Having a family is expensive. In fact, the estimated cost to raise a child from birth to 17 years old is $233,610, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While that’s undoubtedly a scary number, there are ways to keep costs down and the kids happy.
We chatted with five budget-conscious mommy bloggers (and one daddy blogger) about their top money-saving tips and how they keep their family on a budget. They’ve mastered everything from meal planning and child care to family vacations and birthday presents.
Here’s how they do it.
1. Meal planning
“We’ve all heard the common advice to make a list of meals for the week, write up a grocery list and only buy what’s on the list,” says Robyn of A Dime Saved. “I say do the opposite!” Yup, when it comes to figuring out how to feed her family on a budget, Robyn goes to the store, sees what’s on sale, and then plans her meals around what she buys.
“Tomatoes are on sale,” she says. “Go home and google tomato recipes. Is canned corn on sale? Look in your cookbooks for recipes with corn. Some of my favorite food recipes I found because I was searching what to do with food that I bought.”
Robyn also says this adds a bit of adventure and excitement to her family mealtime. “I discover new foods that me and my family like that we wouldn’t have thought of before,” she says. “I had a memorable meal two weeks ago where I tried tons of beet dishes because beets were dirt cheap.”
She adds, “I can save anywhere from $20 to $100 a week, or way more. It’s also a great feeling to know that you can feed your family on $20 a week if needed, which I have done.”
2. Student loan repayment
When budgeting for student payments, the first thing you need to do is figure out how much you can afford — whether you have a family or not.
Remember, your bill is not set in stone. If you have federal loans, there are many different loan repayment options to work with. If you just entered the job force and are having a hard time paying your bill, look into a graduated repayment plan. Your payments start small and then increase over time.
“Sometimes things happen in life, and you struggle,” says Kumiko Ehrmantraut, founder and creator of The Budget Mom. “For these times, I suggest looking into the income-based repayment plan. Your total due every month is based on your income, rather than the standard plan they initially set you up on. Make sure to talk to your loan provider and figure out your options.”
3. Family vacations
“Travel during non-peak times if you have some flexibility around your children’s schedules,” says Cliff Hsia of Live, Family, Travel. “Not only are airports and destinations packed with people, everything is much more expensive. By flying during the offseason, we’ve saved at least $2,000 to $3,000 per international trip for our family.”
If traveling during the off-season is not feasible for your family, consider using credit cards with sign up and spending bonuses and incentives, and use those points for free nights at hotels and flights.
“With lots of credit cards offering rewards points there are many opportunities to accumulate a good amount of points to use for free nights at hotels and for flights,” says Cliff. “My personal favorite credit cards are Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and the Starwood Preferred Guest card. Every time we use points for hotels, we save at least $150 or more per night.”
While using points to pay for travel can certainly help with bringing vacation costs down, it’s important to make sure you can afford to pay down monthly balances in full. If you are unable to pay in full, then the accrued interest on purchases can counter any potential savings from points.
Cliff also advises staying in Airbnb apartments to save money on costly hotels. “For stays longer than a week, staying in Airbnbs makes a lot of sense,” he says. “You’ll get a kitchen, more space, and lower overall prices.”
For most of their travels around the world, Cliff and his family stayed in Airbnbs, which cut their accommodation costs by at least half. “On our trip through 10 countries in 10 months in 2015, we saved at least $10,000 in costs by staying in Airbnbs instead of hotels,” he says. “And our price for over a month-long stay in a nice two-bedroom apartment in the middle of Barcelona? $66 per night.”
4. Family activities
Finding ways to entertain your family can be difficult and expensive. That’s precisely the problem Peggy Chang faced when looking for ways to keep her kids occupied. That’s why she created ActivityHero, an online marketplace where you can shop for camps, after-school classes, workshops, and kids’ nights out.
What she learned from setting up the website was that you could save money on family activities by signing up for free workshops and events. “Many retail stores and shopping malls have free weekly or monthly craft or building activities,” says Peggy. “You’ll find free activities on ActivityHero.com, Eventbrite, Facebook or Nextdoor.”
Another one of her money-saving tips: “Save money on summer camps by getting early registration discounts, sibling and multi-session discounts. Look for value-priced camps that have a longer day if you need it.” Since camps can often be half days or full days, you’ll want to look for the ones that have the best per-hour rates. If you work a full-time job, finding a camp that has a full day of activities with a lower hourly rate can help with savings.
Regarding budgeting, make a category in your budget labeled “family fun” to allow for a little extra spending money for things like the amusement park or the zoo without breaking the bank. Kumiko recommends putting aside $100 a month if you can. Take whatever is unused each month and roll it into the next month. That way you can save up for a much bigger day out.
