I think almost all of us could say that at one time or another, we’ve wanted to cut back on our grocery bills. However, it’s easy to fall prey to meal-planning apathy and consequent high-cost impulse buys. It’s because I have this problem frequently that I put together this list of a month’s worth of frugal meals.
Pssst… before you start reading this stay at home mom post, you should know that this isn’t supposed to be a “Mommy War” post! If you work outside of the home, I don’t judge you in the least. I also know that some families are dealing with extenuating circumstances- like being a single parent, or facing real financial hardships. This post is not a criticism of you or your situation. It is simply meant to be helpful to parents who want to stay home with their kids, even in the face of a limited budget.
When I was pregnant with my first, I worked at a day care. I really enjoyed and came to love the kids I had in my room. We had a special relationship- I was their teacher that they came to trust, and they were my little munchkins who I was to protect, care for, and guide. I worked hard to give them a good foundation in life and to prepare them for kindergarten.
When it came time for me to go on maternity leave, I had to make the decision whether or not I would come back after the baby. This was no easy task. I loved the kiddos in my room. I wanted to be there for them and see them grow up and head off into school. And though he wouldn’t be in the same classroom, I would likely be able to bring my son to work with me. It appeared to be an almost ideal situation.
And yet, there was part of me that really wanted to just be home with my own kids, in my own living room, without having to tend to several other children as well. In hindsight, this seemed like an especially sacred and desirable experience to have with my first child. I knew nobody would love him as much as I would. I didn’t want to have the pressure of getting up and out to work every day. I wanted to be able to enjoy him, and to be the first to see his developmental milestones.
In the end, I decided to quit my day care job, and only continue with teaching private voice lessons one evening a week. Since then, I’ve picked up more teaching and become a little more of a work-at-home mom. However, for several years I only worked four hours a week.
You can imagine the obvious financial challenges this brought about. We went from being a two-income family (though not rich!) working at lightning speed to pay off debt and save up for a house, to being a one-income, near poverty-level family trying to make the best of life. While my one-night-a-week teaching brought in a little extra cash, it wasn’t much to write home about.
Yet, looking back, it was definitely the right decision for us at the time. I needed time with my son, and the time to transition to motherhood. (I didn’t adjust nearly as well as I thought I would.) It was worth every penny that I didn’t bring in to become a stay at home mom.
During this time, many people told me they “wished they could afford to do that.” I almost laughed. Like we could?!? (I think they thought I had a rich husband and a house cleaner and I could stay home with my feet up.) Other people asked me how we were managing to make it happen.
I’m writing this post not to guilt you into giving up every worldly pleasure and convenience to stay home with your kids. Rather, I’m writing it to share what helped make it possible for me to be a SAHM- even without a good salary to back us up. I hope it might encourage someone who wants to stay home, but doesn’t think it’s financially possible.
Here’s how I afford being a stay-at-home mom:
We spend less than we make. It sounds basic, but I am constantly surprised by how frequently people make purchases that they can’t really afford. If you can only just barely afford the mortgage or the car payment, then you can’t really afford it. Better to only make purchases that you are confident you can comfortably pay for than to strap yourself to a bill you’ll be regretting later.
We put any extra cash into paying off debt. Even if you only have $25 extra, put it on your bills instead of eating out. You may be surprised how those little bits of extra money can work to put a dent in your payments. I also love the concept of snowballing your debt payments. By putting nearly all of our extra income on our debt, we were able to pay off $25,000 in less than three years, and we are now debt-free except for a modest mortgage. Though things are much tighter now with three kids, we still try to put extra cash on our mortgage payments whenever possible.
We keep our living expenses low. When we were renting, we would look for the absolute lowest rent we could possibly find in a good neighborhood. This meant at one point we lived in a tiny tin can trailer to help save money to buy a house. When we bought our house, we went for one that was about $300/month less than we could technically afford so we wouldn’t be struggling to make payments. If you can, choose to lower your living expenses (even if it means moving) so you have more wiggle room in your budget.
We make purchases carefully. I have to say, it’s a pain to not just buy the thing I want. Picking a “new” pair of pants for us means a carefully calculated, deliberate search through the aisles of Salvation Army. Shopping for a home recording device means digging through reviews and sale prices for hours before spending $150. Granted, we’re slower than most people- but it sure stops us from impulse spending.
