Updated on 11.12.07

Eight Tips From An Ultra-Frugal Parent

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. BigRed says:

    About the towels (and I’m from frugal people who used everything, including my dad’s old boxers, for something else before it disintegrated into threads and holes)–unless you relish the idea of pulling lint out of the washer lint trap, the dryer lint trap, and the dryer vent hose (and sometimes the washing machine rotor),do yourself a favor and either hem those cut up towels or at least use a strong running stitch all along the edges to reduce fraying. We killed a washing machine this way (the frayed threads washed up and over the edge of the interior tub in the machine, and wrapped around the rotating part of the machine at high speed and burned up the motor). Adding $300 to our already stretched budget at that time was decidedly NOT frugal.

    By the way, almost nothing works as well to alleviate teething pain in babies (and puppies!) as a wrung-out damp washcloth, frozen in a ziplock bag. They can chew on that to their hearts content, then you wash it and refreeze it. Travels well too, and cleans up drool as a bonus :)

    I loved the other ideas as well.

  2. Mary McK. says:

    Another vote for haircuts at home! Our kids have had very few salon cuts – my husband has always done it. He also cuts my hair – I have a simple “bob” cut – and I cut his. Coincidentally, we cut each others’ hair today! Years ago I got a book out of the library to learn how to do it and there is undoubtedly plenty of how-to information on the internet as well. One of the great things about it, for me, is that I usually decide very suddenly that I need a haircut, and I don’t have to wait long for an appointment! It certainly does save money.

  3. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Good note on hemming up the towel strips.

  4. Oswegan says:

    Wow, this person is serious.

    Now, that’s what I call “squeaky.”


  5. Jean says:

    You can also pink the raw edges of the ripped towels. You need pinking shears for that — and I recommend you get a good pair — pinking terry cloth isn’t easy to do, and your hand will tire quickly.


    We find old towels constantly in our janitorial business and at the rate we go through rags, cutting up someone’s old ugly bath towels is WAY cheaper than buying those crummy cheap (but expensive) terry shop towels that rub through in four washings.

  6. Danielle says:

    You could also use old/cheap washcloths for wipes- they are pre-serged (stitch to prevent fraying)! We use them to clean up our twins after meals and also as paper towel alternatives. We have 3 kids and live on 1.05 incomes (I make only 5% of what my dh does and I work very part time) and we we re already doing most of the above except for haircuts. hmmm, maybe I should get a flow-bee. LOL.

    As an addition, I’ll just throw in an extra plug for the crockpot. Oh, and I am always freezing day old bread until I can get to it to eat it, saves a ton of $$!

  7. fiveberries says:

    One of our favorite family activities used to be reading the newspaper. Okay, we wanted to read the newspaper — so out of desperation, we would give our oldest son, when he was about 2 or 3, crayons and the car section. He was a huge fan of cars and loved looking at them and coloring them, and it gave us a chance to read the paper!

  8. Andy says:

    We have an 18 month old daughter. To save money we purchased bundles of regular wash cloths to use to clean her hands after snacks & meals. We still use wipes for diaper changes, but using the wash cloths easily cut our bill for hand wipes in half.

  9. vh says:

    Dunno that I’d want to wash the kiddies’ faces with cloths that had been used as diaper wipes. I wouldn’t trust an ordinary washer & detergent to disinfect them, not unless you marinated them all in Clorox. They wouldn’t last long if you did that…

    But otherwise all this other stuff sounds like normal parenting to me. Newsprint makes great art paper, for sure!

  10. BigRed says:

    The small towels called “bar towels” are really excellent napkins, especially when you’re serving something messy like spaghetti, steamed crabs with Old Bay, and ribs/BBQ. But don’t let the dogs get hold of them after that, or you’ll have more holes than fabric

    Love the term “marinated in Clorox” :)

  11. Siobhan says:

    For the price of one good haircut, you can buy an excellent pair of hair scissors at a beauty supply shop. Over the long haul, it will make a huge difference both in the quality of the cuts and the ease of cutting. I began cutting my husband’s hair nearly 25 years ago, and I give all three sons their haircuts, too. I recently purchased my third pair of scissors which I keep hidden so they don’t accidentally get used for other things. :-)

    On of the biggest complements our teenage son has given me is when he paid his own money for a haircut and then came home and asked me to “fix” it!

  12. DivaJean says:

    “Dunno that I’d want to wash the kiddies’ faces with cloths that had been used as diaper wipes. I wouldn’t trust an ordinary washer & detergent to disinfect them, not unless you marinated them all in Clorox. They wouldn’t last long if you did that…”

    This is squeamishness for no apparent reason. You dry your butt with a towel and wash it regularly in a washer. The next time you use the towel- you might be drying your face where your butt was dried last time. Same thing. How many moms grab old diapers and use them for spit cloths when baby smutzes after a good burp? Same thing.

