When I decided to stay at home with our first son, my husband and I knew money would be tight with only one income, but I was determined to try.
Several months before I quit, I examined each and every bill we had and tried to find a way to pay less. My goal was to have us on our newer, tighter budget three months in advance to make sure we could do it.
UPDATE: I also have a newer version of this post with even more ways to save:
Comprehensive list on how to live frugally (and happily)
I quickly found that small savings from many places add up and make a big difference. Here’s what I did:
There are so many informative articles out there on how to shop the sales and clip coupons, but this idea is a little more basic. What do I have against coupons? Nothing! They’re great, but personally I don’t like organizing them, and I don’t find many coupons for organic or fresh foods.
Here’s my strategy: Write a menu. Make a list. Follow the list.
Every time we go rogue and try to wing it at the store, we spend much more (probably close to double) than if I planned a menu ahead of time and made a list. At the beginning of the week, we rough out a menu, make a list of the ingredients, and go to the grocery store. See this post for menu planning for non-cooks. (When we’re making the menu, we also consider the food we already have on hand.) And when things have been really tight, I’ve been known to take a calculator in the store with me.
Some other grocery shopping tips to save money:
- Check out the circular online before you make your list.
- Buy the store brand.
- Just because it’s on sale doesn’t mean it’s the best deal. Look at the other products and prices even if they’re not discounted to compare.
- Use the price-per-ounce printed on the shelf tag to find the better deal.
- Look on the lower shelves for the best deal, because they put the pricier items at eye level.
- In our grocery store, the spices in the Latino section are about half the price of the ones in the spice aisle.
- You probably don’t have to buy two to get the “two for a dollar” deal. If you need one, just buy one for 50 cents.
Buying in bulk
If you buy something repeatedly, find the cheapest place to get it in bulk. Calculate it by how much each item in the package costs individually. For example, I did a lot of research on the cheapest place to buy diapers. I found the cheapest place by calculating the cost per diaper. (At that time it was Costco — in the store, not online.)
When shopping in the warehouse, it’s important to remember that:
- Not everything saves money buying in bulk.
Sometimes it’s the same cost at the supermarket and you don’t have to devote your pantry to storage.
- And not everything is worth buying in bulk.
Some things will go bad before you can use it all.
- A list is imperative.
When very few items cost less than $10, a couple extra additions to the cart will blow your budget.
Take the time to learn prices at the grocery store versus the warehouse to get the best price. We have a membership to Costco and go once a month, alternating what we buy each time. These are the main things that work for our family to buy in bulk:
- diapers and wipes
- crackers and tortilla chips
- almonds, pistachios, dried fruit
- organic ground beef
- organic chicken breast
- fresh fish
- rotisserie chicken
- non-organic milk
- organic eggs
- organic butter
- colby jack cheese block, shredded cheese, cheese sticks, gourmet cheeses, grated parmesan cheese
- organic strawberry jam
- organic spinach leaves
- in-season fresh produce
- organic frozen fruits and veggies
- bread and English muffins
- olive oil/vegetable oil
- coconut oil
- honey and agave
- plastic wrap
- dish soap
- dishwasher detergent
- laundry detergent
This was our most drastic measure. We decided to cut the cord with our cable provider after frustrating service and rising costs. We don’t have time to watch all that much TV anyway, so the decision wasn’t incredibly hard. We only have internet now and use it to stream Netflix and Hulu Plus through a Roku. It saves at least $50 a month. Read in full detail here.
You can unplug everything that is not in use — toaster, coffee pot, microwave, lamps you don’t frequently use, to save money. Even if it’s off, it still pulls electricity. You could even try a strip plug to unplug the computer, scanner, chargers at the same time. A friend of mine tried this during one particularly hot summer month when it seemed her AC might never turn off, and she saved $20 in a small apartment.
It consumes less energy to leave the thermostat on auto, and not turn it up and down all day. And I’ve learned to make use of the scheduling program on our AC/heater wall unit. I’ve programmed it to run less while we’re gone and at night. If you have this option, you might as well take advantage.
More electricity-saving tips:
- Add weather stripping to any doors that aren’t sealed tight.
- Use curtains and blinds. Keep them shut to help cool the room down, and keep them open to allow the sun to warm it up.
- Turn lights off when no one is in the room.
- Wait until there is a full load of laundry before running the washer. Washing in cold water uses less energy.
- Line-dry towels and blankets that take longer time in the dryer.
- Load the dishwasher completely full before running it. Dishwashers have actually been shown to be more efficient that washing by hand.
- Use your microwave or toaster oven for small things instead of your oven. You will consume about half the power.
- Consider ditching the garage fridge. It uses energy ’round the clock, and is especially draining if it is older and less efficient.
Our cell phone bill was astronomical. Marcello needs unlimited minutes for work, but we just couldn’t believe we needed to pay that much. We went to the cell phone desk at Costco, where they carry all the major carriers, to find out if another company was cheaper or if we needed a different plan, or something!
