Either Jake and I have been students for a long time. Nearly our entire marriage thus far (minus a couple years here and there). With one adult being a full-time student while the other one works or stays-at-home with the kids, money is always tight. The bad part of that is there is sometimes stress related to money, and a lot of time is spent figuring out what to spend our money on and what to NOT spend our money on. The good part is that we have become really good at budgeting as well as discovering creative ways to save money here and there. This year has been a pretty stress-less year when it comes to finances, so I wanted to share some of our best tips here, hopefully to be helpful to others who are in a similar situation to us!
If you already own a house, this will not apply to you, but for those of you who don’t– don’t feel ashamed! Renting is actually a smart way to live when on a tight budget, especially for those who are in school or who move often. It’s easy to budget when it comes to renting- you know exactly what it will cost from month to month. When you own a home, there are more unpredictable cost items that arise that are hard to cover when you are on a shoestring budget. We’ve had many friends who have owned houses, only to find that when they sell, they lose money and the cost is very similar to them renting. So, just know that buying isn’t a necessity during this stage of life.
2. Downsize to 1 car.
If you can figure it out, having only 1 car saves a ton of money. Not only do you only have one car payment, but also one set of insurance, one set of license plate renewals, one set of repairs, etc. It also makes you get out and walk more!
3. Grocery Shop at Hyvee.
Last week I got gas for $1.59/gallon– meaning I filled up my van’s gas tank for $29.12. Unusual? Maybe a little, but I typically save anywhere from $.75-$1.00 per fill-up by grocery shopping at Hyvee. Hyvee has a fuel savers reward program that is NOT a credit card- only rewards card (just like you’d use at other major chains like walgreens, copps, CVS, etc.). Each week when you buy certain items, you get a certain amount of rewards to be used on gas. For example, the other day I was rewarded $.01/per gallon if I bought lunch-size individual applesauce packs. I bought them because we already use them. That’s a little one. But, I also saved $.25/gallon for purchasing a 2-pack of bakery french bread, which is also something I had on my list to buy anyway. I’ve begun to plan my meals around what items are being rewarded, and I end up with $.50-.60 off per gallon each week (I spend about $125/week on groceries).
Right now they have a deal where if you spend $100 on groceries at one time (which we always do), then you automatically get $1.00 off per gallon on top of any other fuel saver items. I’m not sure how long they are running this, but I don’t expect to pay more than $1.00/gallon per gas for the next month or so!
4. Utilize your public library.
We currently have over 100 books checked out from our public library. We LOVE it. We rarely buy books new, and even not very often used. We know that we can go to the library whenever we want and get something to read, so why do we have to own it? There are some books we buy that we can’t find in the public library, particularly of the christian non-fiction genre, but we have been surprised by how many the library will buy if we request them to!
5. Subscribe to Netflix.
We don’t have cable or dish, but we do have netflix! Sure, they don’t have everything, but they have a lot, especially for kids.
6. Get Amazon Prime.
Amazon has some amazing deals from time-to-time, and we are happy to just order what we need without having to pay for shipping– ever. This also saves us time and money because we don’t have to drive all over the place to find items that we’re looking for, AND we just end up buying what we need, instead of getting suckered into buying displayed items that we don’t. You do have to be mindful of what the ordinary store price is for items, though, because sometimes Amazon is asking for way more than it would be in-store. Plus, you get access to lots of free videos and books on Amazon Prime- double bonus!
7. Limit your grocery shopping to once per week.
I grocery shop on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings, and that’s it. If we run out of something on Wednesday, I don’t run out and get more at the store because I know that I’ll end up buying other things that I don’t need too. So, we just put it on our grocery list and do without it for a few days! I think that’s good for our souls too, to be able to do without something for a few days.
8. Shop at consignment sales, yard sales, and Craigslist for kid clothes and toys.
Kid clothes and toys are so expensive. I try to buy all of our kids’ next size of clothes at local consignment sales– not only are you buying locally and being green by “reusing” but you can save a TON of money. Each season I take out all the clothes I have for each child for that next season, put outfits together, and then write down how many shirts, pants/shorts, skirts/dresses, shoes, etc. that I need to buy, and if there is any particular color that I need. I take it with me to the sales so that I can be focused and not overbuy in one category.
Also, Craigslist has great deals on toys and seasonal items (coats, snow pants, boots, etc.). If I see something on there for a child in a few sizes bigger than they need, I buy it now and store it in a marked bin for later. For example, I was looking for rain boots the other day, I saw a size 13 for only $5. Yes please! They will be great for next year!
9. Shop at Old Navy.
I have an Old Navy credit card, and I use it to buy items from Old Navy only. When I do this, I get a large discount during the sales they have for card holders 4 times per year (30% off everything). I also get rewards for the items I buy; for 2013, I earned over $50 in rewards that i used to buy those items that are best bought new (jeans for Jake and I, cardigans, and clearance kid items).
10. Sometimes it pays to use credit cards.
That being said, I also have credit cards from Amazon and Discover– and it truly does “pay” for me. I only use Amazon card for Amazon purchases and receive significant rewards because of it. I use Discover card for all other items that I have budgeted. We probably earn over $200 a year in rewards because of this. This will only work if you ONLY BUY items that you have money for and if you pay it off every month, no exceptions. If you don’t pay for it one month and are charged a penalty, it negates the purpose. I’d only recommend this for people who are Type A and can be sure to do this each month.
11. Only eat out when kids eat free.
With 4 kids, we hardly ever go out to eat when we have to pay for the kids. Most major chains have a kids-eat-free night. We can eat out at Chilis for $20 as a family of 6 on Tuesday Nights if we want!
12. Borrow from a friend.
Don’t buy items that you won’t use all the time. Tools, small appliances, etc. are great to borrow from neighbors. At first you may feel weird asking your friend or neighbor to borrow something, but after a couple times of asking (and offering your stuff to borrow), it’ll be catching!
13. Just say no.
We say “no” to ourselves and our kids a lot. Nope, not gonna buy that dollar item. No, we’re not buying that T-shirt. No, I’m not buying that book for myself. No, we can live with the computer that we have. We constantly remind ourselves that happiness doesn’t come with having more “stuff”, but it comes with relationships. Saying no and letting ourselves be less financially stressed causes happy feelings and a happy household all around!
12. Find small ways to make money.
Baby-sit for another family. Write for blogs/websites. Tutor the neighbor in math. Walk some dogs. Sell something you love (if that’s your thing). Help others organize their houses. Clean for other people. Make a craft and sell it on Etsy. Offer to read dissertations and copyedit. What are you good at and then find out how other people like you are using their skills to make a little extra cash! We’ve primarily done writing and tutoring to bring in some extra cash each month. A little bit really adds up!
Of course, we’ve also survived by less “cool” ways- working many hours after kids went to bed, making presents for family and friends instead of buying them, getting student loans (although mine are now completely paid off!), and saying “yes” to helpful state and federal programs when we have qualified (healthcare, WIC, and EBT- whew, but that’s another post, right?!).
Hope this is helpful to those of you who are in a tight spot financially. It took a few years to get into the habit of doing these things, but I think we’re finding our way. In a couple years when we’re finished with school, I think these tips will still be helpful!