What do you do when money is tight and you have a family? Get tips about raising children on a tight budget while still enjoying life.
At one point, my family and I hadn’t eaten at a restaurant in five months. We also only attended free outings, relied on the kids’ imagination to squash their boredom, and slashed our grocery budget.
This was hardly a picture of living below poverty level, either (or anywhere near it). My husband and I had jobs, all sorts of insurance, and a spacious apartment. We had too many comforts that passed as luxuries for many others.
Still… having $86 at the end of the month was a disheartening realization. It was especially tough when we were already frugal but with hardly any breathing room left.
Raising children on a tight budget became a reality as we went from one child to three. Like many families, we were straddled with child care costs higher than the rent or the taxes we paid. We also had “responsible” expenses like life insurance and 401(k)s we couldn’t stop paying.
After a while, it helped when my eldest went to kindergarten and we no longer had to pay for his preschool costs. But over time, we still experienced moments of tightening our budget.
For instance, I had to be smart with our money when I left my full-time job to start my own business (this one!). We also bought a home, relinquishing our down payment only to face a few surprising costs of home ownership (hello, broken water main!).
And even with the success of my business, I still experienced lows in income I had no control over. There was a period when Google stopped showing my website on its search results for reasons I still don’t understand.
Let’s just say that I’ve had to tighten my budget a few times.
Tips on raising children on a tight budget
These days, I’ve learned to trust that all will work out, somehow. That these experiences—however difficult—happen for our benefit.
For instance, only in feeling the tight crunch of childcare costs did I even consider starting my own business. And even losing readers because of Google forced me to find ways to improve my website and diversify my income. These are steps I wouldn’t have taken if all had been humming along fine.
Still, it’s not easy when you’re raising children on a tight budget. I remember debating endlessly whether to buy a holiday wreath because it was a “luxury.” I was even more disheartened that I had to deliberate a $25 purchase so much.
So, how do you balance being smart with your money and providing for your family? And more importantly, how do you avoid passing down the anxieties you might feel onto your children?
Rest assured friend, you can find ways for your kids to enjoy themselves, even if money is a little tight right now. Take a look at my best advice on how to do that:
1. Spend on what’s important and ignore the rest
Rather than, “Watch what you spend” or “Cut back on spending,” I’ve learned it’s more effective to be mindful of what you spend money on. After all, what’s important for one person may hold little value to someone else.
For instance, I don’t get many manicures and pedicures, whether I have the money for them or not. Since the pandemic, I’ve also had less of a need to buy clothes, and I only get a haircut about once or twice a year.
But I’ll spend more money at the farmers market or buy eco-friendly products, even if the upfront costs are more than their alternatives.
For you, a pedicure might be an essential, just as buying fresh produce and eating home-cooked meals are for me. Each person is different. Find the expenses you value most and focus on that. Everything else? Do you best to do without.
Of course, when money is really tight, you might have to make choices even among your essentials.
If you can’t do away with a pedicure, you might only do the basic service instead of your usual treatment, or do them less frequently. When money was tight for me, I still shopped at the farmers market, but stuck to produce instead of the more expensive meat and seafood.
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2. Find free or inexpensive entertainment
Don’t feel like your kids will be deprived of fun because you’re on a tight budget. You can always find free or inexpensive outings to give them a special time.
You can take them on a hike or go to a local beach (pack sandwiches to bring with you for lunch!). Go on a bicycle or scooter ride around the block. Visit every playground or park in your area, or take them to your community swimming pool when it’s hot.
The pandemic has made many free resources unavailable. But down the line, you can take the kids to library events, free museums, and community events sponsored by your city or county.
And sometimes it’s about finding an inexpensive alternative. When my twins had a birthday, we couldn’t afford a typical birthday party that would’ve cost $300. Instead, we chose a local amusement park for the five of us ($67).
3. Plan for large expenses
My husband and I would get paid every other week. Two months of the year—when three pay days fell on those months—we’d receive an “extra” paycheck. I would then plan our large, out-of-the-ordinary expenses during those months.
For instance, I’d schedule auto repairs, buy new car seats, or even enroll our son for a month of swim lessons during that time.
