Definitely one of the most challenging aspects of being a full-time homeschooling parent is managing the ol' family budget. My husband recently changed careers after going back to school and earning his degree, which is terrific but it means starting all over toward the bottom of the pay scale. We are grateful he was able to find a good opportunity with benefits, but we still have to be very conscious of our spending and financial planning. I am pretty good at budgeting but that does not mean we don't have our frustrations, mistakes and utter defeats. But thanks to trial and error, we have discovered several ways to help control our budget. Drops in the bucket really do add up!
1. Meal plan and shop the circulars. Meal planning isn’t the most exciting way to spend twenty minutes, but it can save you a lot of money and time. It is so easy to just glance at your menu and see what’s for dinner rather than staring into the fridge, trying to figure it out. It can also save money by planning for nights when your time is more constrained. For example, if I know we have a soccer game at six, I make sure to plan a quick and easy meal for the kids, like mac and cheese or sandwiches. That way, I am not stuck with irritable, hangry kids in the car on the way home and feeling the pressure to stop for fast food to get something in their stomachs so I don’t kill them before they kill each other. Here is a great, free template for the meal planning chart that I use.
Shopping the circulars helps you focus your meals on the items that are on the best sale. So if pork chops are at a rock bottom price this week, I know I can make regular pork chops and I can even throw a couple in the crock pot for pulled pork sandwiches later (true BBQ aficionados are cringing right now at my suggestion of using chops for pulled pork). I can also stock up for the next couple weeks, too. It does require some sacrifice; if we have been dying for chicken breast and it is not on sale, we don’t buy it until it goes Buy One, Get One Free or some other decent sale. Looks like it is pasta again, family!
2. Use coupons. This one is obvious, but I have found that a lot of couponing ends up costing you time (from cutting out and organizing coupons) and money (from buying newspapers). My family often doesn’t use the vast majority of the coupons included in newspaper circulars, so we don’t bother with those anymore and instead use printable and online coupons. The three biggest coupon sources for that are Coupons.com, Smartsource, and Redplum. You can also find coupons on many large brand websites as well, and most grocery stores offer coupons that you can digitally load onto your loyalty card. Personally, I print my coupons from Mypoints.com (see #8 below) because for every coupon I redeem, I earn 10 points. I also use my grocery store’s coupons loaded to my loyalty card. I generally save between $10-$15 a week using these methods. I also shop at the local discount grocery store for as much as I can before heading to a traditional chain.
3. Buy/sell used. I can’t stress this enough. If you look around our house, you’ll see a bookcase we bought for $8 on a Facebook yard sale group, a higher end dresser bought at a consignment store for $79, another dresser we are repurposing as a buffet/microwave stand bought for $40 on Craigslist, a pile of clothes from large-scale consignment sales, and loads of games, toys, housewares and clothes from the thrift store. Both our cars were purchased used. There is no shame in our ‘new to us’ game because it enables us to have everything we need and we pay far less than most people we know. Some items might need a little sprucing up, others are in pristine shape (like the girls’ Janie and Jack striped dress we bought new with tags for $3 from the Goodwill), but an open mind and a little shopping patience have saved us so much. Likewise, we use Craigslist and yard sales (both in real life and online) to make a little money back, which we then use to buy more gently used items! There is no way I can tell you how much we have saved/earned over the years this way... thousands, easily. (Below: my girls playing Operation from the thrift store for $1.99 in front of our $8 online yard sale bookshelf.)
4. Use rewards apps. I resisted these for a long time because it gives away the information of what you buy. I am pretty picky about privacy. But I decided that, being an educated consumer, I could deal with the evils of the ways that information could be used against me in the interest of making a few bucks for my family. There are several cash back rewards apps out there, but the two I use are Ibotta and Yaarlo. Ibotta works by loading cash back coupons on its app, then once you buy the items (and prove it by scanning the receipt and item barcode), it adds the reward into your account which can then be used to purchase a gift card or put into your Paypal or Venmo account. You can also invite friends to join you and earn extra bonuses for your team. I love Ibotta!
Yaarlo is much easier but takes much longer to earn. With Yaarlo, you scan every receipt you get. It will give you a teeny tiny amount of cash per receipt. There are other ways to earn from them, but honestly I am just in it for the simple, straight forward stuff, so I stick to receipts. Maybe one day I will have the will to look at the other methods to increase my earnings. The nice thing about Yaarlo is that there is no catch and very little effort - you just scan and earn.
