All of us parents, at one point or another, have to review our spending habits to figure out a way to make it work -- how we can afford the necessities and a few niceties as well. The good news: It's possible to cut your family budget without suffering. In fact, you might not even notice a lot of these moves -- but the savings add up. Ideas for getting started:
? Stash your spare change. Every night I dig through my pockets and purse, but I don't just set aside my spare change: I also pull out my singles and stuff it all in my sock drawer. Dollar bills add up a whole lot faster than nickels and dimes. Even if you squirrel away only $4 a week, that's still a nice little pot of $200 or so at the end of the year -- plenty for a treat (a full week of ordering in?) or a boring necessity (a new vacuum).
? Control those credit cards. Store cards charge exorbitant interest rates and nail you with a flat fee of $25 or more if you're even a nanosecond late with a payment. I learned the hard way that the 5 to 10 percent discount incentive for opening one of these accounts is more than lost by one late-payment fee. In fact, the more cards you have in general, the more due dates you have to deal with (and more time spent paying bills), and the late fees add up quickly. After paying out well over $200 in such fees, I closed every credit account I had except one (the one with the lowest interest rate). I also do my best to pay that card off each month -- or at least pay more than the minimum payment to try to keep interest charges down.
If you're organized enough to stay on top of it, you can also take advantage of those zero-percent introductory interest rates you get in the mail by transferring the balances of high-interest cards. But read the fine print carefully -- one late payment and the interest rate will soar. And be aware of how high the rate will go after the introductory period to make sure you're really getting a deal in the long run.
Alix Finkelstein is the mother of Henry, 11, and Margaret, 7.
Avoid ATM fees.You know it well: If you make a withdrawal from a bank that's not yours, it can cost you $1.50 or more. I now spend the extra few minutes to go to my own branch.
? Give yourself an allowance. While I'm at it, I make all my withdrawals for the week at one time. I treat this cash as my allotted spending money, for me and the kids. If it dwindles toward the end of the week, too bad. I scale back on impulsive purchases like snacks on-the-go (we've got perfectly good food at home), but I don't allow myself to take out more money.
One woman I know financed the down payment on a new house using a similar approach to self-control. Every time she talked herself out of buying something she didn't really need, she'd sock the cost of that item, even if it was just a lipstick, into her savings account. "I once tried on a pair of expensive shoes that I thought I couldn't live without -- but I didn't buy them. Instead, I went straight to my bank and transferred $200 from checking to savings. I saved several thousand dollars that way over a period of several years."
? Save on sips. Designer coffee, diet soda, vitamin water...I realized I was easily spending $5 a day on impromptu pit stops at the coffee bar and deli. So I quit. And I no longer bring home the flavored iced teas and sports drinks my kids crave: Even when you buy them in bulk, they can still run you $5 to $10 a day -- for something that's nearly liquid candy anyway. The kids now get a choice of tap water or skim milk. Okay, sometimes chocolate milk.
If you just can't kick your caffeine habit, take this tip from Starbucks fan Linda Yeh of New York City: "Instead of ordering the fancy caramel macchiato, I get regular coffee with a shot of caramel or vanilla and add my own milk and sugar. It saves $1.40 a day." Don't shrug -- that's $350 per year.
? Do birthdays on a budget. It's amazing how fast money disappears when you're buying gifts for your friends' kids. One of the best ways I've heard to keep from overspending is this: When you find a great gift that's reasonably priced, buy several and stash them in a closet (already wrapped, if the store has a free wrapping service). The main advantage of this is that it stops you from making pricey last-minute desperation buys.
Another idea to keep down the gift-giving costs: Rather than exchanging holiday or birthday gifts with your friends, siblings, and even your husband, agree to give one another gift certificates for free babysitting, a break from cooking dinner, etc.
? Dress your kids wisely. Before the beginning of school or summer, don't shop until you swap. Get together with a few friends and share all your kids' barely worn but outgrown coats and jackets, bathing suits, shoes, and party dresses. You can also save big bucks by shopping for your children's clothes online, in advance, says Parenting staffer Andrea Messina, mom of three kids, ages 8, 5, and 5. "I buy everything one size up, and only things that are half off or more. Sierratradingpost.com and Lands' End have especially good online sales."
