by Keely Miller
Friends ask me all the time, “How do you do it? How do you survive on such little income?” Or, “How do you afford your husband being a full-time caregiver for you and your three children with special needs?” They say things like, “We are struggling on two incomes!” or, “My partner has a good job, but things are tight, because I stay at home with the children.”
I tell them it is not easy, but it is doable, as long as you are willing to tighten your belt. It just takes a lot of budgeting, saving, and problem solving. I try to see it as a big puzzle I need to solve.
In this article, I will discuss how we budget, live frugally, and save money. Hopefully you will be able to glean some tips to budget, live frugally, and save money also.
Let’s talk about budgeting. I always do my budget for the following month in the middle of the previous month, as our rent and a lot of our bills are due around the first of the month. I take all our income, write it down in a notebook, and set portions aside for our budget.
In the first column, I add up all our income for the first two weeks, adding to that the money I have saved from the previous month. Then I subtract our rent from it, all our beginning of the month bills and an estimate of our grocery costs, and make that the first balance.
In a second column, I write down an estimate of my husband’s upcoming paychecks for the month, subtract the rest of our bills due that month, and then subtract $200 from that total for the next month’s rent. That is our second balance.
In a third column, I add the first and second balance together, take the amount that is left over, and divide it by 4.3 weeks. The ending amount is our allowance per week to live on.
|$240 (saved income)
||$800 (second paycheck)
|+ $877 (disability)
||– $40 (Gas)
|+ $800 (first paycheck)
||– $75 (Electricity)
||– $200 (next month rent)
||Divided by 4.3
|– $800 (rent)
||= $243.65 per week
|– $75 (phone)
|– $75 (television)
|– $400 (food)
I would love to say that we live on $243.65 a week, but like many low-income families, we do not. So here is how we live frugally:
- Every month, at the beginning of the month, I go through all our stock of leftover groceries, and make a running list of all the groceries we do need.
- After I do that, I look online and through circulars for coupons for the foods we do buy. You would be amazed how many coupons are out there. Most stores also have their own online deals and downloadable card discounts and coupons.
- After I do that, I gather my lists and coupons, and head out to do one big monthly grocery shopping trip, which for us includes three stores. We go to a grocery outlet to pick up all our dry goods and some of our other goods. We then go to Trader Joe’s to pick up our meat, vegetables, and fruit. Finally, we go to Costco to pick up the bulk foods we eat. Sometimes, but not too often, we have to go to a fourth store to pick up some allergy free foods that our other stores are out of, but many times the three stores have all we need. Going on one big monthly shopping trip might be time consuming, but by only going once a month, we actually save money, because going weekly uses excess gas and can encourage us to buy food we do not really need. Since we lack refrigerator space, we do have to go to the store every couple weeks for milk and eggs, but that is about it.
- If you see spectacular deals on food you use often, buy as much of that as you can afford. It is okay to go slightly over budget on those things, because it will save you money in the end. If you can afford it, buy an energy saving small freezer, so that you can buy your frozen goods in multiples when extremely cheap.
- During the spring, summer, and fall, we go to Farmer’s Markets, because the fruit and vegetables are better. If you go to the market right before they close for the day, they are much cheaper, because they usually lower the price of fruit around then so they do not have to load it back into the trucks. It really is a win-win situation for all.
- Another good way to save money on groceries is to make a monthly menu, and gear your grocery lists to that menu. I will say I have never done this, not because we are lazy, but because my children do not like deviating very far from their set menu, so I use what we have to make any variations or deviations on our menu.
- One good way to save money on groceries is to limit meat intake as much as you can. I can usually make a roast or bird stretch into two to three meals. I use sliced roast or bird with sides, for one meal. I use chopped roast or bird in a pasta dish or big salad, for another meal. I use the leftovers for some kind of crockpot recipe, for the third meal.
- Don’t be afraid to use government programs for food if you need them, including food stamps, WIC coupons, and free meals at schools.
- Plant a garden for fruit and vegetables.
Like many who live on a lower income, rent or house payments, electric, and gas can kill your bank account. Luckily, there are programs out there that can help, if you qualify. Gas and electric companies have some programs to lower your energy bill if you make under a certain amount. A lot of these companies also give an extra medical discount to people and families that have medical needs, as long as you meet the income requirements, and your doctor fills out the form. Many energy companies also have government grants to run programs to weatherize your apartment or home at no cost to you, which saves you money in the long run. Some even replace heaters, refrigerators, or air conditioners or give you a credit if you qualify. Check utility websites out or call and ask for help.
Human Urban Development (HUD) also has rent subsidies for lower income housing if the waiting list is open. HUD also has other low-income programs, which many people are not aware of, besides traditional Section 8 housing. Most counties or states have a HUD website you can go into to check out other programs or low rent housing.
There are five of us in our family, including three children. Since children are forever growing and are hard on their clothes, much of our clothing expenditures go toward them.
Here is a list of how we save money when shopping for them;
- Utilize web stores, such as The Children’s Place, Old Navy, Oshkosh B’Gosh, Crazy 8, JC Penney, 6pm.com, Zulily, and sometimes the Gap. You may think those stores are expensive, but if you sign up for their e-mail coupons/discounts, and you limit yourself to only sale and clearance items, the prices are reasonable. A big trick I have found is to wait until the end of the season and buy clothing sized up for the following year. Another plus is that clothing from these stores tends to last much longer, and can even be handed down to younger siblings, saving even more money.
- Utilize outlets such as Stride Rite, The Van’s Store, The Children’s Place, Oshkosh B’Gosh, and sometimes Gap. Most children’s clothing stores let you sign up for their e-mail coupons/discounts on the internet, and then you can print the coupons and get extra discounts in the outlet stores. Again, you will save the most money if you limit yourself to only sale and clearance items.
