Would you cook more at home to spend more time with your children? Or would you switch to resale stores to buy clothing and put the extra cash toward a college savings account for your kids? For all moms (and dads!) out there, there are countless reasons to go frugal. And parents encounter countless expenses, including groceries, clothing, school costs and child-friendly housing.
Two leaders in the frugal-moms movement, the founders of CouponMom.com and MiserlyMoms.com, shared their insight on how parents can pinch pennies in some of the areas where they likely spend the most — on groceries, clothing and convenience purchases. They, and Bankrate readers, also shed light on a few smart money habits that can really kick your family’s saving into overdrive.
At the grocery store
The average family spends between $750 and $850 per month on groceries, according to the Department of Agriculture. Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com, says she stopped working when her second son was born and had to embrace frugality in order to stay home. One tip she has for other moms (and dads) regarding grocery shopping? Advance planning.
“Plan your meals around what’s on sale,” Nelson says. “I’m flexible about the store I go to. Look at three circulars and go to the store that has the best deals.”
This sort of flexibility also works in the grocery aisle. “Be flexible about your food brands,” Nelson says. “Be willing to try the other brands. And certainly consider the store brand.”
Nelson says another great way to save is to stock up on on-sale items — even perishable ones, as you can freeze the excess for later. This is especially true of “buy one, get one free” sales.
Coupons can be a great asset to frugal moms, but Jonni McCoy, author and founder of MiserlyMoms.com, warns fellow moms not to go coupon crazy — these are often for brand-name or convenience items, she says, and may not save any more money than switching to the store-brand version.
- Use coupons to increase savings where you can. Take advantage of double-coupon days.
- Check out online coupon sites to find extra deals you may not get in newspaper fliers.
- Check out bulk stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club for deals on the items you use most often.
If it’s not new shoes parents are replacing, it’s too-short pants or lost hats and mittens for kids who are constantly growing. In a world where buying new clothes for your kids is as common as taking out the trash or cleaning the kitchen, the world of secondhand is key, Nelson and McCoy agree.
“I did a series of hand-me-downs with kids,” McCoy says. “I shopped at the rerun stores that are very particular about the clothes they take.” McCoy says she also found thrift stores where she could trade in her kids’ old clothes for store credit.
Diapers are a big expense for babies, Nelson says, and it’s worth shopping around for the best price for diapers — which is often the store brand.
And finally, while not a necessity per se, entertaining your children does not come cheap. The costs of DVDs, books and toys add up, especially with your little ones’ ever-changing tastes. But there are ways to provide access to these things to your kids without forking over a fistful of dough. For media, try the library.
“People do not take advantage of their public libraries as much as they should for movies and books,” says Michael Gutter, assistant professor and family financial management state specialist at the University of Florida.
And try trolling Craigslist.org, garage sales and thrift stores for gently used toys — kids often grow out of their favorite toys before they’re used up, leaving someone else to appreciate them.
- Buy toys that are entertaining and educational so there is a double use when the child plays.
- Sign up for a subscription at a toy-rental website such as BabyPlays.com. For a set fee each month, the company will mail toys to your home. You can either pay to have them picked up or ship them back to the company yourself.
- Goodwill and other thrift stores offer cheap, high-quality clothes that kids can play in and won’t break the bank if and when they get ruined.
- For higher-quality clothes to be used for social activities, hit the sales racks at T.J. Maxx and similar stores.
- Arrange a clothing swap. Get a group of friends together, each bringing all of their kids’ clothes that are too small but still in good condition. This works for toys, too.
One of the biggest — and arguably most challenging — components to frugality is learning to do things yourself instead of paying someone else to do them for you. For moms, this can mean preparing your family’s food and even making daily items such as baby food and baby wipes. Several parenting websites, such as BabiesOnline.com, provide “recipes” for making baby wipes and advice on using cloth diapers instead of disposable ones.
As for baby food, “Don’t fall for the marketing; you do not need someone else to make your baby food for you,” McCoy says. “Make it in a blender, fill an ice cube tray, and you’ve got a couple weeks’ worth of food in a couple of hours.”
McCoy suggests sticking with this method of making it yourself even as kids get older. “Make as much from scratch as you can,” she says. However, keep in mind that there are always some things not worth making from scratch. “I tried marshmallows one day,” she says. “It took four hours and they didn’t taste good.”
Preparing and cooking meals at home, McCoy says, was not as time-consuming as she thought it would be. It’s certainly worth a try, and the extra effort may seem more reasonable once the savings start showing in the budget.
McCoy also engages in “DIY” baby-sitting: She formed a baby-sitting co-op with friends where they trade baby-sitting hours instead of hiring a sitter. In this way, each adult has his or her own time to relax.
- Keep from wasting bread by freezing it. Seal individual portions in plastic bags.
- Try baking cookies, bread and cupcakes to cut down on the cost of store-bought snacks.
- Grow your own ingredients for salads: lettuce, onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes and herbs.
With smart money habits
Beyond knowing where and how to shop for the things your family needs, to really take being frugal to the next level, it’s key to pick up smart money habits.
“The first thing I recommend is to save all your receipts for one month, and write it all down in categories,” McCoy says. “And take a very honest look at what you really spend. You will see how much fat is in there.”
Tracking spending is the first step to establishing a budget, and can help you recognize and quash poor spending habits. When you see your daily $8 lunches adding up on paper, you may be stopped in your tracks — especially when you realize how much you could save by brown-bagging it.
We live in the age of plastic. It’s easier to spend money than it ever has been before, and the money itself is practically invisible, says Gutter.
“One of the ways (families) budget is to buy everything with cash,” he says. “It’s extreme, but it works.”
Another not-so-extreme, but maybe equally hard, way to cut costs is to simply let go of keeping up with the Joneses, Gutter says. It may be hard to resist temptation when your neighbor buys a big-screen TV or your son says he’s the only kid at school without the hot new gaming system. But at these times, remembering your priorities — whether your frugality stems from a desire to save for college, retirement or even a memorable family vacation — can really help.
And don’t forget to get your kids in on the action, Gutter says. He recommends showing your children how you pay bills and that things such as electricity and cable have to be paid for. When shopping, he suggests letting children pick out small items or giving them a price limit. At the grocery store, try giving your children two quarters each and allowing them to buy two gumballs apiece, Gutter says.
“Kids catch on to that sort of thing, and need to appreciate that money is not unlimited,” Gutter says. No need to terrify them, he says, but be realistic. You might tell your little ones, “we can go bowling tonight, but tomorrow night we have to stay home.”
- If you do a lot of brand-name shopping, a Upromise account can be helpful in funding a 529 plan. When shopping online or at a store with a Upromise symbol, a specified amount of the earnings from the purchase all go into the 529 account.
- Use online budgeting sites to help track where your spending is going and show where you can save more. Sometimes having a visual of your spending helps.
- If your child asks for a big-ticket item, draw up a “payment plan.” For instance, tell your child that eight weeks of mowing the lawn and helping with yardwork can be exchanged for a $200 skateboard.