They guy said, nope, we have the unlimited plan we need. Well, that wasn’t going to cut it, so we stood there politely (yet awkwardly) staring at him with our two loud kids in the cart until he decided to really help us. “You could cut your data back and save $75-100 a month,” he finally says.
“Yes! Yes. Do that,” Marcello said. Seriously.
I get as confused as the next guy with cell phone plans, but don’t just accept outrageous monthly bills. Cut back options or find a better plan.
When we bought our house, our mortgage broker told us an incredibly useful rule of thumb. By making an extra payment a year on your home, you will cut your mortgage payoff time by four to eight years. It also saves tens of thousands on interest!
I realize this doesn’t help the immediate monthly budget, but it saves a lot of money down the road. My aim for this year is to spread that extra yearly payment across 12 months and start getting to the principal of our mortgage instead of just the interest. It might not be obtainable at the beginning, but it can be a goal to keep in mind.
Baby Gap is my fave, but it doesn’t quite fit in with my baby budget. I buy most of my kids’ toys and clothes at a consignment shop called Once Upon A Child. They carry gently used clothes in great condition at half or less than the store price. I have bought many pieces there with the original price tag still on, and yes, quite a few barely-used Baby Gap pieces. I can’t tell you how much money this has saved us.
And what’s great is that when you’re done with baby gear, you can even sell it back to them. (This is not sponsored, I just love them.) There are lots of great kids consignment shops. Get out there and take a look at what you’re missing.
And as some thrifty moms have commented, don’t forget about garage sales and thrift stores too!
We had old cars that were paid off when I first quit my job. Did we want new cars? Of course. Especially Marcello! He drove a 1997 Pontiac Sunfire that he bought for $700. I’m not kidding. And then, he drove my hand-me-down Ford Explorer Sport with duct tape on the back. Did I mention that it was bright canary yellow? It was. And it only had two doors. Why do they make SUVs with two doors? Anyway, I bought it when I was 24 and didn’t realize that it would see me through getting married and having two babies. Fortunately, Marcello’s outgoing personality and quick comebacks can pull it off. He really is that cool. Long story long, don’t expect to be driving a new car off the lot any time soon.
Another car consideration is gas. Before you make a trip somewhere, even across town, think about how much it will cost you. Check out this helpful site, Gas Buddy, that tells you how much you will have to pay site to site with your specific car. But here’s a warning: I made the mistake of telling a friend about the site, which made her realize it costs her almost $5 to drive to my house!
First, I did some comparisons with different companies, but didn’t find a better deal. But it’s worth it to take the time to shop around. Then, I looked at our car insurance policy online, detail by detail. By doing this you might notice some extras tacked on you may not need. I noticed that we were paying for a couple things already included in our AAA account, like roadside assistance.
I found this black and white houndstooth dress at Ross Dress for Less for $14. Shopping at discount stores and hunting through sale racks is more work, but worth the effort. Just keep your taste discriminatory. An important lesson I’ve learned over the years is not to buy a piece of clothing just because it’s $5. Only buy it if you love it. Otherwise you’re wasting $5 and space in your closet.
Shopping, entertainment, and extras
In the beginning, extra/nonessential purchases were few and far between. But when it came time, I compared prices and researched online to get the best bang for my buck. For the nonessentials like clothes and house goods (well, guess it depends on who you ask!), my main stores were (and still are) TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Ross Dress for Less, Forever 21, Ikea, Target, and Amazon.
I don’t just go perusing either. That will get this impulse buyer in trouble every time. When I go to a store, I go because I’m looking for something specific that we need/want. That sort of shoots the shopping as a pastime in the foot, I realize, but it’s worth it in the end. You have to change your mentality and get creative with what you have!
As far as entertainment, we got a Netflix subscription in lieu of going to the movies and often invited friends over for dinner instead of going out. If we went out, a lot of times we had lunch instead of dinner. The lunch menu, while shorter, is cheaper — works better for little ones’ bedtimes too. Actually, having two young babies at the same time sort of zapped our desire to leave the house, so entertainment didn’t really pose much of a problem for us!
Especially with nonessential purchases, it’s important to wait until you have the money to buy something. Don’t buy it because you will have the money, or next month should be better. Buy it after you’ve already planned it, it’s in the budget, and the money is there. In the same tone, don’t borrow money from next month’s budget. If you’re already on a shoe-string budget, you’ll surely need it next month.
This basil plant is from our little garden on the side of the house. My brown thumb takes zero credit. This is Marcello’s project.
More ideas to help the bottom line
- Grow your own herbs in pots.
- Start a little garden with the more expensive veggies.
- During a tight month, use up all the food in your pantry and freezer before making a trip to the grocery store.
- Get your hair done every other month instead of every month. (I’m on the four month plan, not because of budget, just lack of time … and maybe motivation. See Mommy Style Amnesia.)
- Learn to cut hair and save on kids’ cuts. (Those things add up. I’m
experimentinglearning now while they are too little to care that it looks like Edward Scissor Hands did it!)
