When my first baby was born, I decided to become a stay-at-home-mom or SAHM. And, full disclosure, we couldn’t afford it. Not even close. But I did it anyway. I did my best to save money at each stage of my children’s lives. As I know more and more parents are trying to figure out how to save some money and stay home, I want to take a few minutes to share with you some lessons I learned over the years.
I do not want to act like it is easy to find room in your budget to stay at home. This economy isn’t forgiving for many people, and the price of food and housing is a real challenge. I also want to say upfront that I know being a SAHM is not for everyone. It is a decision that can carry a lot of baggage for women who chose to stay home and those who chose to work when they could afford to stay home. And it can be a source of stress for families that cannot afford it.
This is a judgment-free zone and I recognize that my personal experiences may not apply to someone else’s life for a wide array of reasons. But there are things I had to figure out for myself that I wish I had known sooner.
Big Picture Things
Affording to stay at home often means cutting costs on big-ticket items. We drive used cars and keep driving them after they are paid off for as long a possible. I know a vehicle needs replaced when it costs more to repair than to make payments on a new one.
We figured out what we could afford for rent or a mortgage, and worked to keep those on budget. For us, this meant that our younger kids shared a room for many years. Far more years than the American dream suggests is okay. Keeping those big-ticket items under control was essential.
Beyond those, I said “no” to a lot of things over the years. My kids lived without lots of new things and we did our best to enjoy things that were free or cheap. The following are ideas for different ages and some of the smaller ways we made room in our budget.
Cutting your budget can mean getting rid of all your small luxuries. Those can add up to a lot over time. You can cut out streaming services and cable channels. For a while, we lived without any of those and the only station our TV could pull in was PBS. Was it a sacrifice? Yes. But we made it work.
I got every member of my family a library card. Using the public library is a great way to cut costs on media. There is often far more than books you can check out for free or very cheap. Some even offer digital books or movies! As a homeschooler, the library can be a true lifesaver.
If I need to purchase books, I check websites like Thrift Books for used copies first. There are a lot of things you can find used from books to dishes, toys to clothes. Most communities have active FreeCycle groups. There are different kinds of thrift stores and second-hand stores than your typical Good Will place. In my area, there is a consignment shop that specializes in selling second-hand items from homes where people have moved into hospice. It is a great way to get full sets of dishes or used furniture.
Looking over your entire budget can help you see if you have places where you can cut costs that will add up. I despise the idea that we could all cut out fancy coffees and afford a new house. No one is spending that much on coffee. But, if you eat out a lot, staying home and cooking for yourself can save you real money.
Speaking of cooking, you’ll often hear that buying food in bulk is a great way to save money. That’s only true, in my experience, if you can use it all before it goes bad. I cannot tell you how many times I thought I was doing good buying a bulk item only to end up needing to get rid of half of it well after it expired. I tend to only buy in bulk now things that do not go bad.
But there is some logic to bulk buying. Getting the 6-pound pack of chicken is often cheaper than getting six 1-pound packs. One great way to take advantage of this is to make a meal plan that has a lot of overlap in ingredients for a week. Buy that 6-pound pack of chicken with the intention of it being the foundation for 3 meals.
Not all of these are reasonable for everyone, but there were several things we did to save money during the baby years. First off, I breastfed. It was NOT easy with my first, but once we got the hang of it, it was free. I know this isn’t an option for everyone, but if you can do it, it is much cheaper to buy yourself the extra calories you need than to purchase formula.
Next, we cloth diapered. No, I’m not crazy, and yes they did work. Honestly, we had far fewer poo explosions with cloth than with disposables. I had already realized that if you have a baby, you will eventually be washing poo off their clothes, your clothes, and your bedding. I will say if you want to save money with cloth diapers, don’t jump in too fast. Do your research on different kinds and how to wash them. When we used cloth, I got a second-hand top-loading washing machine just for diapers, because our front loader wouldn’t get them clean.
Used baby clothes were also an important step, and doable for anyone. We were lucky that we had friends and family happy to give us hand-me-downs for our first two kids, and then the youngest got hand-me-downs from both of them. However, you can also shop for used clothes at consignment sales, yard sales, and thrift stores. Baby clothes fit for such a short amount of time, that buying new is just a waste most of the time.
You should also ask experienced moms what you actually need and what you don’t. The list of equipment I purchased for my first, was a mile long. What I needed for my youngest, was about 5 things: Diapers, clothes, car seat, sling, and bassinet. Be careful not to spend excess money on things you don’t really need.