These apps aren’t life changing, but I am up to about $72.00 in earnings between them in about eight months’ time, and I don’t use either to their full advantages. I’m also not much of a shopper, so if you shop more than I do, you are likely to earn more.
5. Be smart about utilities. This is as old-fashioned as it gets, but it really goes to the heart of saving money: using less. Turn off water when you are not using it. Seriously, when I am cleaning up the dinner dishes, I turn the water on and off probably 15 times because if a dish isn’t under it, it goes off. The ring around our bathtub (which means, yes, I need to clean) goes less than halfway up the tub. Lights off unless necessary. If we’re hot, remove (some, not all) clothes. If we’re cold, add some. If we’re still cold (like I always am), grab a blanket. I’m not militant about it, but I try really hard to reduce my consumption of utilities. Helps the environment, too.
6. Consolidate errands. This one takes some planning, but if you can think ahead to what items you will need to purchase over the next several days and grab them all in one shopping center trip, you have just saved yourself gasoline, wear and tear on your car, significant time and helped reduce emissions into the air. Next time you need to run to Target, ask yourself, “what else is in that shopping center that I need something from?” and grab it while you are already there.
7. Fix and repair what you can. This is a gray area. Some things are best left to the experts, and certainly there comes a time when death is a non-negotiable for even your favorite items. But we try to fix anything reasonable before paying to replace it. We have repaired multiple vacuum cleaners, laptops, printers, electric pencil sharpeners, comforters, leggings, and knit tights in the last couple years, and saved us hundreds. Just give it a try before you declare it time for the garbage dump.
8. Use cash back/points websites for online shopping. You all know about Ebates, which I use with regularity. If you don’t, it is a website where you stop first, pick up a coupon (if one is available), and then let it redirect you to the online retailer you want to shop at in order to get a percentage back on your purchase. I even do this if I am heading to the store to pick up an item. Larger retailers let you purchase online (and you can use the websites like Ebates to get a percentage back), then pick up in store. Another great one is Shop At Home, which I actually prefer because I get overall better rebates from them, but you can be a member of both for free.
Another site is MyPoints.com, which I mentioned in #2 above. Mypoints has loads of ways to earn points, including online shopping, printing coupons, watching videos, signing up for sponsored emails, taking surveys, etc. You then exchange your points for gift cards. I have earned my kids free L.L. Bean backpacks, gift cards to give out for birthdays and free dinners at restaurants this way. I mainly use the coupon printing and reading the emails to earn points, but it is free and very easy.
9. Stop watching commercials. This one might sound silly, but hear me out. We are all suggestible creatures, to varying degrees. Children are especially suggestible. Friends have asked me why my kids don’t beg for every little toy, game or breakfast cereal when we go out, and I honestly believe it is because we restrict commercials. They don’t watch very much tv at all, but when they do, it is public television or a pre-recorded show with commercials eliminated. People have rolled their eyes at us, but I know this is why they don’t beg me for Spongebob Pop-Tarts when we go to the grocery store or for the latest talking rainbow-tressed stuffed unicorn when we need to go to Target. The power of suggestion is strong and even we adults are not immune. If you didn’t know the latest iPhone was out, would you really be so dissatisfied with your current model that you just HAD to have a new one? Advertising is a HUGE game, and if you don’t play, they don’t win... meaning you are more content and your wallet is fatter.
10. Put the brakes on the consumerism. Going along with #9, try to be less of a shopper. Don’t kill time by heading to the mall; head to a park instead. Don’t feel the need to go to that retailer’s website just because you got an email that they were having a sale. Try to be more minimalist. Go through your stuff and get rid of everything you are not using and have no connection to. You might be amazed at how much lighter and calmer you will feel. This will help you not want to fill that space with even more stuff. Make a list of things your family can do that are free, and consult that list before choosing an activity that costs money. Give gifts to your kids that allow them to experience something instead of having yet another video game or trinket. Reward yourself with time with a friend or loved one instead of a shopping spree. You’ll see space in your closet or house free up (allowing you to appreciate what you do have more easily) and you’ll see that number in your bank account go up (giving you enormous satisfaction). It’s true what they say: the best things in life are free, and you will feel freer as well by reducing your spending and increasing your happiness.