- Use water, vinegar, and baking soda to clean instead of buying multiple cleaners. (Try this DIY citrus infused cleaner.)
- Play music on Spotify or Pandora instead of buying songs on iTunes.
After I went through all the bills individually, my husband and I had multiple talks about how we’d stay out of debt with one less income. This is what we came up:
Get on the same page with your spouse
This is a tricky one, because what two people want to spend money on the one same thing? My husband would prefer to spend all our money on food and fancy ingredients. I, on the other hand, would like to spend all our money on decorating our house. But we each made a pact to stick to our budget and consult each other before purchasing things not on the list. He has expensive taste (he had Prada undershirts when I met him!), but he’s actually better at sticking to the list I am. (And I have shown him that he can buy Calvin Klein pants for $25 at Marshalls. It’s not Prada, but hey …)
Discuss how your family can live within your means and spend less than what you have coming in.
Written budget and yearly expense list
You need a budget that is written out, something that you can physically look at and use to keep record.
I also keep a list of irregular annual expenses, month by month. On paper, our budget might say we’re saving money, but if I haven’t included the yearly car registration fee or spouse’s birthday gift, it doesn’t help us. When I make the next month’s budget, I check my yearly expense list to make sure I’ve included these things.
Here are some things on my list: car registration, auto insurance, taxes, AAA, annual fees, hair cuts, birthdays, holidays
We were lucky enough to get out of our credit card debt before I quit my job. (We used the envelope system.) It was HARD WORK. For over a year we lived off very little and Marcello worked two jobs. But we did it and it was worth not eating out or shopping or traveling to have that debt off our plates. After time, we learned to trust ourselves with the credit card and started using it to our advantage.
We got a Capital One Venture card (also not sponsored) for the travel rewards. Now, we put most everything on the card to earn points to pay for trips to see our parents. But it can be a slippery slope, so I have to monitor it carefully and make sure the balance is paid off every month, otherwise it’s obviously not a good deal!
Don’t put it on the credit card if the money is not already sitting in your bank account.
We tithe 10 percent of our income each month, and this was not a place where we cut. We adjusted our 10 percent to no longer include my income, but we still give. And let me tell you, it is freeing. Knowing that we have that money set aside for God’s kingdom, does several things for us:
1. Honor God.
2. Help those on Earth do God’s work. And to help others see God’s love through those people.
3. Keeps us from being stingy when we need to be generous. If you’ve worked hard to save every penny, sometimes it’s hard to let go of it, even if you have a tender heart. When that money is already dedicated to give away, it’s freeing and even fun.
4. Give and sincerely not expect anything in return. We once had a friend in hard times who had lost his job and had two kids. We gave him money in a subtle way. He was so touched that he mailed us a letter a year later to thank us and tell us he had gotten back on his feet again. He shared that he was able to pay that money forward to some else in need. How beautiful.
5. See God provide for our family. Since we got married and made the decision together to tithe, there have been countless times when money has just shown up when we were in need. I don’t mean it arrived in an envelope on the doorstep, but it came in other ways — a late wedding present, an insurance overpayment, an unexpected bonus. And in exact amounts that we needed. We never miss the money we give away. In fact, we do better.
6. To grow closer in our relationship to God. It is good to set aside money for God’s kingdom, but it is not good to spend it where he has not designated it. We have to pray about what he wants us to do with it. And when we do, it might take some time, but there’s always something obvious. We know it’s from the Lord especially when we both have the same thought.
If you’ve never tried tithing before, it will most definitely change your life. I once read an article that said that if you make over $40,000 you are in the richest 8 percent of the planet. That in itself encourages me to give!
- Look at every single expense you have and be ruthless. Whack your budget to it’s bare bones, and leave only what you really can’t live without.
- Pay off anything you can (starting with debts with the highest interest rates). Hunker down those last months you are working and really make them count. Less payments equals less stress with one income.
- Set realistic budget goals, otherwise your budget will fail every month and you’ll give up on it.
- Keep track of each expense, no matter how small. This allows you to see how you’re doing on the budget during the month, and can show you where your budget need adjusting in future months.
- Only buy things you have planned for and have the money in the bank for.
- Keep putting some money into savings.
- Give, even though you’re trying to cinch your wallet at the moment.
- Crown Financial offers wonderful budget calculators on their website. I used them as guidelines when I begin cracking down on our budget.
- I keep a spreadsheet I altered from this one in Google Drive and try to update it weekly.
- I read this series after I wrote this post, but inspired me so much I want to share it with you. This sweet woman’s godly spirit and wisdom are contagious and something to aspire to!
Things aren’t as tight for us as they were when I first quit my job, and I’ve since had success at being a freelance graphic designer from home, but I still don’t want to waste money! I plan to carry on with most of my thrifty ways no matter how our income changes.
It’s difficult to sort through, cut out the excess, and take the plunge to stay at home. It’s challenging at the beginning, but then it becomes habit. If it’s something you really want to do, try your best to make it happen. It is a leap of faith, but also a valuable investment.