The one baby thing no one tells you to buy that I recommend is a crockpot. Cooking dinner after caring for a baby all day was too hard. It leads to things like picking up dinner and eating out. Instead, put something in the crockpot at 10 AM during the baby’s morning nap! This trick saved us a lot on eating out during those exhausting baby days.
I’m going to tell you something that moms of many already know. Your toddler does not need fancy gymnastics and music classes or visits to expensive places. Those are great if you have extra money, but if you don’t, your toddler will be fine. Instead, take them to free storytimes at the library or your local book store. Sing songs together around the house and explore local playgrounds so they can climb something. Take them to explore puddles and visit a variety of free outdoor spaces. Zoos are great, but your two-year-old will likely be just as happy seeing the ducks at a local pond for free.
Instead of buying fancy toddler snacks, cut up regular food into small pieces and serve it in a mini muffin tray. This is the toddler version of a chartreuse board. A variety of Cheerios, banana slices, and cheese is super fancy for your little one. You can add in crackers, apple slices, and cut-up grapes for even more variety.
Instead of lots of toys, choose high-quality toys carefully. Most toddlers can’t play with more than about 10 toys. Beyond that is overwhelming. So, don’t feel like your toddler needs lots of things to be happy. Less is more, especially at this age.
As parents, we want to give our kids everything. But sometimes you just can’t. This means you need to pick and choose carefully what activities your child participates in.
Your best bet for affordable activities is to DIY. If you do it yourself, you can set up the co-op, book club, or other activities at a price point you can afford. You can also decide if you get a discount for doing all the work to set things up. For my kids, I’ve run scout groups, co-ops, book clubs, and playdates. Doing it myself was a lot of work, but it meant my kids got exactly what they needed at a price I could afford.
If your child wants classes you can’t afford, there are several options. First, shop around. Dance classes at the community center may be much cheaper than those at the local ballet studio. Community centers often offer a variety of affordable classes and summer camps.
Second, see if the instructor is willing to work out a trade or barter for your services. You may be able to clean the piano teacher’s home in trade for lessons, for example. Various instructors may also be willing to set up a discounted class for you if you can get a minimum number of students. If a music teacher usually charges $40 an hour, you may be able to get 4 students for the same hour each paying just $10 per hour. The teacher makes the usual amount for their time teaching the same instrument.
Once your kids are older, teach them to cook some simple dinners. On nights that life has gotten crazy, having your teen or tween cook something simple can save you from spending far more having food delivered. My kids often make spaghetti and meatballs. They put frozen meatballs and jarred marinara sauce in a pot on the stove to heat, and cook noodles. It is easy enough they can do it and it feels like real food—instead of having cereal for dinner. I used to make homemade meatballs for this meal. Once they were fully cooked, I would put them on a cookie sheet to flash freeze and then sort those into quart-sized freezer bags.
If you have family who likes to give you or your kids generous holiday gifts, think ahead to ask for what you need or the high-priced things your kids are wanting. One year, we had multiple family members chip in on a gift for a child. They wanted something outside everyone’s holiday budget, but we were able to pool our resources to make it happen.
Hand-made gifts are more affordable, and a great way to make your holiday more meaningful. Get your kids involved and it even becomes homeschooling. This is something we did for many years. One year, I sewed aprons for everyone with fabric I found on sale. Another year we made candles and another soap. Food gifts of homemade cookies or candy are also enjoyed by most of my holiday list, though those can be more expensive than they seem when you shop for ingredients.
Home-made gifts show you care, even if you don’t have much to spend. Switching your family to this style of gift may force them to adjust, but it is worth it. You don’t need to go into debt for the holidays, and if your family likes gifts, asking them to give those up may be too much to ask.
It is also great to start cheap and free holiday traditions with your kids. Drive around to look at Christmas lights together. Watch movies on TV together. Start a tradition of playing board games or baking cookies together. While you can spend a fortune on holiday things, those aren’t necessary. Most kids just want a cozy holiday with their families.
What else is there?
There are tons of moms out there with tips on how they afford to stay home. Some are amazing at coupons. Some have found a way to work part-time but be home more. Some shop at 3 different stores to get the best grocery prices, or grow their own food. Before you make dramatic changes to your life, ask friends who stay home what works for them and get some ideas.
It isn’t easy to cut your budget, but I am so glad we’ve done it.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.