If you know you have a big expense coming up, save a little at a time leading up to it. I knew our twins’ preschool deposit of $1,550 would be due by a certain date, so I’d save the money needed every month until then.
You can also pace your spending for home improvements or appliances you know you’ll need. Don’t buy a new vacuum, dishwasher, and portable air conditioner all at once. Instead space them out so you buy one appliance each month.
4. Earn extra income
The problem with cutting costs is that you’ll eventually hit a limit. There’s only so much money you can have no matter how frugally you live your life. While saving money is often the first and easiest step to take, at some point, you realize that it still might not be enough.
While you may not be able to reduce your expenses, you can always increase your income. And with income, there’s no limit to how much you can make.
You might sell outgrown clothes and toys to a consignment store for store credit or cash. Plan purchases based on credit card points whenever possible (but please pay your purchases every month!).
Offer a service on the side, from writing calligraphy to baking cakes. When I lost income from my blog traffic, I offered graphic design services, which gave me more breathing room to not feel so stressed.
5. Instill non-materialistic values in kids
Sometimes, the pressure we put on ourselves is worsened with the expectations our kids have of what we can provide.
Be upfront about your situation, and explain new changes you’re making. Teach your kids about having a “wish list,” as well as saving and planning for those items and outings. Don’t feel compelled to get them toys all the time, and rely on the library for books and movies.
At one point, it seemed that frugality had rubbed off on our then-five-year-old. I had mentioned replacing random, broken crayons with new ones. But he replied, “Why do you need to buy new crayons? We already have so many.”
Oh, so true.
6. Rely on (and use) your savings
There’s no doubt that I couldn’t have gone through these tight experiences without our savings.
Years-old savings paid for unexpected emergencies. We were able to cover major expenses knowing we had the money saved up. We even enjoyed a simple vacation to San Francisco thanks to having stashed money into a travel savings fund long ago.
See what perks and benefits you might have from your job as well. I realized I had company stocks that I could sell to pay for the nanny’s fees. When our roof leaked and needed to be fixed, my husband cashed in his vacation days to cover the cost.
And even if you never dip into savings, it’s nice knowing that it’s there should you need it. Whenever I start worrying about money, I remind myself that I’ve been saving all this time. Rather than blowing money when there’s plenty of it, I set some aside to give me peace of mind.
7. Accept others’ generosity
Now more than ever should you accept other people’s generosity. Maybe your mom visits the kids every week, bearing food, clothes, books, and toys. Perhaps others gifted them money or presents for their birthdays.
What you’re given may not be ideal, either, but that’s okay. A relative offers you her old washer and dryer for your new home, for instance. The unit might not be what you would’ve bought, but you came up with free appliances that do the job.
Should you receive gift cards, stash them in an easy-to-find envelope so you’ll have ready funds in the future. The next time the kids need clothes or items, see if you can use one of these gift cards.
And of course, be generous right back to others. Donate outgrown clothes to friends and family, or offer to help in any way.
8. Adjust your work schedules
If childcare costs take up the bulk of your expenses, see how adjusting your work schedules could reduce it a bit.
I worked early so I could be home in time to pick up my eldest from preschool and send the twins’ nanny home. This allowed us to avoid paying after school care or extended hours with the nanny had I worked regular hours. My husband then worked later in the day so he could handle morning drop off.
And take advantage of your companies’ vacation days. Use paid time off during winter and spring breaks to avoid extra childcare expenses when school is on break.
9. Foster gratitude for the little things
Kids don’t need a lot to feel happy. Remember when they were babies and they’d bat the balls dangling from the play mat? Sometimes they didn’t even need a play mat—you’d sit them down on the grass and they’d be content looking at the leaves.
Enjoy simpler pleasures as a family.
The highlight of your day can be chatting with family or going to a new playground. Kids don’t need to go to every new museum or see every show. You might hear a few groans, but the more you value these simple, special moments, the less they’ll need extravagant experiences to feel happy.
The best way to foster this gratitude is to practice it yourself. Say out loud how grateful you are to spend time with them at the new playground. That the best part of your day is picking them up and having a snack after school. These are the little joys that make life richer.
As I say in my book, You Are Enough:
“Gratitude offers a positive outlook on life, no matter how bleak your ‘now’ may be. You’re aware of your blessings, even when times are tough, remembering the amazing things that have turned out all right.”
