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Money-saving gems for working moms

Working moms. Aren't all moms workers?

Moms must keep up with growing bodies and minds, juggle the family budget which includes such incidentals as lunch money, picture money, field-trip fees and schooling costs, plus keep the home humming along -- every day.

"Stretched for time" takes on a new meaning when a mom also works outside the home. With such a busy schedule, it's tough finding the time to balance the checkbook, let alone come up with ways to stretch the family budget.

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In honor of all you moms who pull double-duty by working outside the home as well as inside, we consulted some experts to offer tips to help you spend less and play more.

Where the money goes
Before you can budget, you need to know where the money is going.

"The top five expenses for working families are housing, child care, health insurance, food and clothing," says Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA), in Washington, D.C.

Child care, ranked the second-highest cost, consumes an average 9 percent of America's working families' monthly income, according to a 2003 study released by the Urban Institute.

The harsh reality is that the cost of child care is directly related to its quality.

"Parents have less money when their children are young, and that's when the costs for care are so high," says Smith. "Even so, this is not the place to cut corners. Our children are an important investment. We know that 90 percent of the brain's development takes place before age 5."

What's a mom to do?
Examine carefully all your options. Weigh safety, kindness and professional attitudes of caregivers, ratio of children to teachers and the happiness factor when making your decision. Visit several centers before placing your child. Do your research and be flexible to maximize savings.

Talk to local experts
Find and talk to your local child-care specialists. ChildCareAware is a nonprofit initiative that helps parents find quality care in their communities. This organization will help you sort out your options, from the cost to the quality. Plus, they'll help determine whether you qualify for government subsidies or other financial grants if your income is borderline.

Talk to your employer
Many companies offer a flexible spending account for dependent care. Flexible spending accounts allow you to deduct up to $5,000 in pretax dollars annually from your paychecks. You can withdraw this money to pay for licensed child-care expenses.

Your employer may have a partnership with a day-care facility that provides discounted rates to its employees. Again, quality before cost savings! Make sure you're comfortable with your child's care.

More employers are offering flexible scheduling. Ask about flexible hours, job-sharing or telecommuting. Arrange your work schedule to alternate with your spouse's or relative's to reduce the amount of time your child will have to spend in daycare.

Do you know a co-worker with similar backgrounds and parenting styles? Perhaps you can split the cost of home child care.

Take the pre-K initiative
If your public school district offers a half-day pre-K program for 4-year-olds, enroll your child. It's free and reduces child-care costs to half-day rates.

Another pre-K initiative, Head Start, offers early learning child-care for 100-percent poverty level and special-needs children. They often have a working collaboration with child-care facilities for additional hours.

And, now for Mom
Working moms need to shed the aprons and casual wear when heading off to the office. Here are a few tricks for economizing without losing style.

Go pro, not trendy
Stretch your clothing budget by concentrating on a professional style, not trendy, recommends Joi Gordon, chief executive director of Dress for Success, a nonprofit organization based in New York that helps women move into the work force.

Simple is best. Concentrate on basic colors, such as blue, black and gray, she says. Basic colors go a long way and can be easily interchanged with different blouses to create diverse outfits. Stay away from the extremely fashionable styles that limit how many times and how many ways you can wear them.

Don't over accessorize, Gordon says. It's a waste of money trying to match accessories to all your outfits.

Put on the spritz, not the ritz
Dry cleaning costs add up quickly. So put the silks in the back of the closet, and move your wash-and-wears upfront.

When your clothes are wrinkled, hang them on a shower rod, spritz them with a fine mist of hot water and they'll be wrinkle-free in the morning.

Got a spot? Remove it yourself. North Carolina State University's Web site offers general hints for removing spots and stains, and recommends products that work.

Shop with a mission
Make a grocery list and an errand list before heading out to shop. The trick is to do both grocery shopping and errands on the same day. That way you don't have the time to browse, salivating over all the cool stuff you really don't need.

Keep track of every dollar you spend. If you want to cut costs, first you need to know exactly what you are spending. Then, identify the "wants" and the "needs." Limit your wants and take care of the family's needs.

Start holiday shopping early and spread it out over a few months instead of a few days. If your state offers "tax-free" shopping days during the summer -- get a jump on birthday and holiday purchases then.

Always send in for the rebate on a purchase whether it's $2 or $50. It all adds up.

Maximize your benefits
If you and your husband are offered medical benefits through your employers, evaluate the coverage and the costs offered to see where you can cut expenses by putting the whole family on one of the plans. You'll want to consider cost, plan design and the doctors in the plan before making your decision.

Employers save money when you choose to refuse a health benefit. See if they will give you cash back if you show that you're covered under your spouse's plan.

Fuel economy
Most moms race around town running the family carpool. Gas prices are climbing, so any way to cut back on fuel means money back in your pocket.

Keep your engine well maintained and your tires at the proper pressure to save on fuel costs. Combine errands into a single trip and use the family's most fuel-efficient car when doing extensive driving. Compare prices at different gas stations; pump the gas yourself; and use the lowest octane possible for your car. Try Bankrate's gas-saver calculator to see if you can save by driving to a cheaper gas station.

Don't stop talking
Cancel your long-distance phone service. Instead, use a prepaid phone card, readily available at most any major retail establishment. For example, Sam's Club offers prepaid cards for as low as 3.47 cents per minute. Or, if chatting on the phone with family and friends far away is important to you, switch your long-distance service to a cell phone with real nationwide minutes. Just remember to track the minutes used, as the over-the -limit costs are very expensive.

Frequent libraries instead of bookstores
Everyone needs to kick back and delve into a good book, but you don't have to spend a bundle. If books are your bag, a fancy bookstore is a dangerous place to be. They're expensive and encourage impulse spending. Instead read the unread books spilling off your bookshelves, search used bookstores or garage sales and visit your public library.

Form book clubs with friends, co-workers and relatives to recycle your books.

Playtime for mom
Go to the matinees of first-run movies. You'll still get the big-screen experience but at a significant savings.

Try out a dollar theater, a local film festival or even a drive-in. To really save, rent movies. Better yet, check out your local public library for free movies to borrow or work as a volunteer at a local fair or festival -- you'll get in free.

Do lunch. Go to the lovely French bistro or seafood café that you've been longing to check out. Lunch menus usually offer the same entrees as dinner, just smaller portions and a smaller check.

Another cost-cutting palate pleaser: Dine out during the week, rather than the weekends. It's usually cheaper.

-- Updated: May 2, 2005



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