? Clip coupons. My cousin, Anne Shafer, of Louisville, Kentucky, says she saves 20 percent off her weekly grocery bill with coupons. "It's a pain," she says, "but when the store doubles the savings, it really becomes worth it." Another clipping tip: Take the amount of money you save -- it'll be stated on your grocery-store receipt -- even if it's just five or ten bucks -- and stick it in savings. At that rate, you could easily pull together $250 to $500 in a year.
? Have fiscally responsible fun. Before you impulsively purchase another DVD or chick-lit novel, see if any of your friends with similar taste might be interested in creating an informal exchange network of such goods. And don't forget the library: "My kids check out movies from there," says my book-group buddy Ellen Miller of Brooklyn, New York, who also gives twins Eric and Max, age 11, an eBay allowance they can use to buy gently used video games. Libraries also usually have tons of grown-up videos available. For free. She figures she shaves $5 to $10 a week off what would be video rentals and random media purchases.
Feed your stomach and your wallet.I know, it's tedious. But the extra effort of packing your own lunch will pay off in spades: It's one of the first things people say they do to save money. What'll also keep eating expenses down: Before leaving the house with kids in tow, throw a handful of crackers in a Baggie (I keep extras in the car for unexpected hunger attacks). This can preempt many requests for overpriced convenience foods, trips that, if your kids are like mine, invariably lead to requests for candy, soda, something, anything, Mom, as long as it costs money.
If you do eat out, order a kid's meal or junior-size sandwich. (This is also a good exercise in portion control!)
? Shop smart at warehouse clubs. There are real bargains to be had at places like Costco and Sam's Club, if you choose well. After some initial forays to my local Costco, I realized I was just a little too enamored of the "bargain" prices, since my family rarely consumed entire crates of fresh fruit or massive cans of olive oil, so I was spending more for a quantity of food that we couldn't eat. And we were buying in bulk things we'd never have purchased to begin with just because they seemed so cheap. Now I know that for us the real bargains, besides paper towels and toilet paper, are such school and art-supply staples like construction paper and computer paper, Scotch tape, blank videos and DVDs, film, ibuprofen, shampoo, razor blades. You'll also save yourself a couple dozen trips to the store.
? Go on spending freezes "For four weeks we buy food, pay bills, and so on, but we don't eat out, we don't buy clothes for anyone, and movies and restaurants are out of the question," says Meghan Milkowski, a mom of two from Holmdel, New Jersey. "We don't even go near places like Target and Costco because the 'deals' are so tempting." In a four-week family spending freeze, Milkowski says they save about $500.
? Drive and save. I saved roughly a third off the sticker price when I bought a "pre-owned" station wagon. It was only two years old, in mint condition, with less than 35,000 miles. Or look into a hybrid car, like the Toyota Prius, Ford Escape, and Honda Civic (the easiest one to find right now). Not only do you save hundreds of dollars at the pump (hybrids run on gas and a battery), you also get a tax break. "We got a $1,600 tax credit when we bought our Prius," says mom of two Evie Berne of Newton, Massachusetts.
Does your car really need premium gas to run efficiently? Check your owner's manual, but probably not. Stick to the speed limit and get an extra couple of miles per gallon; keep your tires properly inflated and you'll add two extra miles to your car's mpg. That's at least $50 right there.
? Rejigger your insurance coverage. Raising the deductibles on your home and car policies will decrease your premium. A small increase, from $500 to $1,000, for example, can lower your premiums anywhere from 25 to 40 percent a year. Plus, reshop your policy periodically: Get competitive quotes, run down the whole list of discounts with the insurance rep, and -- at the end of the conversation -- ask, in your most authoritative, skeptical voice: "Is this the best you can do?"
? Cut communication costs. On your home phone, cable, and computer services, stick to the true necessities: a dial tone, good reception, and Internet access. Then lose all the costly extras you pay for each month: premium channels (that you don't watch much and will quickly learn to live without if you do), call-waiting (so annoying anyway), and wireless. Elizabeth Leonard of Brooklyn, New York, saved $65 a month by cancelling the service on her home phone and using the generous allowance of minutes on the family's cell-phone plan instead.
? Enjoy your found money. Of course you want to save some or pay off bills, but set aside a chunk for fun too. Give yourself -- and your family -- something to save for. What's worth splurging on for you? A manicure, a movie? Set aside enough for that. Do the same for a family activity -- then no one will feel deprived. Besides, you'll have earned it.