My Favorite Four-Letter Word

Free–that is my favorite four-letter word. And a close runner-up: deal.

I have always loved a good deal and, now that I have kids, I love deals more than ever before. Turns out kids are really expensive. They have basic needs (food, clothes, diapers, doctor visits), they have wants (toys, outings to the zoo, ice cream sundaes), and they have collateral costs (needing a bigger car because your Volkswagen Jetta can’t fit the double jogging stroller in the trunk). And all of those costs require $$$.

In our family, we’ve decided that it’s Jon’s job to make the money and it’s my job to save it. I’m always looking for ways to cut costs or save a few bucks. Here are a few of my favorite ways to save money in our day to day lives. It’s nothing earth-shattering, just little things we do to steward our resources well.

  • Not Spending Money
    This is kind of obvious, but it does take some forethought. For instance, I have learned that I spend at least $100 every time I set foot inside Costco, regardless of if I’m there for 1 item of a month’s worth of stock-up groceries. I now try to limit my trips to Costco to once a month. If I absolutely must go for a must-buy item another time in the month, I don’t bring a cart–that way I can only buy what I can carry in my own 2 hands (or in the stroller) which, at Costco, is usually just 1 item. This idea also works in other scenarios–I had to unsubscribe from receiving daily emails for Groupon and Living Social because there were just too many deals I “had” to have. Basically, just find the areas that are your money traps (that coffee shop down the street, the shoe store in the mall) and avoid having them be a part of your daily routine.
  • Coupons
    I used to be a pretty avid couponer. I had multiple subscriptions to newspapers so I could clip coupons from the Sunday inserts. I would spend hours each week perusing the internet for printable coupons. I had a stockpile of food, cleaning supplies, and personal care items that could get us through a nuclear holocaust (that is, if all you needed during the nuclear holocaust was frozen pizza, Windex, and toothpaste. Oh, the toothpaste. I think if every toothpaste manufacturer in the company shut their doors today, couponers could supply the world with toothpaste from their free toothpaste stockpiles for the next decade).That was back when I was a full-time stay-at-home mom to one peaceful baby who was content to spend countless hours scouring drug stores and grocery stores for deals. Now I have 2 kids that take an hour to get out the door, one of whom is a two year old with a -2 second attention span and ZERO tolerance for sitting still in a grocery cart. Needless to say, my couponing days have changed.I don’t have my newspaper subscriptions any more because I just wasn’t using the coupons before they expired. What I do now is I get coupons that I know I want from friends and family who do have newspaper subscriptions. And, instead of going to several stores each week for my deals, I just use the coupons at my regular grocery store on items I’m already buying.I also watch Facebook and online sites for coupons for my favorite items that I can print and use the next time I need that item.Couponing can save you a lot of money, whether you commit to it full-time or do as I do and just use them as you’re able. If you want to learn more about couponing or money-saving in general, there are tons of blogs and online tutorials that can help you. Some of my favorite local blogs are Thrifty Northwest MomThis Beautiful Frugal LifeCoupon Connections, and Hip2Save and The Coupon Project.
  • Choosing My Stores and How I Shop Them
    Some stores cost more than others. Sure, with coupons you can get the prices down on many items. But you can’t buy EVERYTHING you need with a coupon and sometimes you just don’t want to deal with them. I have found that some stores have consistently lower prices, and that’s where I shop. For me, that’s WinCo. They have great prices on produce, which we buy a lot of and you can rarely get with a coupon anyway. They don’t have a very large organic selection, but a great overall selection including exotic tropical fruits and the largest array of chili peppers I’ve ever seen. They also have a HUGE bulk section. You can buy anything in bulk there: spices, pasta, cereals, soup mixes, snacks, candy, pantry items…you name it! Buying in bulk allows me to buy the amount I need at a lower price. Another thing I like about Winco: they don’t accept credit cards. I’m a lot more conscientious of my spending when I have to pay cash!Somewhat related to this is the fact that I try to buy fresh and local when possible. I love going to u-pick farms in the summer and filling my trunk with fresh fruits and veggies for pennies. My mom also has a fairly prolific garden and apple orchard that she lets me harvest from whenever I go over for a visit for, you guessed it, FREE! Even if I get more fresh produce than we can eat right away, I know that I can always freeze, can, or give away wthe extras.
  • Preparing Our Own Meals
    Jon used to go out for lunch every day. At $10-$15 a pop, we were spending close to $300 a month on his lunches! Now I make all of his lunches–they’re not as exciting, but they are healthier and the cost a whole lot less. We also don’t go out to eat as a family very often. We eat out a few times a month, but other than that I prepare all of our meals at home, including Jacob’s baby food. It’s a simple thing, but when it costs $30 for our family to get a meal at McDonalds, it adds up quickly!
  • Cheaper Date Nights
    When we only had 1 kid, we used to do babysitting swaps with some of our friends on a pretty regular basis. We’d watch their kid, then the next week they’d watch ours. Or, even better, if you have family living nearby call them in for a little back-up. Grandmas and Grandpas and Aunties (and Uncles) usually seem to enjoy getting a little one-on-one time with the little tikes.
    There are lots of ways to save money on dates themselves: Go somewhere free (long walks on the beach, anyone?), try to hit up happy hour at your favorite five-star “$$$$” restaurant, go to a $2 movie theater or a drive-in movie (yes, they do still exist!), go to a free museum on First Thursday, and utilize daily deal sites to find unique experiences. And, if all else fails, you can always snuggle up on the couch with a bottle of wine after the kidd-o’s have nodded off.
  • Free and Cheap Activities
    I love taking advantage of community resources, most of which are free or available for a small fee. Some of my favorites: story time at local libraries and bookstores, parks (we even have one near our house that has a free petting zoo and water park in the summer), beaches, hiking, biking on bike trails, and indoor play areas at malls and coffee shops.
    Memberships to local activities can also be a good deal. For instance, an annual membership to the zoo or children’s museum pays for itself in less than 3 visits. Plus, if you have a membership somewhere it’s easy to go for a short time (which is the only time I seem to have with a toddler in tow) and not feel bad that you’re wasting your money by not spending all day there.

    A zoo membership is affordable fun year-round

    A zoo membership is affordable fun year-round

    You can also get pretty good discounts on activities if you have a membership somewhere else. For instance, if you have a Bank of America Visa card you can get in to hundreds of museums for free during the first full weekend of each month. If you have an REI membership, you get a discount on lift tickets at local ski areas (each state has their own partner ski area). It’s always worth looking into the benefits you get with services you’re already using.

It does take time and a bit of research to save money but, in my experience, it really is worth the effort. What are some of your favorite ways to save money day to day?