Probably over-the-top cheap in many ways, but I like to think of it as “living below my means.” You can call it thrifty, frugal, penny-pinching, or just a plain ‘ol miser of money, but by being all of these things, our family has managed to somewhat keep our head above water, even on only one consistent income for almost 20 years.
Sure, there have been times that I’ve taken on part-time work in my career field, and I’ve been freelance writing for a while, but it’s the behind-the-scenes conservative management of our family’s money that is fundamentally allowing us to not go into massive debt, and to live relatively comfortably. But here’s the thing — your definition of comfort may not be my definition of comfort. The term “cheap” is subjective and involves different factors for different families.
Here are my cheap truths:
1. Car Payments Are So 2005
Say goodbye to new car smell and learn to drive your cars until they basically explode and die a horrible death on the side of the road. Remember that cars are a form of transportation, not a status symbol. Buying and driving late-model used cars means instead of sending the bank a giant car payment check every month, you get to send one to yourself.
2. Hand-Me-Down (And Secondhand) Clothes
I wore a beautiful Ann Taylor Loft dress to a party last weekend. I paid $4.50 for a dress that I’m sure off the original rack was $85. And nobody there had a clue which place it came from. Thrift store shopping takes patience, and sometimes several visits will yield nothing, but then out of the blue, you’re gonna score two pairs of Banana Republic pants, a Carolina Herrara blouse, and a pair of Tory Burch flats for under $30. True story. As for the kids? You know the drill — they wear what their older siblings wore until it’s worn out, or until they reach their teen years and want to buy their clothes themselves. Want to see a teen embrace the consignment store? Tell them they have to use their own money.
3. Borrow, Borrow, Borrow
With four sons involved in sports, I would have never been able to afford all that gear all these years if I didn’t borrow, trade, and barter for most of it. This means when a kid needed new soccer cleats, I didn’t run out to Dick’s and drop $50-plus. I would ask another soccer family if they had any to lend, and then I would offer my kids’ outgrown shoes, pads, clubs, rackets, gloves, bats, skis, and anything else I had to families with younger kids needing the same. People are always willing to help and share on extracurricular expenses — you just have to ask and willing to share back.
4. Eat at Home
It’s no secret that taking a family of four out to a sit-down dinner will easily run you over $40, but feeding the same family at home can cost less than $10. Breaking the habit of eating out is hard, but not only is it the easiest way to quickly start saving money and see your bank account get bigger, you’re also gonna see your waistline get smaller. Win-win.
5. Cut Your Own Kid’s Hair
It’s way easier than you think, and can save you hundreds of dollars a year. Electric clippers for boys and a decent pair of shears for girls, and you’re good to go. Hit the internet for some great how-to videos. (I realize this isn’t for everyone, and there are affordable options if you are too nervous to start snipping.)
6. Beware of Hidden Food Costs
I’m not a coupon-cutter, so I have to look for other ways to save on food costs. Buying in bulk, avoiding sodas and flavored fruit drinks, and consistently meal-planning based on weekly sales are some the best ways to reduce your grocery costs. Also, relax and keep it simple. There’s nothing wrong with cereal or sandwich night once (or twice) a week.
7. The Latte Factor
Translation: Small things add up quickly. A $4.75 latte just two times a week adds up to $500 a year. Now, if you totally refuse to give up that caffeine addiction, it’s vital you find other ways to take latte-factor type expenses (dry cleaning? high-end shampoo?) out of your life.
8. Fix Stuff Yourself
Over the last couple years, we have managed to repair a dishwasher, washing machine, and hot-water heater by ourselves, and we are not handy people. I swear, I think with the amount of video tutorials on the internet anyone can fix anything. We’ve even purchased parts right from the same place the real repairman buy from. This means an average $350 repair bill costs us about $60.
9. Garage Sales, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace Are Your Friends
Someone’s junk is another person’s treasure, and nowhere is this truer than when buying large items secondhand. Before you head out to the store for a piece of furniture or other big-ticket item, look online first or at your neighborhood garage sale. Someone downsizing their stuff (or upgrading it) could mean your lucky day.
10. Impress With Your Character, Not Your Closet
Often the first thing you’ll want to do when you actually have a few extra bucks is to splurge on yourself, and that’s completely fine (and yes, you deserve to spend the money you’ve saved on your family), but you’ll also be able to use the money you’ve saved to make the lives of others richer. You’ll be able to give to places and people that really need it, and that will make you feel better than a new handbag ever will. It also sets a wonderful example for the kind, compassionate kids you’re raising.
Oh, and that used car we drove for over 13 years and 285,000 miles? When we had enough money saved to buy another used one, we donated that one to a non-profit who needed it. It pays to be cheap.