When I first started The Simple Dollar, Sarah and I were proud parents of a toddler.
Today, as I write this, that toddler is about to embark on his teenage years and he’s been joined in our home by two younger siblings, a younger sister and a younger brother. All of them are in school and progressing along nicely on their path to adulthood.
Here’s the reality: As much as I dearly love my children, there’s no way to deny the fact that children are very expensive. There are lots of different estimates for how much it costs to raise a child, but even if you use some of the lower estimates, it’s going to add up to years of salary for the average American.
In fact, it was the expenses of our first child that pushed us into financial jeopardy in 2006, and it was our recovery from that financial jeopardy and discovery of new ways to live and manage our money that led to the birth of this very site you’re reading.
Today, when I reflect back on the lessons I learned about how to raise healthy, happy, and secure children without completely breaking the bank, I realize that some of our tactics were game-breaking and saved us hundreds of dollars, while others really didn’t save us very much at all.
So, let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. In my reflection, here are the 15 most powerful tactics we used for saving money during the process of raising our children.
Deal primarily with secondhand clothes, toys, books, videos, and so on.
Clothes are an enormous expense for children starting from day one, and it doesn’t take long for things like toys and books and videos and other things to quickly catch up in terms of your child-related spending.
The best solution for this problem is to simply buy as much as you can from secondhand sources. Now, secondhand children’s items and hand-me-downs sometimes get a bad rap in peoples’ minds, but the truth is that most children’s gear is rarely used. Children outgrow their clothes shockingly fast and many children’s items get played with a few times, then are stuck in storage and forgotten about for years until it’s finally taken to a secondhand store at some point.
This is a situation that a smart parent can take advantage of. When you need items for your children, whether it’s clothes or books or toys or other things, start with secondhand shopping.
But where can you look?
Shop for those secondhand items in more affluent areas.
The best place to shop for secondhand items is in more affluent areas. Look for neighborhoods where people with high incomes live, which you can identify by the size of the houses and the property values.
Then, once you’ve identified those neighborhoods, look for secondhand stores that are near that neighborhood. You may find secondhand stores that specifically cater to children, but you’ll also want to look for more general stores that might include children’s items. Even Goodwill stores and Salvation Army stores in affluent areas tend to have very nice things available there.
Make those places the first ones you look at when you’re shopping for items for your children. Start this at infancy and keep doing it as they grow. You’ll find that you can get quite a lot of clothes, books, games, toys, and other materials of the highest quality and in excellent shape for a pittance.
Use Craigslist for both buying and selling secondhand clothes and toys.
Another great tool in the hunt for excellent secondhand items is Craigslist – or, as I call it, the place where unused stuff goes.
Again, as with the secondhand stores, take particular notice of listings that come from more affluent areas and those who suggest meeting in more affluent areas. That’s because those families are often getting rid of higher-quality items and also often get rid of items that are completely new and unused for bargain prices.
I’ve purchased bundles of clothing and many different toys and games over the years from Craigslist. I’ve wound up with piles of things that were essentially new for a pittance. It’s a great place to find bargains for your kid.
Cultivate friendships with other parents, especially those who live near you.
This is particularly true if you plan on staying in your current area for a while and you own a home, as the parents in your neighborhood can be an invaluable resource.
For starters, having good relationships with parents nearby means you can let your children play with their children at either house without much concern at all. We have good relationships with several neighbors and our children basically go from house to house having tons of fun after school and on the weekends and during summer breaks.
A more valuable (in terms of money) benefit is that, with other parents around, you can share lots of tips on saving money locally. Whenever there’s a good coupon or a worthwhile cheap or free event in our area that might be appropriate for the kids, I often hear about it from another nearby parent. This has saved us money more times than I can count.
But there’s one really big benefit to knowing nearby parents…
Do babysitting exchanges with those nearby parents.
Babysitting exchanges can save you mountains of cash if you have good relationships with other parents nearby. It can basically eliminate the cost of evening babysitting, enabling you and your spouse to have inexpensive days and nights together without your children and without the bill. (Trust me, new parents, you’re going to want some occasional child-free days and evenings.)
All you do is agree to “exchange” a babysitting session with another family that lives nearby. You’ll watch their kids for, say, a four or five hour evening, and then at a future date, they’ll watch your kids for an evening of similar length. You might even exchange full days of this, where you take their kids in the morning and return them in the evening, or even overnight periods.
There are several advantages to this. One, you’ll know who is watching your kids quite well. Two, it’s free, so there’s no expense involved. Three, even when you are handling your turn at babysitting, the children will often play together which means your role is often minimized and you have time to do other things like taking care of household chores (this becomes particularly true as the children grow a bit older).