Thank the money you receive, and thank the money that you spend, as well. The more positive you feel about money coming into and out of your life, the more abundantly you’ll be rewarded.
10. Slash your grocery bill
Your grocery bill is one of your most malleable expenses, allowing you to cut costs without resorting to terrible food. Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Plan your meals and make a list. With a list and recipes in mind, you’re more likely to only buy items you need and nothing more. You’ll also use the food you buy instead of letting them sit in the pantry for months unopened.
- Find budget recipes. Budget Bytes features delicious and budget-friendly recipes to slash your grocery bill. For the bulk of your week (if not all), stick to recipes designed for inexpensive purchases.
- Eat less meat and seafood. Certain meat and seafood items are inexpensive, such as ground beef, chicken thighs or canned tuna, but most come at a steep price. Limit your more expensive meat and seafood purchases to once a week or for special occasions.
- Buy generic. For as long as I remember, I only bought brand name sugar—it had never occurred to me to buy anything else. Then one day after I briefed my husband on our plan to keep the grocery bill low, he came home with generic sugar. Could I tell the difference? Not a bit. Now I buy generic when I can, especially when there’s little difference.
- Buy on sale. Let’s say the recipe calls for farfalle pasta, but you see that penne pasta is on sale for $1 per box. Here’s where you can be flexible with your recipes: choose the penne pasta because it’s on sale. How about produce? If you were like me, I would buy the same fruits every week, never mind if they were or weren’t on sale. Now I know better and only buy the ones on sale. Later, the others will be cheap enough to buy on sale as well.
- Base recipes on ingredients you already have. Use food you already have in your kitchen. Go through the pantry and find pastas, grains, spices and oils you may have bought once and never used again. Look through your kitchen and find a recipe that uses that oyster sauce or tahini you bought a while back. Allrecipes.com has a great feature that lets you search for recipes by ingredients. And I’m sure your freezer has bags of frozen vegetables that would make a delicious fried rice or stir fry.
- Find recipes for next week that use this week’s unused ingredients. After cooking a meal, note which ingredients didn’t get used up. For instance, a sauce may have only used half a can of tomato paste with the rest sitting in your fridge. Find a recipe that uses half a can of tomato paste and cook it next week.
- Shop at bulk stores. You’re paying more up front but saving in the long run. But only buy items you’ll actually use. If you hardly cook with breadcrumbs, don’t buy it at Costco because those two containers will sit in your pantry for years. And when you buy a four-pack of sausages, put them to good use and find recipes that include them in the coming weeks.
- Eat less. This should be obvious, but in our modern world, it’s not. Food is a resource, one that we don’t always need a whole lot of. It can even make us sick if we eat too much, especially the wrong kinds of food. Mind your diet and don’t overeat—your budget and your body will thank you.
- Budget and track your expenses. For years, I’ve tracked everything I spend, down to the penny. Sure, I never spent more than I earned and I set aside some for savings. But I never actually set a budget for food. I figured so long as I wasn’t in the red, I was okay. Only in actually seeing how much I spent on food every month did I finally get a wakeup call. I got the sense we were spending more on food, but I waved it off as part of our growing family and feeding growing boys. Truth to a point, but still not a complete excuse. Now I budget $250 a week for groceries. That mindset has made me more mindful of what I put in our shopping cart.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Raising children on a tight budget is tough for any mom, but with these tips, you’ll be able to provide for them in reasonable ways.
Spend on what’s important for you and instill non-materialistic values in your kids. Plan for large expenses, use your savings, and earn extra income to pad what you have. Find free or inexpensive forms of entertainment and accept others’ generosity.
Adjust your work schedules if possible, and slash your grocery bill as much as you can. And foster a sense of gratitude with yourself and your kids. Doing all this will make it possible to provide for your kids without spoiling them—all within your budget.
Get more tips:
- Easy! 12 Ways to Teach Preschoolers about Money
- 8 Tips to Save for Maternity Leave
- What You Need to Do when You’re Stressed about Money
- 12 Types of Flexible Work Arrangements You Can Actually Do
- The Benefits of Fostering Gratitude
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