Piggy bank with calculator

Dear Dr. Debbie,

To say we’re not financially comfortable wouldn’t adequately describe the difficult decisions and denial of “non-essentials” I’m often faced with as the stay-at-home mother of a 2-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 6-year-old. My running shoes, for example, are at least 10 years old and were given to me as cast-offs from my aunt.

Earning more income for our family would mean more overtime and travel for my husband – which doesn’t thrill me, or ramping up my very-part-time home-based business – which would cut into already precious sleeping and housekeeping time.


Recycled Shoestrings

Don’t miss last week’s column Preparing to take children to the theater — Good Parenting

Dear RS,

Financial limits do add stress to family life, but always have and always will. Fortunately for you, there are plenty of others who are walking in your shoes, have walked in your shoes, and will most likely be walking in your shoes as long as human beings need shoes (metaphorically speaking). Hence, there is loads of advice for managing family life on a shoestring budget including community/neighborhood resources you may not be taking full advantage of.

You can’t fix something like a dysfunctional family budget (it should work for you, not against you) until you examine it. The best advice is to start with an accounting of where the money goes then focus on one area at a time to cut costs. For example, if your expenses for family entertainment have gotten out of control, do what families used to do more of — long before $12 movie tickets and $500 game systems existed. Play non-electronic games  together or commit to adding family walks, library visits, park explorations, cooking and craft projects (which can reduce costs on food and presents) or other more economic diversions. Pot-luck dinners – at your friends’ homes – is a great way for families to enjoy one another’s company rather than meeting up at a place that charges admission and or triples the cost of a meal.

Financial habits are learned but, with conscious effort, can be changed. You can do this with a simple budget spreadsheet and play around with how adding income or reducing expenses brings you closer to the financial comfort level you are seeking. Just eliminating fast food, for example, will require breaking habits but can benefit your family in more ways than the budget.

You can find tips for saving money on food (hint, make it yourself, which adds to nutrition value), family fun (which can cleverly count for exercise, too), energy use (good for the family’s budget and good for the planet) and all around smarter shopping (wait for sales, hunt for scratch and dent bargains, and invest in well-made clothes, furniture, and appliances that will last). The Money Crashers website is a good place to find specific tips for each of these family essentials.

If you’re not yet in a babysitting co-op, see if there’s one you can join or start one with a few friends. As with many things that do not have an actual monetary value, the benefits of participating in such a system of free childcare are limitless. You get girlfriends. You get child-free time. Your children get playmates that become long-lasting friends. It’s like a tiny “village” network of families and homes in which everyone feels intimately connected. After all, you are entrusting each other with your precious children.

There are community resources that can ease financial burdens, from budget counseling to free family activities. A community association, church, school, bank, library or financial management company might sponsor a one-time workshop to help map out a plan for financial well-being. If you don’t find any offered in your area, see about setting up such an event yourself. Banks and financial management companies should have someone more than willing to provide this. The Family and Consumer Science Program of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension can also offer free or minimal cost programs about family finances – for adults as well as children.

For families at risk of financial disaster, the Anne Arundel County Community Action Agency can provide free counseling and services, including help with navigating the re-financing of a mortgage.

There’s actually a growing movement for people who decide that 10-year-old hand-me-down running shoes satisfy their needs. Maybe your family will take the challenge to not buy anything new for a year. Or until the next family member’s birthday. Make your own rules and exceptions and see what a difference you can make in the family’s financial health. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you learn not to miss and how the experience changes everyone’s outlook on all the things money can’t buy.

Frugality is its own reward – bestowing you and your family with enjoyable experiences you may otherwise not have had. It is also an invaluable gift to pass on to your children.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]