Two women came to us, saying they wanted -- no, needed -- to get their spending under control. (Sound familiar?) So we asked them to keep a detailed diary of where their money went for one week. Then we turned over their self-reported cash confessions to a real expert, Diane McCurdy, a certified financial planner and the author of How Much Is Enough? Balancing Today's Needs With Tomorrow's Retirement Goals, to help them identify areas where they could cut back. The result? An honest look into the financial lives of today's mothers, along with practical, real-life ways to save. See how you compare to our brave guinea pigs.
Libette Felix, 27
Full-time working mom (customer service representative at an insurance company)
Home: Houston, Texas
Kids: daughter Stephanie, 6, and son Edson, 5 months
Her motivation: Libette and her husband already put cash away each month for their children's college funds, but Libette would like to go back to school herself. Her goal is to save enough money for a one-year program to become a medical assistant.
What she spent:
Monday: salad from Wendy's for lunch, $4.86; pretzels, $.75; milk and chips for Stephanie's snack, $5.49
Tuesday: coffee at Shell gas, $1.07; salad from Wendy's, $4.86; protein shake at gym, $4
Wednesday: coffee at Exxon, $1.07; salad from Wendy's, $4.86; clothes from Wal-Mart, $53 (including infant pajamas, shirt, and shoes, $20; girl shoes, $15; and a sweater for me, $10)
Thursday: coffee at Exxon, $1.89; salad from Wendy's, $4.86; family photos at mall, $59
Friday: coffee at Exxon, $1.89; salad from Wendy's, $4.86; pair of jeans at Wal-Mart for me, $19.90
Saturday: fresh tortillas and drinks for family breakfast, plus meat for dinner, from local market, $19; clothes (suits, socks, jackets, and shirt) from Gymboree for Edson, $50; clothes (four pairs of jeans, blouses, and sandals) from the Children's Place for Stephanie, $95; a music toy for Edson and a Barbie for Stephanie for being good in school all week, $20; family dinner at Olive Garden, $52
Sunday: groceries, $97 (including formula, $40, and diapers, $32); lunch at Chili's for the whole family, $45
Where she could save:
* In one week, you spent more than $200 on togs for you and your kids. Buying adorably tiny fashions for your kids is hard to resist, but since children grow out of clothing so fast, this is one place you can save. Trade clothes that don't fit anymore on eBay for new stuff. Or sell them at consignment shops and pick up new items for very low cost. Enlist your daughter in a "treasure hunt" to find the best pieces. Cut your clothing budget by just half and you may save hundreds each month.
* We all reward (and bribe!) our kids with presents from time to time, but even older kids are satisfied with small toys. Save the more expensive gifts like Barbies for special occasions, and stick to smaller items (stickers, coloring books) for regular rewards. Slash your toy spending by half and save $40 a month.
* You don't spend big bucks at a fancy java chain, so your morning cup of joe is nothing to feel guilty about. Still, if you really want to save, you could set your coffeemaker at night before you go to bed to brew a pot in the morning, saving you time and money (at least $15 a month).
* Packing your own lunch can be a pain, but you could probably shave at least $2 off your tab each day by preparing a salad or sandwich at home, and save $40 a month.
* Family meals are important, and it's great that you make them special by going to restaurants sometimes. But "special" doesn't have to mean eating out. Go on picnics or have theme nights -- breakfast for dinner, etc. -- at home. Use paper plates and prepared foods so it's less work for you, but still cheaper than going out. Go for just one family restaurant meal a week and save as much as $200 a month.
* Instead of paying a premium for diapers at the grocery store, try a discount site like Diapers.com.
Budgeting a part-time working mom
Jody Wallace, 33
Part-time working mom (website design and computer training)
Home: Claremore, Oklahoma
Kids: daughter Faith, 3, and daughter Alesha, 15 months
Her motivation: Jody and her husband would like to save more than they already do for college funds and retirement, but their immediate goal is a 14-day family cruise to Hawaii.
What she spent:
Monday: Happy Meals at McDonald's for kids, $5.44; groceries at Wal-Mart, $41.98 (including frozen turkey breast, milk, bagels, oranges, and salad mix)
Tuesday: coat from LLBean.com for me, $35; groceries at Wal-Mart, $139.88 (including diapers, contact solution, cereal, produce, juice, yogurt, and fat-free hot dogs)
Wednesday: gas, $31.21; lunch with Alesha at Panera Bread, $10.81; picture frames from Kohl's, $191.88 (they were on sale for 50-60% off, so I stocked up)
Thursday: groceries from Reasor's for my mom's birthday dinner tonight, $86.57 (halibut steaks, $28; pork tenderloin, $10.41; shrimp, $12; assorted vegetables, $13.16; flowers, $23)
Friday: won a new pair of Pipsqueaks shoes for Alesha on eBay, $27.39
Saturday: earrings for me from JCPenney, $9.87 (they were on sale from $60, plus I had a $10 coupon I had to use); lunch with my husband and Faith at Freddie's, $14.28; Charlotte's Web movie tickets for me, my husband, and Faith, $19.50; snacks at the movie theater, $15.56
Sunday: no money spent
Where she could save:
* You spent $191.88 at the Kohl's frame sale, but how many frames do you really need? Were you planning on spending almost $200? Curb impulse buying with the 48-hour rule: If you see something you like, leave the item for 48 hours. It's likely you'll forget you wanted it.
* You don't have to use a coupon just because you have it. That said, it's important to treat yourself to something special, whether it's a new lipstick or a new pair of earrings, every now and then. Set aside $15 each month for such a purchase -- instead of spending $10 a week on impulse items for yourself -- and save $25 a month.
* It's great that you shop on eBay for deals, but don't consider it "winning," the common term for being the highest bidder in an online auction. You're still paying. Otherwise, you might be tempted to "win" stuff you can't afford.
* It may not sound like as much fun, but skip the theater snacks and pack your own microwave popcorn when you see a movie -- it's cheaper and healthier. If you see one movie a week, that's a savings of more than $62 a month.