We’ve done countless babysitting exchanges with other parents nearby and even by my most conservative estimates such exchanges have saved us thousands upon thousands of dollars in babysitting costs over the years.
Buy a small number of quality gifts at gift-giving occasions instead of lots of cheap things or lots of expensive things.
When it comes to a child’s birthday or any other gift-giving occasion where you might consider purchasing presents for your own child, I strongly encourage you to keep the count down to a very low number (two or three), for several reasons.
First of all, buying a lot of gifts is expensive, even if you buy cheap things. It really adds up fast. The second problem is that if you buy your children a lot of gifts, their appreciation of those gifts has a rapid level of diminishing returns. No matter how great the gifts are, they’ll really get into just a couple of them and the rest will be forgotten. Not only that, if they have an abundance of stuff, they begin to have an altered relationship with money and possessions and begin to believe having tons of stuff is the norm, which will lead to bad spending decisions down the road.
The best approach to gift giving is to really pay attention to what they want, get them just two or three of their most-desired items (even when they’re little), and stop there. Don’t flood them with gifts. For relatives who might give gifts, suggest that they give the child just one item and if they want to give “more” they should give a single nicer item instead of a bunch of cheap ones. This saves you money while also teaching your children the right lessons.
Use the library extensively for books, movies, and children’s services.
When our children need a new book or want to watch a movie, our first place to go isn’t to Target or to the bookstore. Our first stop is the library.
The library has thousands upon thousands of books appropriate for your children, regardless of their age. They also have hundreds (or maybe thousands) of movies to check out of all kinds that are appropriate for all ages. The best part is that all of this content is absolutely free.
Rather than buying entertainment for your children, rent that entertainment. Let them be involved in the choosing as well – use the library as an outing. Establishing a pattern of using the library to get these resources rather than spending your own money creates a smart pattern in their mind. It also will save you a ton of money over the years.
Use local parks extensively.
If your children seem stir crazy and the weather isn’t too terrible, local parks are the place to go. Even as my oldest approaches his teen years, he still loves going to parks, and his younger siblings do as well.
When the children are younger, playgrounds are the primary attraction. Children will always have fun on playgrounds up until well into their elementary school years, so identifying playgrounds in your area is a valuable thing to do.
Our children, however, are starting to become more interested in walking and hiking trails as well as the many other services that parks offer in our area. We live near two wonderful state parks in central Iowa (Big Creek and Ledges) that we explore pretty regularly, and in our community there are public tennis courts, a disc golf course, lots of open fields for things like ultimate frisbee and kite flying, basketball courts, baseball fields that are open most of the time, and many other things.
Using these facilities and options serves a ton of purposes. It gets children outside and moving around in the fresh air. It burns off a lot of their excess energy. The best part, though, is that all of it is free. We don’t have to pay an entry fee to enjoy these things. It’s just there for us to explore and enjoy.
If you feel the need to go out for some form of child entertainment, look for ways to duplicate it at home instead.
Many parents feel the need to constantly take their child to “enriching” events, which can really add up in cost. You may want to take your child to an endless string of museums, science centers, and so on and so forth to “enrich” your child.
The truth is that you can get much of the same “enrichment” value at home by organizing some clever activities with your children.
Instead of taking your child to an art museum where they’re likely to get bored, show them some van Gogh paintings on a computer or in a book, get out some cheap finger paints and paper, and make your own versions of Bedroom at Arles, then hang them up on the walls and have your own gallery showings.
Instead of taking your child to see a play, take one of their favorite books and act out the whole thing using odds and ends around the house for props and costumes – they’ll get more out of this than sitting in a theater.
Instead of going to the movies, have your own movie night inside of a blanket fort in the basement and make your own popcorn together.
Instead of going to the science center, go get messy in a creek identifying bugs and frogs and fish or design some experiments in your own kitchen.
Make those excursions to “enriching” events very rare and special. Instead, do things at home that are enriching. They’ll learn much more about the process behind all of it, plus it’ll cost a tiny fraction of the expense of going to those places.
Try cloth diapering, at least some of the time, and particularly if you are planning on multiple children.
We used cloth diapers most of the time for all three of our kids. We weren’t absolutists – we relied on paper on occasion and used them in emergencies – but during their primary diaper years, our children mostly used cloth diapers. We calculate that we saved hundreds by doing this because diapers really, really add up.
My recommendation is to ask for some higher quality cloth diapers for any baby showers that you might have. Receiving one really good cloth diaper, like a Bumgenius diaper, is likely to save you more money over the long run if you have multiple children than a bag full of disposable diapers ever will.
Cloth diapering really isn’t that hard. Even the messiest cloth diaper is simple to clean and they can be washed in an ordinary load of laundry. We often washed our dirty cloth diapers along with the towels and they emerged perfectly clean and ready to be used again. This essentially made them free for repeated use, so as long as the initial expense was covered, they became quite a bargain.
