17 October 2007

raising a family on one income

Get Rich Slowly, a personal finance blog that I read regularly for sensible, practical money-saving tips and advice, is holding a contest -- to win a Nintendo Wii. Since the requirement for entry is a blog post about your personal financial success, I'd be a fool not to enter. Not that I've had a lot of personal financial success in my life (yet), but I do have a few things I can share. My biggest financial success so far in life is raising a family on one (small) income, without resorting to taking out loans or going into debt. Most of what I write will not be news to many of my readers, who all know a thing or two about being frugal, but maybe I can impart a small bit of knowledge about things that have worked for our family.

First, a word about our circumstances. Greg is a graduate student, nearly finished with his Phd, and I'm a stay-at-home mother to two little boys. I think our level of frugality is tolerable to us in part because we know that it's temporary. We know that within a year Greg will find a job that will push us into the middle class, and within a few more years, once both kids are in school full-time, I'll be able to get a job and further increase our income. If Greg didn't have the career prospects he has, if we were going to have to live on our income indefinitely, I don't think we would continue things this way. But we have a future in front of us to look forward to.

So how do we do it? How do we live on one income? Well, the short answer is that we don't spend money. We have a cushion in our savings account that we don't touch. Greg's paycheck goes to rent, utilities, food, gas, and paying back my student loans. We rarely use our credit cards, and don't keep a balance on them. We have only one car, which is sometimes inconvenient, but usually not an issues. Greg rides his bike to and from school whenever possible. We don't go out much-- to restaurants, bars, concerts, the movies. (This has been a bit of a sacrifice, but considering that having kids significantly curtails your social life anyway, it hasn't been unbearable for us.) We rarely buy new clothes (the exceptions being shoes, socks and underwear). We rarely vacation anywhere that requires us to pay for lodging (either we stay with family or friends, or we camp). We've never paid for a babysitter (thanks to the generosity of family and friends, or through making babysitting trades with other stay-at-home parents).

Living frugally isn't all about depriving yourself, though. In some cases, it's simply delaying gratification, rather than getting the instant gratification that our consumerist culture promotes. We may not be seeing blockbusters on opening night at the theater, but we can borrow almost any DVD from our local library. We don't have cable, but most of the good shows are on DVD now, and we don't mind waiting until the season's over to borrow those DVDs from the library. I'm a total bookworm, but again, the library is my best friend. I even borrow CDs from the library, instead of buying music. We are a family that loves video games, but we are happy with our original X-Box (which was paid for through a point-earning system available with a job I worked several years ago) and a borrowed Nintendo Gamecube (though we would really love that Nintendo Wii!). Used games for older systems are easy to find at affordable prices at game stores.

In other cases, living frugally is about looking for cheaper alternatives. One way in which we've managed to save a lot of money is by frequenting thrift stores. Our living room and dining room furniture have all come from thrift stores. Much of our other furniture was given to us by friends who were upgrading. We're happy to use used furniture -- it still serves the same purpose, and may look a little more worn than new items, but we're not picky.

Thrift stores can be a godsend for parents, especially. Kids can be incredibly expensive. I've had so many conversations with other mothers on variations of "I can't believe how expensive kids' shoes are!" For kids, who grow out of clothing, shoes and jackets so quickly, especially when they're very young, it makes no sense to pay $20 for a pair of new jeans when you can find a gently-used (or sometimes, if you're lucky, brand-new) pair at a thrift store or consignment shop for $5-10. Luckily, kids (especially young kids) don't care where their clothes come from, as long as you don't. If you feel weird about wearing other people's clothes, I'd recommend consignment stores over places like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Consignment stores generally don't accept merchandise that's not in very good, almost-new condition. Garage sales are also a good option for kids' stuff -- not only clothing, but toys, games, bikes, or furniture too. Look for garage sales in the wealthier neighborhoods in your area and you'll find good-quality, name-brand items at a fraction of their retail price. These are also good places to look for expensive items that are rarely used, such as Halloween costumes or dress clothes.

We also manage to save a lot of money by cooking at home most of the time. It's easier for us than it might be for other families who don't have a stay-at-home parent who loves to cook, but it's still easy. I make a lot of things from scratch. My mom found me a used breadmaker at a church rummage sale, and after replacing a missing mixing blade ($9 online), I make my own bread, pizza dough and biscuits. I never knew how easy it was to make soup until I tried it. All you have to do is throw a bunch of ingredients in a pot and cook it for a few hours, and voila! Soup's on. I've started making large quantities and freezing leftovers to reheat for another dinner on another day. We've also cut our meat consumption over the last year, mostly for environmental reasons, but that small step has managed to further reduce our food costs.

By saving money on the little things, we're able to splurge occasionally and still (mostly) stay in our budget. We have high-speed internet instead of cable or cell phones -- we can email or instant message friends and family, and there are plenty of TV shows you can watch online now, so we're not missing out on much (Edit: I should add that we do have an ordinary land-line phone -- that plus the high-speed internet serves our needs quite nicely). We went to Nantucket last weekend, which was expensive for our budget, but cheap for a vacation -- we carpooled with friends, stayed at a friend's cottage, and ate in, splitting the cost of groceries with friends. We visit our parents as much as we can (with Greg's parents living on the opposite coast, however, this is not as often as we wish we could) and though travel expenses can be a lot, we have free lodging and food, as well as good company. We have memberships at our local zoo and children's museum, which require a substantial fee initially, but we can visit those places as often as we like, for free, which for us is a good investment.

Something I've learned from living frugally for the last several years is that it's more than a financial survival strategy, it's a lifestyle. Our income will probably triple within the next year, but aside from buying a new car, upgrading our living arrangements, and spending more on food (we'll finally be able to afford to eat organically!), I don't foresee our expenses increasing significantly. Now that I know that you can find a child's winter coat at a consignment store for $20, why would I pay $60 retail? Even with an increased income, $10 a person is still too expensive for a movie, when you can borrow one for free.

We have plans to buy a new(er) car, we have plans to buy a house, and we have hopes (if not definite plans) of traveling a lot more. By living frugally now, hopefully these goals will all be in our reach sooner rather than later. And, if we're lucky, maybe we'll have a Nintendo Wii to help us pass the time while we're waiting.


Sara Korol said...

First: very inspirational post. I think no matter what income one has, one should try not to comsume as much as possible. And kudos on cuting down on meat for the right reasons. I LOVE making SOUP:-) So easy. So so easy. I have to be careful here in Rome though, they add MSG to the boullion.

two: did I detect a little healthy bragging that your income is surely to triple in a year? Won't you be living comfortably then:-) Congrats on doing the impossible: raising a family on a grad student's income.the end is in sight.

Heidi said...

Sara, it might qualify as bragging if three times our current income were a lot of money, but it's still not. At all. Although you're right, it will be comfortable. In fact, considering we feel pretty comfortable most of the time now, I suspect it will feel downright luxurious at times.

Samay said...

I suggest all sorts of ethically questionable activities. It works on Weeds, doesn't it?