So since our family is 6 people living on one income and trying to send our eldest (and later, his siblings) to private school for his (their) education, we have had to really work at making our money stretch as far as possible. We have a budget and we haven’t done a great job of sticking to it this summer but mostly because things have been so stressful and crazy adding the girls to our wild brood. But now we are about to enter the school year and routine will be introduced and things should settle down so that we can stick to it. I thought I’d share some ways in which we save money and stick to our budget.
Have some easy, go-to meals. When you’re out of meal ideas by the end of the week or if you do your meal plan and you’re down to the end of it but need one more dinner and it’s between eating out or eating at home, it’s always cheaper (and generally healthier) to eat at home. I buy a giant bag of Kirklands meatballs, a giant bag of frozen broccoli, the large package of a zillion spaghettis, and the Cascones spaghetti sauce at Costco and I always keep them on hand. So if we’re out of meal ideas or I need something quick I can always make spaghetti and meatballs with roasted broccoli and everyone in the family will eat it. I also keep hot dogs on hand in case I need something quick for the kids and Mike and I will just kill off the leftovers, which brings me to #2.
Have leftover night. If you’re like me, most meals end up leaving some leftovers. I have tried to better estimate exactly how much will feed the whole family and only make that much (another budget-friendly idea) but at least a couple meals have leftovers. We save them and try very hard to eat them before they get disgusting and have to be thrown out. If we don’t get to them in a week, it’s time for leftover night.
Meal plan, freeze stuff and look in your fridge/freezer. So when I make my grocery list every week, the first thing I do is plan out the dinners I’m going to make for each night. A lot of consideration goes into whether I will be especially busy any particular morning (and therefore won’t have time to make a Crock pot meal) and into what I already have in my fridge and freezer. If I have a bag of potatoes and a frozen pound of ground beef, we’re having meatloaf and baked potatoes one night and I don’t have anything additional to buy unless I’m out of a particular spice or potato toppings or something.
If I’m making meatloaf one night and tacos another, I go ahead and buy a 3 pack of ground beef from Costco and just freeze the other pound of meat and then I have it for the next week. Actually I freeze all three of them because sometimes plans change and I don’t end up making dinner one night and I don’t want the meat to sit in my fridge and go bad before I get to it. All my meat goes into the freezer when I buy it for that reason. It means you have to think ahead and remember when to set the meat out to thaw but it also saves you from throwing out food that’s gone bad. I also do this when I buy something that I don’t use regularly and have too much. For instance, I made Zuppa Toscana last week, which has kale in it and we don’t eat kale frequently. (I know, it’s right out of the Garden of Eden but in Zuppa is pretty much the only place I find it edible and that’s because it’s made with bacon, sausage, potatoes and heavy cream.) So the leftover kale went into the freezer for the next time I make Zuppa or if I end up making another kale meal where the kale is made edible by bacon.
Strategize when you eat out. Everyone needs a break from cooking some times. When we go out unless it’s a really special occasion or someone has offered to treat us all, we go to a non-sit-down restaurant. This has the double advantage of not requiring a tip for the wait staff (by the way, if you do go somewhere with a server and you have kids, for the love, leave them a good tip, they’re cleaning up after your circus and it’s a hard job and they get most of their money from tips ::hops off soapbox::) and being less likely to be offensive if your kids are bouncing off the walls–mine never do this, of course, they sit with their hands in their laps praying quietly while they wait for their food. But as a side note, I also usually clean up stuff off the floor that they drop because you aren’t tipping anyone for cleaning their mess (unless it’s Chick-fil-a because they are sent from the heavens and they say it’s their pleasure to clean up after your kids).
Another thing we do is split meals. At Freddys (not that we ever go there because it’s totally unhealthy) the boys usually want hot dogs and Mike and I usually get burgers. And with the meals they give you enough fries to feed a small army. They have a meal that has both a burger and a hot dog, so we order that and each of us splits it with the kids–they get the hot dog, we get the burger and we split the fries. The girls are still little enough that we bring their food along, but this means we can get out of there for less than $20 for the four of us. At Chick-fil-a, the boys split the kids 6 piece meal and I just get an extra juice. If you want to mess with it, you could probably even ask for cups and split the juice. At Panera, we can do the pick 2 and I eat the sandwich or salad but order the mac and cheese with it and one of the boys can have that for his meal. It’s hard to look at a menu in the restaurant with hungry kids whining around you to order, so if you’re going to do this it helps to check out the menu online beforehand and figure out what you’re going to order before you go.