We make it our job to save money. Why pay $4 for bread that I can make myself for pennies? We almost always try to make quality food ourselves for much less than we could buy it. My husband works hard to do any home improvement and/or car repairs himself in order to save us money- even if he has to take some time to learn how to do it first. Time is money, they say, and we choose to spend the time more often than we do the cash.
Nearly everything we own is used. I can barely bring myself to spend any money on new things, so I dress us on the cheap with mostly used clothes. Our cars are used. Our furniture is used. Our chimney cap is used. Even the materials for our chicken coop are used. You get the idea.
We live without extras. Going out to eat just isn’t in our budget, so we usually rely on gift cards for date nights. I make my coffee at home and don’t buy lattes anymore. We don’t have TV, and our internet is the lowest speed possible. We haven’t been to the movies in over four years. (Why spend the money on tickets when there’s Amazon Prime and free libraries?)
These are the basic principles we live by. Obviously, your specific situation may look different. However, if you’re willing to think outside the box a bit and get creative with the ways you reduce spending, you may find that you actually are able to afford staying home with your kids.
My new project as the kids are getting older and the bills are increasing is to make the work at home mom thing work for me. More on this another time. 🙂
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I pull into the outdoor shopping mall to meet my friend for lunch. I park my 18 year old van with the sheet metal patched over a formerly rusty hole next to some shiny new SUV I don’t take the time to recognize. I walk inside the restaurant and see the leggings, boots, and designer handbags adorning the women in line. I’m swimming through a crowded sea of perfume and name brands and chai tea. I spot some possibly vegan yogis who look gorgeous despite their recent workout.
I’m keenly aware of the raggedy gape in the knee of my left pants leg, the worn-out Birkenstocks I’ve had for years, and the circus of juggling spit up, screaming, and strollers. My family is anything but trendy at the moment, and I feel hot and unkempt in my one-size too big puffy coat. I manage to survive the meal with a minimum of dropped food and temper tantrums and make it back to the car in one piece.
I’m know quite well that everything I own is either old, second hand, or half-worn out. Most of the time I don’t mind at all. In fact, I’m often rather proud of the fact that I don’t need your fancy watchamacallit that will make me prettier, smarter, or more put-together, thank you very much.
But sometimes (only sometimes) I wish I could just afford the dark coat that fits well and has a secret pocket on the inside. Sometimes I wish my car wasn’t from two decades ago. Sometimes I wish I could invite a stranger to my house without apologizing for the torn brown and yellow 70’s linoleum that doesn’t match the blue 50’s boomerang pattern on the countertop. Sometimes I wish I could go to work in clothes that I actually bought from a store and weren’t passed down to me– you know, the ones that fit well, and that don’t have tiny holes or stains.
Ah, first world problems.
Sure, it would be nice to have the boots, the tech, the new gadget and the car that drives like I’m really somebody going someplace important. My house might make friends feel more comfortable if I had, say, a furniture set. Or a dining room table. Life would certainly be more pleasant if my children looked more like a baby Gap poster and less like a hoard of monkeys.
But think about it. Wouldn’t that be awful if that was what I spent my whole life yearning after?
When I catch myself wishing that I could just have a little bit nicer stuff, I get disgusted with it all. Why is it so important to us as a culture to look good? What is with our obsession to have just a little bit more stuff, to make our lives a little bit fancier, a little bit more convenient?
I may not be able to afford clothes I really love, but I have a closet full of clothing appropriate for various social situations. I may not have the beautiful coat that fits perfectly, but I have four–count them– four coats that I could wear out at any given time. I have shoes, I have reliable transportation, and I have a comfortable roof over my head. Am I really that bad off?
Let’s take a step back from all this consumerism and envy and keeping up with the Jones’s. Can we just make do with what we have?
There’s this ugly gloating monster inside of me that loves to tell people how comfortably we can live on a low income. Yup, we’re near the poverty line. Yup, we’re homeowners. Yessiree, we eat organic food and don’t break the bank doing it, because- get this- we grow it ourselves! Sure, I can my produce- it’s how we survive. Mmmhmm, we paid for our kids’ births ourselves and cloth diapered and breastfed and we all wear hand-me-downs and we’re doing just fine, thank you very much.