5. Kids’ needs
When it comes to clothes and back-to-school supplies, remember you don’t have to buy everything new. A great money-saving tip is to shop at secondhand stores for kids’ clothing.
“As a mom, you know that clothes don’t last long, so buying them new doesn’t make a lot of sense,” says Kumiko. “I make sure to buy clothes that are a little bigger so my son can grow into them. Also, I find that the best time to shop at thrift stores is when seasons change. It’s the time when people are cleaning out their closets or going through their seasonal clothes.”
In particular, Kumiko says a great time to go to a thrift store is around the first of the year. “People just got done buying new stuff during the holidays,” she says. “And are getting rid the old stuff to make room. It’s also the deadline for making donations that you can write off on your taxes.”
“For mortgages, consider refinancing when possible if it will drop your interest rates,” says Cherie Lowe creators of Queen Of Free. She went from having 22 years left on her mortgage to 15, saving her family around $50,000 if they go full term.
You will have to pay some upfront closing costs, which is why it’s important to do the math and find out how long it will take to recoup your closing costs. “If your rate lowers 1% – you are saving roughly $1,000.00 ($2,000.00 if 2% saved) for every $100,000 owed each year,” says Cherie.
For rent, check into referral programs your landlord might have, suggests Cherie. If you bring in a new tenant, some places offer a referral reward to you and the new resident. “When we lived in an apartment, we did this more than once,” she says. “If you live in a privately owned home and are in hard times, you may want to check with your landlord to see if there’s any way you could have your rent reduced for a set period of time.”
When it comes to transportation, car issues can be one of the biggest expenses. “It’s never a question of if something is going to happen to your car that you will need to shell out money for, but when,” says Cherie. “Find a trusted mechanic and stick with the same one over a lifetime rather than hopping here or there to have the oil changed.”
She adds, “It may cost a little bit more but having a relationship with your mechanic can save you hundreds and even thousands of dollars over the years. A lot of chains work on commission and/or high pressure sales. A hometown mechanic can shoot you straight without overselling because they’re in it for a long term maintenance approach rather than one time shot based on a coupon or deal. This will keep your car up and running longer.”
Don’t know where to find one? “Ask your social network,” says Cherie. “People love to brag about reliable, worthwhile service.”
Cherie also advises putting time into maintaining your car as well as a preventive measure. You may have your hands full with the kids, but make it a point to regularly check your tires and tire pressure, get your oil changed regularly, and buy good windshield wipers.
8. Child care
Child care can be one of the most expensive parts of raising a child. According to 2016 Care.com member data, the average cost of a daycare center for infants is about $10,468 per year, but can go as high as $20,209 a year in some locations. Toddlers have similar pricing of about $9,733 a year. Opting for the nanny route? For one child, it will cost you about $28,905 a year, but can go as high as $32,677.
“If you don’t need a nanny 40+ hours a week, consider doing a nanny share,” says Juliet Izon of Juliet’s Married. “That’s when one nanny watches multiple children at once from different families. That way you’re not paying someone full time, but you can still attract candidates looking for a full-time salary.”
Juliet also adds, “Consider asking your boss if you can work one day from home and have your spouse or partner do the same. That way one to two days out of five working days are covered. That can add up to some big savings.”
If you average about $10,000 a year for child care, that’s about $42 a day. If two days a week are covered by you and your spouse, that’s over $300 a month in savings.
9. Holiday gifts
Birthdays and holidays can be tough when it comes to both pleasing your children and your budget. To help pay off their $127,000 worth of debt, Cherie and her husband Brian stopped giving each other presents and put the money they would have spent towards their debt. But, when it came to their kids, they knew they couldn’t stop giving gifts.
“We’d always give each of our kids three gifts for Christmas,” says Cherie. “They get a book because reading is a gift, they get an item of clothing because not everyone gets a beautiful blue coat, and they get one big gift or electronic. They get something to open and at least one big item, which is all they need.”
Cherie also got creative with her stocking stuffers. “I actually use small pillowcases filled with practical but fun things like nail polish, junk cereal, a toothbrush, and bubble bath,” she says. “It’s practical and inexpensive items but feels splurgy. A huge box of goldfish was one of my daughter’s favorite gifts.”
10. Dining out
Just because you have kids doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a nice meal out. While meal planning certainly helps with the day-to-day expenses of feeding a family, there are still ways to save money even at a nicer restaurant when dining with children.
“At a restaurant with no kids menu,” says Juliet. “It never hurts to ask if they can do a half portion of an entree like pasta or chicken. You won’t be charged for an adult portion, which will go to waste and your little one can work on refining her palate, to boot.”
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