Lastly, look for places that do kids eat free or kids eat for 99 cents. KC parent magazine has a whole list. If you don’t live in Kansas City, you could probably just do a google search for kids eat free in your area. The ones we frequent the most are Firehouse Subs on Thursdays and Planet Sub on Mondays, but find ones that your family likes.
Drop cable. So recently when we were deciding how to cut our expenses to pay for Elijah’s tuition, we were down to pretty much eating out and cable as our only “non-essential” items. So we switched from cable to hulu, netflix, and sling. It’s saving us about $30 a month, which isn’t much but it adds up over time. So far we have missed the Olympics but I’ve seen highlights online and if I really wanted to watch it, I could probably get an antenna or something. But we still watch 90% of our shows on hulu (though most of them are on break right now because of summer) and don’t miss the other ones enough to pay the extra money.
Don’t feel bad about reevaluating insurance from time to time. Obviously you don’t want to be switching your car insurance or homeowners insurance every month but at the beginning of the year the premiums usually go up and Mike always looks into finding us a better deal. If there’s a better deal out there, we switch.
Find cheap or free entertainment. For Mike and I we’re pretty much limited to netflix but for the kids, parks, Crown Center exhibits, the zoo (it’s not free but we have a membership already so we take advantage of it), spraygrounds, cheap or free play areas, etc. At least in KC Parent magazine is a good resource for cheap or free places to take your kids. It’s been extremely helpful for us. Even if you don’t have such a magazine in your area, usually a simple google search will bring up some ideas.
Accept help. Mike’s parents live right down the street, so babysitting for us is generally free. If you don’t have family nearby willing to watch your kids whenever, you can find a friend and basically agree to trade off free babysitting. You’ll watch their kids when they need some help and they’ll return the favor. Or start a co-op with a few couples in case more than one couple is busy the same night.
Our parents also often treat us and/or the kids to dinner or if the kids want dessert or an appetizer, our parents will put that on their bill. We don’t ask them to do it, they just do, which makes this maybe just something that applies to some families but my point is, if they offer, don’t say no. Think about if it were your kids, you would want them to accept your help. Obviously, don’t abuse it but there’s no reason not to let people who have more disposable income help you. (This isn’t to say that our parents are rolling in money, just that they have multiple incomes and no kids at home.) Any time they ask if they can take the kids for dinner, plop the kids out by the curb. Kids get fed, you don’t have to pay for it and you get some kid-free time.
Additionally, if you have family members that work in certain places that can get discounts or help you out, take advantage of it. My stepdad sells appliances so if I feel like something’s about to crater, I have him look for a dented one or one that’s been returned or a floor model they’re about to unload. Translate that to the people you know.
Cloth Diaper. I wrote a whole blog about switching to cloth so I won’t reiterate everything I already said but it was a lot less intimidating than I anticipated. I bought most of my diapers second hand so it wasn’t a huge up front expenditure. And while we’re on the subject of diapers, when we get disposables, we buy the Kirklands/Costco brand because it’s like $10 cheaper than the Huggies and pretty much exactly the same. Also, don’t bother with Butt Paste or Desitin, just buy a giant jar of Coconut Oil (a.k.a. the nectar of the gods). It’s all natural, smells way better than any other diaper salves and a jar of it will last you forever. I bought my last jar at Target and it has lasted for months. If I had purchased the giant jar they have at Costco, though, I probably could have used it starting with Elijah (who is 6) and still have some.
Buy things second hand. Phoebe is reusing Simon’s baby crib and Leah is in one my mom found second hand. There are tons of Consignment Sales for kid stuff all the time or there are swap groups on Facebook and Craigslist and Garage Sales and Once Upon a Child. There are some exceptions but with most things, used is just as good as new, especially when it comes to kids who use things for a few months and then outgrow it.
Most of my clothes are second hand or cheap Target clothes. I don’t need to dress nice for my job, I end up sweaty and skanked out every day anyway. For the few times I do need to dress nicer, I buy a few nice pieces with gift cards that I get at Christmas or for my birthday. It’s okay to ask for gift cards for gifts. I usually explain that a gift card may seem impersonal to some people, but when you give one to someone who spends all their time with kids, not only are you giving them free money to spend on themselves for once, you’re also giving them time away from the kids to relax and shop. It’s a great gift.