  13. Michelle says:

    In use cloth diapers and cloth wipes, and from experience I can tell you that no bleach is nessecary. Detergent and hot water kill the bacteria, and if you hang them on a clothes line, like I do, the UV rays from the sun do a much better disinfecting job then any bleach. And bleach will ruin the wash clothes or diapers. It breaks down the fabric, severely limiting their use. And not to mention that it’s a really harsh chemical that doesn’t completely wash out of the fabric. And I choose to limit my kids exposure to chemicals like that as much as I can. But from the frugality perspective, even using bleach it’s still cheaper than buy paper towels or wipes, but your still going to have to buy more than you would if you didn’t use bleach.

  14. Greg says:

    This is a great article… And if you don’t want to wipe the kiddo’s faces with the same towels that cleaned their bottom, just use different colors. White for faces and other colors for other things, or something like that.

    As far as open-ended toys goes, I think the kids can draw a lot from what we, as parents, do. If you pick up a block and tell him it’s a car and act like a car, then it’s a car. My toddler laughed hysterically the other day when I was running one of his cars in front and behind me, and then suddenly substituted a nearby plastic fish (with all the same sounds, of course!). He laughed and laughed. And then he picked up a tomato and made a “tomato car” and had a great time. I think they probably draw more from us and what we do than we can imagine…

  15. Louise says:

    You don’t necessarily have to swap babysitting duties only with other parents. I have my friends two children overnight one saturday a month in exchange for mowing my yard and helping with any larger yard chores. We’ve been friends for five years so they know me well enough to trust me with their children (10 and 13 years old now). I don’t have a lawn mower and don’t want to buy one, and the kids quite like me, so this works out really well for all of us. As for old towels, I use them for everything! Never throw out an old towel or tshirt, they’re fantastic for cleaning.

  16. karenfla says:

    My father in law was a cutter and with his boss’s permission he used to bring us bags of rags that they normally had to dispose of. With so much outsourced to China, it would be hard to find that these days. I threw away the ones I used as diaper wipes, but used the others and just washed them all the time. Had no problem with the washing machine. We also switched off babysitting with friends of ours. We would keep the kids overnight on a Friday or Saturday night and just do pick up around 10 the next day. Saved a bundle of money that way on sitters and the kids loved it.
    Some other cost cutters were to use a regular popcorn popper, not the microwave stuff, which has fats in it and costs a lot more. Would put that in a baggie to go with the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the apple for lunch. the other kids were willing to trade ANYTHING for the popcorn. No one wanted potato chips if someone had popcorn. My kids got in trade brownies, homemade cake, etc. I got that idea from a book I bought about a woman who fed her children very cheaply. She made pancakes for breakfast a lot, chicken dishes for dinner. She froze extra pancakes and they heated them up in the microwave. she also served a lot of oatmeal for breakfast-cheaper and healthier than regular cereal. She did a souffle or omelet for dinner once a week.

  17. Urban says:

    When my daughter was a baby, we cut up several old receiving blankets, the type made from heavy flannel, that you wrap up a newborn baby in, and used them as wipes. Since we also used cloth diapers, we would toss the wipes in the bucket with the diapers and launder them all together. I think we spent a dollar apiece (in 1999) on the blankets from thrift stores. Some were hand-me-downs from friends. I think that through all of my daughter’s diapering years, we bought two packs of disposable wipes from the store, and those were for trips.

    We used bleach in the wash, and either dried them out in the sun or dried them in a very hot dryer. They were disinfected just fine.

    I should add that we were very lucky in that we were working at home in a home-based business and our schedules were very flexible. I think our solution would not work 100% for kids who have to be in daycare or with a babysitter.

  18. Carolyne says:

    Frozen pancakes also heat up nicely in the toaster. Just like the store bought ones.

    As for the comment about bleach not washing out… chlorine is very reactive. That is why it works so well. But because it is, any (and there would be none) left in clothes after rinsing and drying would dissipate into the air.

  19. Gummby says:

    Used to love swap babysitting. Funny though, now that we have 5 kids, don’t seem to get a lot of requests for it…

  20. MVP says:

    Since nobody’s yet mentioned it, I’ll say it: I LOVE the idea of having the kids do everything with you in the house. How many college roomates did you have who couldn’t even boil water, let alone iron a shirt. It’s important to teach your kids how to do things, even the daily minutae of running a household, so they’ll be able to manage as adults.

  21. Nice post! I liked this list a lot as they were totally different from what I’ve written about saving money – and what I’ve learned by living in Thailand over the past 3 years. My girlfriend (Thais’ call her wife) and I live here on less than $300 per month. For almost a year now. It’s easy when you really try. I’ve written a series about How little do you NEED? I hope you leave the link in – if not, no worries. I will go right now to link to your article here from that main article as I really did enjoy this! Thanks and Best of Life! Vern

  22. PiFreak says:

    For napkins at home, we go to a fast food place once in a while, and always grab extra napkins while there, which is great for use at home.

  23. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Used to love swap babysitting. Funny though, now that we have 5 kids, don’t seem to get a lot of requests for it…” A friend of mine with four kids swaps with two different couples that each have one. What they do is they take the one kid four times, then the other couple takes their four kids once.

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