It’s funny how frugality can become an idol. The lowest spender deserves a prize, right? It’s like a contest- who can get by on the least money without any help? Don’t get me wrong- I am all for frugal, prudent living. But it can quickly become a source of pride if you’re not careful.
God must have decided I needed a piece of humble pie a couple of years ago. It was the spring I was pregnant with my daughter, when Tim had only one year of grad school left. When we sat down to rework our budget and the painful reality set in:
We couldn’t make it on the money we were bringing in.
I checked and double checked it. We kept coming up a thousand or two short. I didn’t know what else we could cut. We already didn’t have TV service, we are smart shoppers, my clothing budget is practically zero, we grow a lot of our food, and we needed internet service so Tim could finish his degree.
He almost quit grad school, because he felt like maybe the money wasn’t worth having the degree. But he was SO close, and we had already invested thousands in this thing, and you only have so much time to complete your credits before the ones you already have become null and void.
We never do this- purposefully go ahead with something we feel we can’t afford- but we decided he needed to just finish the degree.
There went the dreams I had of not having to drive a half hour to teach every week. The hope of taking our kids for ice cream on the spur of the moment. The desire to let J have private piano lessons or go to camp in the summer or attend art class all the time with the middle class families.
Suddenly, I found myself compulsively hanging laundry on the line so that I wouldn’t spend the money on running the dryer. I would ask Tim to fire up the mud oven so I wouldn’t be paying to run our electric oven. I literally thanked God for the vegetables from the garden as I picked them. This was the summer I learned to bake sourdough. It was when I really took interest in foraging & my husband’s desire to fish (with a $1 lure and a broken pole). I needed all the free food I could get.
That summer, I wore my newborn baby as I canned the produce that came in from the garden. I had my mom and friends come over to help watch the kids so I could continue storing all the food that would get us through. Anything we needed for the garden or home was purchased second hand, traded for labor, or gifted to us. Any meals offered after my daughter’s birth or invitations to dinner were gratefully accepted.
That was the year we didn’t eat out much at all. It was the year I started writing drafts for this blog, in hopes that I could turn a long-time hobby into a business that would allow me to work from home while being with my kids. It was the year I was painfully conscious of our bank account.
I don’t know how it happened- maybe I picked up a couple extra students, maybe I saved enough on grocery bills, maybe we had enough people who helped us at the right time- but somehow, we never came short. We never had to worry. Everything always worked out- and we were still able to pay our midwife, still able to live with heat in the house, still had plenty of food on the table.
It’s funny- once we really needed to be frugal, it stopped being a game to see who could spend the least. I started getting quieter about my pride, because the whole thing was- frankly- a little embarrassing. Frugality wasn’t a choice then- it was a necessity, and it’s not exactly cool to keep turning down your friends on fun activities because you don’t have the money to join them.
But it also taught me to be more grateful. More hard-working. Less judgmental. A little bit quieter about my mad frugal skills. (Though now that we’re doing alright, it’s still easy to forget that sometimes. Me and my big mouth.) And more thankful for my sweet family.
I know that God provided what we needed to get us through, and I hope I don’t ever forget that.
“ThereforeI tellyou, donotworryabout yourlife, whatyou will eator drink, orabout yourbody, whatyou will wear. Isn’tthere more to lifethanfoodandmore to the bodythan clothing?Look atthe birdsin the sky: They donotsow, orreap, orgatherintobarns, yetyourheavenlyFatherfeedsthem. Aren’tyoumorevaluablethan theyare?And whichofyouby worryingcanaddeven onehourtohislife?Whydo you worryaboutclothing? Thinkabout how the flowersof the fieldgrow; they donotworkorspin.YetI tellyouthatnot evenSolomoninallhisglorywas clothedlikeoneof these!Andifthis is how God clothes the wild grass, which ishere todayandtomorrowis tossedintothe fireto heat the oven, won’the clotheyou even more, youpeople of little faith?Sothen, don’tworrysaying, ‘Whatwill we eat?’ or‘Whatwill we drink?’ or‘Whatwill we wear?’Forthe unconvertedpursuethese things, and yourheavenlyFatherknowsthatyou needthem.Butabove allpursuehis kingdomandrighteousness, andallthese thingswill be givento youas well.So then, donotworryabouttomorrow, fortomorrowwill worryabout itself. Todayhas enoughtroubleof its own.” –Matthew 6:25-34, Net Bible.