Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort- Includes a bird show, cat house, reptile house, and botanical displays. Catch the animal feeding times at 6-7pm. Family Day on Wednesday includes free Wild Movie Night. Image Credit: Supplied

Fun doesn't have to cost you a fortune: Dh1 can get you a boat ride around old Dubai and Dh50 could have you eye-to-fin with a shark.

Bargain-minded socialites say cheap outings are often more fun because they are relaxed, less pretentious, and provide more authentic experiences than posh places.

In the UAE, 68 per cent of consumers say their spending priority is on dining and entertainment and 71 per cent say they intend to save for precautionary reasons, according to the latest MasterCard Worldwide Survey on Consumer Purchasing Priorities.

In a city where the divide between the haves and have-yachts is all too apparent, there are pockets of cheap attractions and eateries around if you know where to look.

"I don't budget for outings because a lot of spaces I hang out in are public and free," said Susan Durrance, 25, an American flight attendant. "On a typical weekend I am parked outside a busy street with my camera, exploring Dubai on foot, by bus, or Metro. Dubai is always changing and taking pictures is free."

Living on limited income, she prefers to find cheap or free Dubai attractions and leaves her credit card at home when she flies to other countries, she said.

For Durrance, fun does not have to be defined by the place you go or how much you spend but by the company.

Friends matter most

"Good friends are more important than good food, or a fancy experience. Make time to go out with friends and have a good time, no matter what you're doing," she said.

But when friends want to spend an evening in an expensive place, Durrance resists the peer pressure.

"I just make excuses for not ordering food or drink," she laughed, adding that getting a "stingy friend" helps her stay within budget.

While many people complain that there are few reasonably priced recreation options, Durrance said they don't know where to look and follow others to the same places.

"Broaden your horizons and try new places instead of the old ones you go to every time," she said.

She saves Dh100 by taking the Metro rather than a taxi to commute from one end of town to the other — a safer option when you go out for drinks, she said.

Durrance often invites her friends home, makes a meal with them, and rents a DVD rather than the movie-and-dinner combo outside, she said, adding that she also organises game nights at home to play Trivial Pursuit, Taboo, and Balderdash.

"You need a creative mind-set to stay home and do stuff," she noted.

Her budget-friendly outings include the skate park, art galleries in DIFC and Al Quoz, eating at small ethnic restaurants, photography and watching foreign films.

Vandana Dogra, 35, an Indian administrative officer, said the first step to budgeting is breaking the association between fun and spending.

"Just get a DVD, cook popcorn, and sit with family all together to watch a movie and have fun," she said.

She is careful with the cost of entertainment because her priority at this age is giving her daughter the best of everything, she said.

Moderation and planning are big cost-savers. In the four weekends every month, she reserves one weekend for an expensive family sport activity like the Snow Park or Wild Wadi, she said. She makes up for the expense with quiet weekends such as park picnics or barbecues.

She reserves expensive outings for special occasions such as a birthday celebrated at the Address Hotel, rather than making a weekly habit of it, she added.

Dogra realises that while outings are fun, the priority is to set a budget and be financially organised so she can reach her life goals.

On her list of things to do for Dh50, Dogra suggested sitting down to a cartoon portrait of yourself at Al Ghurair Centre, buying a T-shirt with a personalised picture for a loved one, heading to Dragon Mart to buy Dh15 plants and creating a garden at home, buying and arranging flowers (carnations, not roses) for a loved one, giving to charity, and investing the money in five National Bond certificates.

But in the giddy pace of a Dubai weekend night, it's difficult not to fall for the expensive and glamourous outings.

Showing off

"I would say it's the people in Dubai who make it this way. People here love to show off, buy designer- and top-class everything, and get into competition with each other," she said. "I'm sure many people who can't afford it spend more than their budget. It's about the status, to socialise with friends you want to be in the same group and pace."

To avoid the obligations of such social circles, Tahani Mustafa, a Jordian computer teacher, limits herself to one outing a month and spends just Dh200 for the entire family, she said, preferring to socialise with friends from the same socio-economic level.

Finding Dubai's malls too expensive, she takes her four children to Sahara Mall or Ajman Safeer Mall, where the arcades are cheaper by Dh3-5 a game and she buys them a Dh10 meal.

She prefers outdoor festivals like Ramadan Sharjah Festival to the pricier alternatives, such as Modhesh World, whose entrance fees alone cost her family of six about Dh120.

"The malls are made for high-income people. My children look at Ski Dubai from behind the window and ask to go, but Dh240 is too much. I say, ‘I'll take you to Jordan in winter to freeze'," she joked.

It's easy for children to be drawn into attractions that their friends go to but she refuses them expensive leisure options.

"It's not hard to say no because I raised them on principles: I tell them some people cannot afford what they have and they are better off than others," she said.

Instead, she takes them to the Dubai Bowling Club for Dh50, invites their friends to join them at their building's indoor swimming pool, or on picnics to Ajman beach and Buheira in Sharjah.

On weekends, she invites her friends to a ladies day at her house and makes treats at home rather than buying them.

"I make cheese, zaatar and meat pastries from leftovers at home and make the cake myself. It all costs about Dh50. It's more hygienic and more creative," she said.

Gulf News reader Mohammad Ashraff Nazim, 55, a former banker, said he covers his expenses and saves Dh800-Dh1,000 a month by allotting only 10 per cent of his salary for entertainment.

He avoids the malls with their lure of expensive shopping and dining, limiting himself to weekly outings costing Dh100 for his family of six.

Nazim heads to the Dubai Museum for a historical evening and to Safa Park or Karachi Darbar for a tasty, inexpensive meal, he said.

He even makes his own beverages for park picnics, mixing lime cordial with soda, sugar and ice to go with some home-made samosas — and it all costs him just Dh15, he said.

Group effort

Sticking to an entertainment budget is a family effort, he said.

"The family should be united and plan, otherwise the wife says, ‘Give me money for this and that' and he has to adhere to her requests. Both should understand the budget and consult together," he added.

Nazim doesn't mind the belt-tightening weekends. "We have to be happy," he said.

While some social butterflies flutter to the places to see and be seen, budget socialites are content with the affordable social scene.

"I don't find it alienating. I appreciate that a lot of people like to have the glitzy lifestyle but I don't feel like I am missing out on anything by going to a park or people-watching in the food court," Durrance said.

Humans are social animals and while outings in Dubai can get extremely expensive, you don't really need more than Dh50 to get out of your cage.

Do you know of any other forms of inexpensive entertainment? How much are you willing to spend on a fun evening out?