more than others, some months there will be no savings.”

Zach Holz, who writes about financial independence at The Happiest Teacher blog – as well as a new bi-monthly column for The National – was not impressed by the amount he saved during an experiment that involved eating most of his meals at home earlier this year. In the end he spent about Dh1,800, compared to between Dh2,600-Dh2,800 on a normal month.

When Zach Holz set out to eat all of his meals at home in May, he was expecting nothing short of a money-saving epiphany. Reem Mohammed/The National
When Zach Holz set out to eat all of his meals at home in May, he was expecting nothing short of a money-saving epiphany. Reem Mohammed/The National

Mr Holz does agree with Mr Cronin about big batch cooking, and tends to get three or four meals out of whatever he cooks on Saturday to “save a ton of money”. Lunch is a packaged meal from the Spinneys near his school for Dh20 to Dh30; he could make meals much more cheaply than that, but chooses not to.

“It does save me money, but like I did in that experiment, it only saves me about Dh700 in a month, which is not much depending on what I save overall,” he says. “In terms of the hassle I didn’t want to do it.”

One thing everyone can do to save money at the grocery store is to stay away from pricey boutiques and specially packaged brands. Often the Dh10 bottle of coconut oil and the grocery store nuts will be perfectly fine, says Rasheda Khatun Khan, financial life planner and a member of The National’s The Debt Panel.

“Don’t fall into the trap of ‘it’s organic so it must be expensive’,” she advises.