Zach Holz counts photography and percussion among his side hustles, adores his job teaching English at Dubai’s Universal American School and has recently made some big improvements to his lifestyle, too. But the 35-year-old American also has a much bigger mission: spreading the word about how when it comes to having a fulfilled, happy life, financial freedom beats anything you can buy. As he writes in the bio for his popular blog The Happiest Teacher: “I am obsessed with personal finance and making sure I have enough money to not be forced to stay in a bad situation just because I need the pay cheque.”
Holz was never a spendthrift — steering clear of credit cards, quickly clearing his student loans and regularly saving during his first years in the workforce. But like many of us, he struggled with how to best invest his savings, and it wasn’t until 2016 when he attended a session by the Canadian expat-teacher-turned millionaire Andrew Hallem in Dubai that he dove deep into the world of financial independence. His interest in the topic has not only sprouted the blog, but a regular column in The National newspaper and monthly radio appearances on Dubai Eye 103.8, where he talks about how tracking spending, saving more and giving up the notion that you can ever “keep up with the Joneses” — and how that can make all of us more happy.
What do you love about life in the UAE?
Two of the things that I’ve loved about my time in the UAE are ease and access. Living in the UAE gives you the incredible benefits of living overseas like exposure to new cultures, better and affordable health care, cheap public transportation and all the rest, while allowing me to not have to learn another language, which makes day-to-day interactions incredibly easy. Being able to get anything delivered to my door also makes life so much simpler than many places I’ve lived. Access goes hand in hand with this. The UAE has pretty much everything I could want. Do you want to get involved in a local music scene? It’s there! Do you want to join world class photography associations, they’re at your doorstep. How about learning to Salsa Dance or cook a certain cuisine? It’s all there for the taking, all you have to do is find it and you can do whatever you want.
What things bring you down, and how do you deal with yourself when that happens?
If we’re talking about life in the UAE, the driving can be frustrating, especially when people who are very entitled drive and park terribly, like when they double park in lanes while waiting for their food to be brought out to their cars, or who are trying to go 30km/h over the speed limit and flash their lights behind you on the highway. I try to orient my life in a way that requires less driving. For example, I just moved so that my commute will be half the time it was previously.
Can you give us your personal recipe for happiness?
Yes! You need to base your decisions on how they will impact four factors in your life: health (mental and physical) finances, purpose, and community. If you make decisions that maximize those four areas, you will have a long, happy, healthy life with plenty of money.
Any workplace has its share of complainers. How do you deal with downers in the workplace?
Most of my downers in the workplace revolve around meetings. They often make me want to flee, screaming into the sunshine, never to return. The only way I’ve found to make it through is to be mindful that the meeting is temporary, and that it will be over soon enough and I can get back to the work that I love, which is working with kids to try to help them grow as students and people.
What is your relationship with money?
I’d say pretty positive! I’m a fairly natural saver, always have been, which has helped a lot in terms of reaching my financial goals. I’ve been debt free since 2011, when I paid off my last student loan, and at this point money is a source of excitement, because I understand what a powerful tool it can be when you buy appreciating assets that generate income for you. I spend my money mostly on experiences and buying investments that continue to grow and will hopefully provide me a lifestyle where working is totally optional and I have complete control over my working environment.
What advice do you like to give other people?
First is track your spending using a spending tracker app on your phone. It takes 30 seconds a day and it will totally change how you view your money and help you to save a lot more. Second, learn about index fund investing and take control over your money. Don’t let a ‘financial adviser’ steal all your hard-won progress.
Cash or credit?
I’ve been a cash guy most my life, but I recently had to get and use a credit card so that I can get a mortgage for investment property in the future. Cash has kept me safe, especially here where annual credit card interest rates are often around 45 per cent. Too many people I know are deeply in credit card debt, and that’s just a burden I don’t want.
Rent or buy a car?
I’ve done both, and both are not great for your finances. Right now, owning my car is my greatest expense, as it was when I rented. What I would really prefer is to have a life where I don’t need a car, but right now that’s just not possible. Ideally I would walk, bike, or take the metro everywhere.
What’s the worst habit you’ve developed over the past year — and what are you doing to get rid of it?
Actually, this past year has been all about getting rid of bad habits and forming good ones. I’ve been quite successful at developing a new relationship with food, being more present and avoiding social media, and falling in love with yoga. That doesn’t really answer the question, but this year isn’t the year for that question!
What’s your best new habit and why?
My best new habit is avoiding processed foods, alcohol, meat, and dairy as much as possible. I’ve loved feeling like I have control over my health for the first time, instead of feeling like I was a victim of genetics or society. It’s deeply empowering to realize that your actions have consequences that can totally change your life for the better, instead of just drifting to whatever’s ‘easiest’.
If you had a mantra, what would it be?
The one I have with my students is ‘I treat you as well as you treat me’. Outside the classroom, it would have to be ‘Live simply and focus on what you can control.’
Meditation or massage?
Meditation, especially yoga.
What do you splurge on, where, how often and why?
Besides my car, I spend the most on going back to the US and traveling to spend time with my family and girlfriend. My parents are getting older, and I want to get time with them while I have the chance.
What’s Zach Holz doing in 2050 and with who?
Well, I hope to be deeply involved with causes I’m passionate about, with people I love, in a positive community, and a healthy body that does what I need it to do. I hope I’m still learning and growing and making positive impacts on people’s lives.