Use coupons. I know some people hate clipping coupons but seriously, it’s free money if you’re using it for things you were going to buy anyway. I shop most frequently at Costco and Target. Target automatically gives you coupons every time you shop there and you can use the store coupons along with any manufacturer’s coupons you find. When you’re making your grocery list, look at your coupons to see if you have some for the things you want to buy.
Also, if you shop at Target for heaven’s sake, get the Cartwheel app. I save about $20 per week using it. You just search for the things you’re buying anyway and if there’s a coupon, bam, instant savings. A lot of times it’s for Target brand stuff, but who cares, that the less expensive stuff anyway. For instance, if I’m buying new toothbrushes and there’s a Cartwheel offer for Up and Up brand toothbrushes, guess what kind I’m buying? I also think it’s smart to buy generic for most things. Even if I have a coupon for the name brand, I whip out my phone and use my calculator to determine whether the coupon for the name brand results in a lower price than the generic item. If it doesn’t, I buy the generic.
I also have the Target debit card because it isn’t a credit card, it comes right out of my checking account and saves me 5% every time I go there, which is weekly. It saves me about $3-5 a week, which isn’t much by itself but it adds up. My last Target receipt said my savings this year so far is almost $300. I know another card, even a debit card, is not a good idea for everyone, so you have to be smart about whether it’s a good idea for you but it works for me because we don’t have many cards and I shop there so often.
Drink Water. Generally, I don’t buy juice for the kids. Occasionally I might buy it as a treat but mostly it’s an extra expense and we don’t need it. They have juice and lemonade at Grandparents’ houses. Water is healthier anyway. When you eat out adding a drink with your meal usually costs around $2 a person. Now, $2 isn’t that much but if everyone does it, it starts to add up, which also means the less frequently you get it, the more you save. Generally if your meal doesn’t come with a drink, it’s best to just order water. Everyone needs a break from water sometimes, of course, so you just have to decide if the extra $2 is worth it this time.
Ask for memberships as gifts. For the last couple of years, my Costco membership has been a birthday gift from my Mother-in-law. It’s been a huge blessing since I’ve gone from shopping there once a month to every other week to every week as we’ve upgraded to four kids who eat regular food. I save a ton shopping at Costco. As an example, at Hen House, a 1 pound container of strawberries is $4, at Costco, a 2 pound container is $4.50.
And if your kids are anything like mine, they have toys coming out of their friggin ears. Zoo memberships, museum memberships, pool memberships… these are all things you can ask family to buy instead for your kids for birthdays and Christmas. And, bonus, fewer toys to step on and clean up.
Make your own baby food or do baby led weaning. With Elijah and Simon, when we started solids, I made the food myself by steaming it and using my blender and putting it in ice cube trays to freeze until I was ready to thaw it and feed it to them. It takes some time but if you want to do purees, the savings is phenomenal.
With the girls I have been doing baby led weaning. The disadvantage is that it seems to be messier because the girls have their hands all in the food and it often ends up in their hair or down their shirts, but babies are messy anyway, so whatever. The advantages is I don’t buy baby food, I just make sure the food is soft enough for them to gnaw on and I cut it up for them to hold, so way cheaper, and I don’t have to do the steaming and pureeing part, plus, they feed themselves which means I have my hands slightly more free to eat my own food.
Breastfeed. I know breastfeeding doesn’t always work. I wrote a whole other blog about this, too, so I won’t rehash everything again. But if it’s possible for you, breastmilk is free, formula is mega expensive. If you do have to do formula, though, Kirklands/Costco brand is literally half the price of Enfamil and Similac. HALF. THE. PRICE.
Don’t take kids with you to shop. This is one reason our budget has been having a rough time this summer. With kids out of school all day every day I have to bring them with me to do my grocery shopping unless I want to do it on the weekend and I hate doing that because that’s when everyone else is there. Introvert nightmare. And if your kids are anything like mine they ask for a billion stupid things we don’t need. Most of the time I say no, but every once in awhile I give in just to stop the constant asking. And because of Target’s dollar toy bin at the front (thanks for that, Target marketing guy who doubles as an evil genius), they pretty much assume that they get a $1 toy if they behave well (and we’re playing it fast and loose with the term “behave well”). I know it’s my fault for giving in at all and if you’re stronger than me, maybe you won’t have this problem, but it is what it is and I’m really looking forward to shopping without the children that can talk (hashtag “Bye Felicia”!).
So those are my tips. Obviously everyone’s situation is different and if any of these tips simply don’t work for your family, ignore it. But hopefully there’s something in here that helps you save a little if you need to find a place to cut your budget.