Go minimal with stuff for the first baby; wait to buy things until you actually need them.
Many new parents get caught up in the desire to “nest,” meaning that they think of every possible scenario and are susceptible to buying every possible product for each of those possible scenarios. The thing is, the vast majority of baby products sold are completely unnecessary.
Your baby will need to eat, which may require a few bottles and some other items depending on what you’re doing. Your baby will need a few blankets for warmth and some diapers for cleanliness. Your baby will need some clothes and a car seat and a place to sleep. Honestly, that’s about all your baby will need for the first six months of life, at least. All of the other items that are sold that target new parents are usually rarely used and often add up to a big waste of money.
So buy just a few things to start with. Get a crib and a good car seat. Get some secondhand clothes as described above and a few blankets. Some diapers are a good idea, too; maybe even some cloth ones. Depending on your feeding plan, bottles and a pump may be necessary. You might find a very simple, basic stroller to be useful. If you have a backpack, that’s perfect for a “diaper bag.” That’s about all you’ll really need. If you find you need other things, buy them as you go.
Limit screen time, particularly television.
I could make the argument that doing this reduces electricity use and thus saves money – and that’s true, although minor. However, the real reason for this strategy is the impact that television has on your children.
The fact of the matter is that the more television your child watches, the more things that they seem to want. They want this particular toy. They want this particular breakfast cereal. They want this particular piece of sports equipment. They want this particular game. They want this particular hair care product.
This happens because they’re seeing commercials of all kinds, both directly (the obvious ads) and indirectly (product placement within the shows), and they don’t have the ability yet to distinguish wants from needs or ads from reality.
This creates a whole host of problems. They end up with want lists a mile long. They end up being very difficult to take to the store. They end up asking for things quite frequently.
What I’ve found is that the less time they spend in front of screens, the less this happens. If you put your kids on a media diet, their desire for stuff goes down. That’s good for them, and that’s also good for you.
Instead of screen time (television or otherwise; the internet has many of the same challenges as television), encourage your children to read books or participate in sports or make art projects or play board games. You’ll be glad you did.
Buy everything you possibly can in store-brand form, not name-brand form.
The truth is that many store-brand items are functionally indistinguishable from the name-brand versions, but people still buy the name brands out of a sense of familiarity. There’s basically no drawback to trying store brands, and if you find that they really aren’t any different, you’ll start saving significant money at the store – especially with kids around.
It’s not just the money, though. Buying store brands shows your children that it’s okay not to buy the name brands, and it provides many opportunities for teachable moments about being smart with your buying decisions.
Our commitment to store brands has saved us thousands of dollars over the years and ensured that our children are not used to name brands on the products in our home, which means less pressure to buy name brands and less chance that they’ll feel that familiarity with name brands in the future.
Use an allowance system and stick to it.
Parents who can afford to do so are often tempted to buy things for their kids. It can be hard for a parent sometimes to say “no” when their child asks for one small affordable thing at the store. Sometimes, though, that affordable thing grows into a routine of affordable things, and that’s where an allowance comes in.
Giving your children an allowance makes it very easy to say “no” during those moments. If your child wants a pack of cards, you can simply point to their allowance. If your child wants some gum, you can point to their allowance. This keeps you from many, many incidental expenses.
Not only that, giving your child an allowance teaches them smart money practices. They have to make constant decisions about how to use their money and they begin to learn the value of saving up for something bigger.
Establish a smart meal preparation, grocery shopping, and meal planning routine.
This final tip is perhaps the biggest money saver on this list. Unless you want to waste a lot of money on food, having a system for planning meals, making grocery lists, and preparing those meals is going to be absolutely vital. Otherwise, you’re going to end up wandering grocery aisles aimlessly tossing stuff into your cart and relying on a lot of expensive (and not particularly healthy) convenience foods.
Our system is simple. We buy groceries once a week, usually on the weekends. We start by downloading a grocery store flyer from our store’s website, then plan meals around the items in the flyer that are on sale. We schedule a week’s worth of meals and write it on a white board in our kitchen, then we build a grocery list for those meals, checking what we have on hand as we’re building that list. Then, we go grocery shopping, following that trusted list. It actually makes the grocery store stop so short that we make up almost all of the time spent assembling the list. Then we just follow the meal plan, often doing some of the meal prep in advance on the weekends and utilizing tools like our slow cooker.
This system saves us a lot of money. Our grocery list is always relatively short and I constantly see families with carts piled high with groceries while ours is scarcely half full. The savings adds up to hundreds per month with our family of five.
Simply having some smart strategies can really cut into the expense of being a parent. All of these tips have saved us substantial amounts of money over the years and we hope they’ll serve you well on your own parenting journey.