From Survival to Thriving: 15 Ways to Prosper on a Single-Income Budget (in a Double-Income Society)
By Kara Garrod
If your family is living on a single income, chances are you have already kissed goodbye your landline and embraced Netflix over your local cable service. But raising kids on a tight budget does not equate to zero fun. Following are a few survival strategies which have helped our family navigate tight budget constraints:
Allow yourself one season pass. If family members ask for gift ideas, request a family membership to your favorite venue (or money toward). Aim for the membership level which includes parking, so each visit is free of even that worry. If you rotate your annual membership each year — the aquarium when the kids are young, then the zoo, the museum as their attention spans’ increase — you can fully experience each institution. Also, research any reciprocity agreements your favorite institutions have with other venues: flashing your local membership card may earn you a discount or even free entry if you visit friends — and their favorite institutions — in another city.
Visit the library. When I worked full time (for a paycheck, that is) I often returned from bookstores with an armful of hardbacks and a conspicuous dent in my bank account. It took many of my stay-at-home years to acknowledge this addiction, which I have since transferred to the library. To reduce potential fines, we visit the library on the same day each week, piggybacking around a free story time. That morning, I renew the books we hope to keep and remind the kids of the books we have placed on hold to pick up. If your kids are like mine, an added bonus is some quiet time upon your return, since they are immersed in their new pile of knowledge.
Pack snacks. When we leave the house, I bring an insulated tote with ice pack, water, and plenty of real food. If we will be out most of the day, I include proteins like hard boiled eggs (in the shell, in case they return to the fridge) and cheese, as well as fresh veggies with hummus, bread or rice cakes with nut butter, fruit, granola bars or frozen yogurt tube. This creates more work for me before we leave the house, but I have never regretted it. If I don’t have healthy snacks on hand when the meltdowns are pending, I do regret that. A little advanced planning means avoiding retail-priced manufactured food snacks, and stymies any temptation to drive thru.
Regarding our kids’ extracurriculars: cold cash is not the only way to pay someone else for their services. There are plenty of small business owners who might consider an exchange of services, like an hour of cleaning for an hour of lessons. We vacuum and mop the dance studio, refer friends for discounts, and I occasionally write content for business websites in exchange for lessons. While I do not particularly savor cleaning my own home, I do enjoy cleaning the studio, in part because I know it provides my children something they love, and teaches them responsibility.
Carry store-bought teabags or instant coffee packets with you, and make a travel mug your constant companion. This is a page from my frugal mother-in-law’s handbook. You’ll be surprised how many places (gas stations, visitor centers) won’t charge you to fill your personal mug with hot water. While I enjoy coffee shops as a solo venture, two dollars quickly converts to ten dollars when my kids are in tow. This solution eliminates the inevitable badgering for cake pops, yet still satisfies my craving for a warm cuppa something in the early afternoon.
Attempt it as a one-car family. We cheat here — we maintain two cars, but only one travels any distance greater than a few miles from our home. My husband drives to the bus stop, where he either catches the bus or runs to work. Doing so not only eliminates downtown parking fees and reduces fuel costs, but also allows us to decrease our car insurance payment for that vehicle.
Opt out of direct marketing, both mail and e-mail. By controlling the barrage of mass marketing directed at us and our children, we are not tempted to buy something we do not need. Buh-bye, American Girl catalogue. Try the Unroll Me app to purge your inbox.
Reconsider your necessities and identify your impulses. For me, once I admit that craft item “I need” is really something “I want,” it is easier for me to leave without it. This applies to the kids, too. Take pictures of anything that catches their interest, and add it to their “wish list.” By the time a gift-giving opportunity rolls around, it is easier to identify which items will bring them the most joy.
Avoid monthly payments. This is my husband’s forte, and applies to online distributors and subscriptions. By reducing the amount of fixed monthly or annual expenses directly removed from our account, we have more control of our spending.
Buy second hand. When we had one child, I wanted only the “very best” for her. After our second, I realized I could have someone else’s “very best” (which was, quite honestly, better than our very best) at an incredibly reduced price. That being said, use resale clothing stores with some caution: buy only what can be immediately laundered when you arrive home.
Avoid big convenience retailers. According to my husband, I am a marketer’s (Ahem!) dream. Even armed with that knowledge, when I walked into that store with the red bullseye for “just a few” things, I still somehow surrendered at least $100 on my way out. Now, I Just. Don’t. Go. Instead, I buy the chemical-free household products that once drew me in on ePantry, for comparable pricing and delivery to my door. Also — saving the rain forests! (See second sentence of this graph.) Honestly, I figure I save $80 each time I use it, and there is no monthly requirement. Win-win.
Volunteer. Besides the feel-good response to sharing your time and talent for a cause in which you believe, volunteers often receive additional benefits such as free parking, event tickets, or discounted memberships.
Define “splurge.” Certainly our hard work to remain within a tight budget should be occasionally rewarded with a restaurant meal and zero clean up. Be certain you and your partner agree on both the amount of your splurge, and the frequency: Once a week, or once a quarter?
Use regional sources like local magazines to note upcoming free events. We have enjoyed programs at libraries, parks, art museums, home repair retailers, craft stores, and book stores. Arrive early, and remember your tunnel-vision goggles (or “forget” your purse) if the events are at a retailer.
Meal planning: my nemesis. Each week, I find myself tossing food from the fridge that is no longer edible. My personal goals for saving money in this arena are: plan our meals, buy only those groceries, make those meals. Seems simple, right? I’ll let you know how it goes.
When it comes to wrangling errant budgets, remember your mindset is important. Instead of viewing shopping as an opportunity to spend money, reframe it as an opportunity to save money. If we can pass along our good spending habits to our children, then our efforts are invaluable.
Kara Garrod is a homeschooling mama who embraces learning while she teaches, and a seven-year veteran of surviving on a single income. She is grateful for the opportunity to raise her young children alongside her burgeoning writing career, and wants everyone to have the opportunity to thrive while also adhering to a tight budget.