- Utilize local less expensive stores such as Target, The Children’s Place, JC Penney, and Sears. All of these clothing stores let you sign up for their e-mail coupons/discounts on the internet and get extra discounts in the stores. Some of these stores even have Apps you can download to your phone to save. Again, you will save the most money if you limit yourself to only sale and clearance items. Again wait until the end of the season, if at all possible, and buy clothing sized up for the following year.
- Thrift and consignment stores can be a great option, especially if you do a bit of legwork to find the better ones. Look for stores that are well-organized and carry quality brands. Be prepared to spend a lot of time picking over items to find what you want.
- Tricks I have learned when clothes shopping:
- Measure your child’s chest, waist, hips, inseam, and foot size before you go shopping, and put the measurements in your cell phone. This way you will buy the right size and you can size up the clothing for the following year, which is how I save money.
- Make a list of what purchases you need to make per child and do not deviate from that list. If your child needs six shirts, just purchase six shirts. Be realistic on how many clothes and shoes your child really needs. I like to ask myself, “Does my daughter really need twelve dresses and six pairs of shoes?” No, probably not.
- When buying children’s shoes, go up a whole shoe size, so your child’s shoes last longer.
- If you can, leave your children home when you shop. I find that I save much more money, because you can actually think to shop. When the kids come, you often impulse buy, because you just want to take your children home.
- Make a mental note on how much you have to spend on each child and challenge yourself to spend even less. Maybe reward yourself with a yummy treat, if your expenditure comes in at less than you had budgeted.
- Try not to buy anything unless it is on a good sale, you have discount coupons, or it is on clearance.
Saving usually is a relative term, especially for my family. Since we live on a relatively low income, saving money for a rainy day is not a very big option. For my family, savings mean living frugally and saving money for our emergency fund. Here are tips on saving:
- Living on a lower income, we usually get a tax refund back every year, since we qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. One way we make sure we get a decent return is to claim less on our taxes every paycheck, by cutting our deduction number in half on the W-2 form. We will also be claiming medical expenses, rent allowance, and other deductions on our taxes this year. Even if you don’t make enough money to have to file taxes, file anyway to get the credits.
- When we receive our tax return every year, we fix/buy only what we absolutely have to and then divide the rest up in separate envelopes towards yearly expenses. One envelope is for medical emergencies, another for other emergencies, another is for car insurance, another for car registration, another for Christmas, another for birthdays, and others for other important expenses. We do this so that when we need the money for those things, we actually don’t kill our monthly budget trying to pay for them. We still have to spend some out of our monthly budget sometimes, but not as much.
- Paying our car insurance all at one time by using our tax return spares our monthly budget and also reduces the cost by eliminating the monthly processing fee.
- We save any leftover money from the month before and add it to our emergency fund envelopes.
- We take $20-40 out of every paycheck to put into our emergency fund.
- Only buy presents at Christmas or other special holidays and birthdays. This way our children get more presents during the holidays, and we spend less because of sales. We avoid excess spending and a house full of toys. Our children also have learned not to beg us for this and that when we go to the stores to run errands.
- Set a budget for holidays and don’t deviate at all. Try to make homemade presents and decorations as much as possible.
- Energy saving tips: unplug all unused appliances, plugs, and chargers. Use natural light during the day; avoid using lights until it is dark. Only light rooms that are in use and use energy saving bulbs. Buy energy saving appliances and get rid of very old appliances that are not energy saving. Go to your utility websites and go through their checklists of energy saving tips. They will save you money. Wash clothing in cold water as much as possible and dry clothing outdoors when possible. Set water heater to lowest possible setting. Use fans as much as possible and air conditioning as little as possible in the summer. Sign up for balanced payments with your energy companies.
- Find the least expensive TV/cable, internet, phone, and cellphone companies. There are programs for low-income families in some areas, and as long as you qualify, many companies will give you a lower-cost plan if you explain your situation. We find it cheaper to just have internet and get Netflix instead of cable TV. We also get low-income phone service, and really cheap cellphone service for emergencies.
- Join Costco or other bulk stores to purchase cheaper products in bulk and cheaper gasoline.
- Shop at stores that give gas credit per purchase.
- Only get take out or eat out once or twice a month, making sure you have discount coupons or utilize children eat free nights. Sometimes we find awesome deals on Groupon or Living Social. We also cook from scratch. Cooking from scratch is actually healthier and cheaper than boxed or instant meals.
- When one of our children is admitted to the hospital, we save money by taking food with us, such as food that is easily prepared in the microwave, sandwich makings, and snacks. We also speak to the hospital social worker, so we can get a handicap-parking pass, which makes parking free during the stay.
- Find free activities our family can enjoy. Many cities and towns have special needs get together and programs that are cheap or free. The Starlight Children’s Foundation is awesome, if available in your area. They provide free outings for children with life-threatening medical conditions.
- Utilize libraries for book, activities, CDs and DVDs. Trade and borrow books, CDs, and DVDs from friends.
- Throw potluck dinners when you want to get together with friends.
- Buy furniture, clothing, appliances, and vehicles discounted or used. It will really save you money in the long run.
- Fix what you can in your car or around the house yourself, or enlist friends to help. Return the favor, of course.
- Trade childcare and clothing, whenever possible, with family and friends.
There you have it! I wish I had known all this when our journey started over twelve years ago. It would have saved us a lot of blood, sweat, tears, stress, and money.
I do have to say that I learn something new every year. Rome was not built in a day, so I read every article I can, and learn what I can.
I know like this may seem like a lot, and I have probably forgotten some things, but by living this life choice, we have limited our financial stress as much as is possible, which is very important in families like ours. If this article helps even one parent, I will call it a success. Namaste!