Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to have a chat about parenting with an extremely bright friend of mine from my high school days. He and his wife have three children and, though they both work full time jobs, don’t have a significantly large income in their home. I asked them how they do it and the ideas came forth like water from a fire hose, and most of them made a lot of sense for my family, too. Here are the ones I managed to jot down later in my notebook.
Get old towels at yard sales and cut them up. These make perfect wipes. They just run them under the sink water to get them wet, then use them when changing diapers or cleaning up faces, then when they have a ton of them, they do a load of just those dirty cloth pieces with a lot of bleach. It’s a pretty good idea and, if you sit down and start doing the math, it becomes clear that over time, they become much, much cheaper than paper wipes.
Make simple meals with as basic ingredients as you can, then spice from there. Most of their meals consist of a protein-strong item (meat or beans), a vegetable, a fruit, some kind of bread, and water. That’s it. They do have a lot of spices in the cupboard to make them taste better, but most meals boil down to this, especially on week nights. It’s cheap, it’s simple, the ingredients are very healthy, and anyone can do it. He said, “if you want gourmet, don’t have kids.”
Focus on open-ended, imagination-based toys. The only toys in their home are very open-ended ones, such as Legos and dolls that don’t speak. They basically eschew any item that makes noise because (a) it costs more and (b) it causes their children to use their imaginations less.
Buy end-rolls of newspaper and be creative. He goes to the local newspaper publisher and buys end rolls of newspaper once a year or so for just a dollar or two, then has the children draw and make pictures as a very regular activity. The cost of this is minimal and it’s also a great way for them to make wrapping paper, which the family uses for gifts (the children draw on giant sheets of newspaper in Christmas or birthday colors, then this is used for wrapping the gifts).
Cut their hair at home. For young children, haircuts are extremely simple. Just get out the kitchen scissors and keep it trimmed up, maybe allowing a professional to neaten it up once every year or two. As they get older, they might get more picky, but it works well for young children.
Involve the children in every possible activity that you do. Even if it creates a mess or eats up time. If you take out the trash, have them help bag it and tie the knots. If you cook supper, show them what you’re doing. If you do the dishes, or go to the store, or anything else, involve them in the process. As they grow older, they’ll naturally become more and more involved and you can become less and less involved – in other words, you’re teaching them how to be frugal adults who can do things for themselves.
Find activities that free up one parent. Anything that you can come up with that frees up one parent to do something else for a while, even if it’s just something like cooking a meal, is good. For example, one parent might go into the farthest part of the house, close the door, and then read stories or build giant block castles while the other parent cleans up or cooks supper. This enables a lot of savings, actually, because it enables the household to have home-cooked healthy meals and a clean environment.
Find another couple with children and swap babysitting. They know another family with three children and they alternate as babysitters for free on Saturday nights. That means that one Saturday night, a couple would have their own three kids and three more at home, then the next one would allow them to be completely alone – providing opportunities for a romantic date, for example. This keeps them sane and provides them with free babysitting with people they trust.
I thought all of these were brilliant, and surprisingly, we weren’t doing too many of them yet. Rest assured, we’re going to be adopting at least a few of these ideas.