As a personal finance journalist, I’ve interviewed dozens of parents with kids who have lived extremely frugal lives—often to allow one spouse to stay home or to pay off debt. I have found that there is one characteristic these families seem to have in common: creativity. Though they stuck strictly to household budgets, they did not completely abandon fun outings with their kids or avoid restaurant meals. Instead, they were smarter about how they paid for both their basics and their splurges.
Here are some of the money management ideas I’ve gleaned from frugal families over the years:
Families on a tight household budget tend to buy basics at the grocery store and cook at home most of the time instead of eating out. Some use coupons, but many don’t bother. In general, frugal families skip expensive prepared foods (frozen dinners, canned soups, etc.). They also pass up snack-sized packages of everything from baby carrots to trail mix. Instead, they buy in bulk at much lower prices and separate items into smaller servings themselves.
Another suggestion: If it’s possible, avoid going to the grocery store with kids. Kids tend to ask for snacks that can dent your budget. And shop less often; you’ll be less tempted to buy impulse items.
You don’t necessarily have to swear off restaurant meals when you’re watching your budget. However, it pays to be strategic about how and when you do it. For instance, one family I interviewed only allowed themselves take-out food items such as pizza, burritos, or Thai food. That way, they didn’t buy budget-busters like appetizers, drinks, or desserts, and they were able to avoid gratuities. They also limited takeout to one night a week (usually Friday).
Another frugal family I spoke with planned in advance for nights when they were tempted to eat out because they were tired or busy. They always cooked ahead and froze some simple meal items like spaghetti sauce and meatloaf. That way, they only ate out when they had planned ahead, vs. eating out simply because they had nothing in the pantry.
When you’re on a strict household budget, look to your local library. It’s good for much more than just borrowing books and DVDs. Some libraries loan free passes to local museums and attractions. Your library may also offer streaming videos and audiobooks, similar to Hulu and Netflix. Our library just began offering this service through Hoopla. You may also be able to attend free concerts, classes, craft sessions, and more. Be sure to ask because libraries often don’t do a great job of publicizing their free perks.
Sports and activities
One family I interviewed bought a family pass to a university swimming pool and taught their kids to swim themselves instead of paying for pricey lessons. Another family refused to allow their children to participate in expensive travel sports and limited them to free and inexpensive teams available through their school or community center. Other families found cost efficient fun in outdoor activities like biking, walking, camping, and hiking. For sports gear and clothes, they bought used from neighbors, school families, and “Buy Nothing” groups popping up in local communities.
A word about summer camps: If you’re on a tight budget, always ask about scholarships. Many camp scholarships go unused because families don’t think to ask about them.
If you live in state that offers tax-free shopping days, be sure to take advantage of them. (They often happen in July and August.) Also, watch for sales on basic items at office supply stores during the summer. And I received this great tip from one frugal mom: Don’t forget to “shop” from the school supplies your child brought home at the end of the school year. Rulers, pencils, calculators, and even some markers, among other supplies, stay in decent shape and can be reused the following year.
Having kids and living on a budget doesn’t have to mean giving up on every luxury. It just means spending a little smarter. Do you have questions about how to make and stick to a budget? Ask us on Twitter: @EFXFinanceBlog.
Teri Cettina is a mom of two daughters and freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and parenting topics. She blogs at Your Family Money. Follow her on Twitter: @TeriCettina
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