Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How We Make It Work

Beth asked a great question when commenting on my last post. I thought it might be helpful to others to know some of our "tricks" to surviving in this economy, living in Seattle, on a single income.

To be honest, most of how we make it work started long before we had children, before we were even married. I worked in sales job that I didn't love, but I did it for the very simple fact that I made good money. We could have had a gorgeous home, lovely things to go in it, fancy cars, dream vacations, blah, blah, blah. But we didn't. We kept our eye on the prize.

Instead, we bought a modest, but perfectly fine home in a starter neighborhood. We didn't ever buy anything on credit. We purchased cars and paid them off. I had a company car, but when we paid off my husband's commuter car and bought a "family" vehicle, we put the little commuter car in the garage and kept it for two years until we had to give up the company car. We paid off any debt we had (student loans, a very small amount of credit card debt of my husband's, etc.) until we only had a mortgage. We had a mortgage that was far less than what we could afford on both salaries, but easily affordable on just my husband's. We socked away extra money whenever and where ever we could. We have a full year of my husband's pre-tax salary in the bank as a safety net.

My husband worked his arse off, getting promotions at work, and made it very clear in every single performance review what our ultimate goal was and what he needed to be making (which started out as a sizeable gap and narrowed over the years). He asked for extra responsibilities, projects, employees to manage, etc.

As you can see, by the time it came for me to resign, we were in a pretty good position. And then. . .

I remember laying in my hospital bed, cuddling newborn Will, and watching the news about the economic "slump." I continued to watch the news a lot last fall, since Will was a hungry boy and I was often nursing and stuck on the couch. I watched as the "slump" became a "downtrend" and then a "recession." When we looked at the salary, the company car, the benefits that I was walking away from, we both got cold feet. I wasn't just walking away from a career, we were walking away from a safe, sheltered lifestyle with economic security and the ability to provide Will with a very comfortable financial future.

That's when I started posting here about our "BIG DECISION." Suddenly, everything wasn't so cut and dried. It was no longer a guarantee that if I walked away from this job, I could just go out and get another. I looked at our precious son and wanted to give him the world, or at least a college fund and braces. Was it selfish of me to want to soak up his babyhood and possibly shortchange (pun intended) his future? There were nights that I couldn't sleep, days when I couldn't eat, because it all seemed too much to give up, too much to risk.

Obviously, we came to the conclusion that it was worth it, however, because I did resign in February. I gave back the car, the corporate Amex, the benefits, and the paycheck. We took a deep breath and walked off into the financial abyss, not knowing if it will be the greatest decision or biggest mistake of our lives.

To be honest, we still don't know. What we do know is that I have enjoyed so much getting to spend all of this time with Will. I can't imagine leaving him in daycare, even though I know that he would be fine, I am not sure I would be. My job wasn't your standard 9 - 5. I travelled extensively and would have missed a lot of his growing up. It would have been very difficult as my husband also works long hours and we would have spent a lot on extended hour daycare, cutting into the financial benefits of me continuing to work.

So, what do we do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis to stretch the dollars we do have coming in?

#1. BUDGET

We have all of our monthly set expenses on a spreadsheet. We include groceries and a small amount of spending money in this. Every month, after M pays the bills, we look over the expenses to see if there is anything we need to adjust.

#2. GROCERIES

Every Tuesday (in our area), we receive the store ads and coupons in the mail. I also buy a weekly Tuesday and Sunday newspaper with the extra coupons. I go through all of the ads and see what's on sale and each store. I do not go from store to store, but I might visit two different groceries stores in a week to get the best deals from each. Once I have figured out what's on sale, I make a menu for the week ahead (ex: if hamburger is on sale, we're probably going to have tacos, meatloaf, and spaghetti this week and I will buy extra to freeze).

I take advantage of buying bulk. Lots of groceries stores are offering great deals when you stock up, but you have to buy 20 of something. Luckily, you don't have to buy 20 if the same things, usually, there are mix and match opportunities (boxed side dishes, canned fruit, frozen veggies, for example).

I do have a geeky little coupon envelope with my coupons organized.

I bring a calculator with me when I shop and add up my purchases as I go.

I do not shop hungry and I bring snacks for Will so that I don't have to buy him something to eat.

I STICK TO MY LIST (this is huge for saving money).

I DO NOT LET MY HUSBAND GO TO THE STORE (also huge).

I DO NOT LET MYSELF GO TO THE STORE between shopping trips. No, not even for "one little thing," which turns into a dozen things and $60 later.

#3: REWARDS PROGRAMS

We use a credit card that has a rewards program. We get "points" that we then redeem for gift cards. We had a ton of points and got about $1000 in Tar.get gift cards right before Will was born. We still have a little less than half of that left. We put everything on our credit card that we can and then get the rewards points. We do not pay an annual fee for our credit card and we make sure to pay it off immediately so that they do not make any money on us.

There are many such programs like this, but we stick with one and put all of our efforts so that it really does pay us back to use it. We found that when we tried to do two or three at the same time, it never amounted to much of anything from the individual cards.

#4: TAKEOUT FOOD/EATING OUT

This has been an area of opportunity for us, to be honest. We are not big "eat out" people, but we do love take out like pizza and chinese. We got into a bad habit when I was still on paid maternity leave and Will was so little. It was so much easier for M to just pick something up and we had the money, so we did it two or three times a week! Not only did that make it really hard to lose the baby weight, but it also made it really hard when the money stopped coming in to make our food budget. We have made a once a week rule for any type of food purchased outside of the home. This may sound like a lot, but this includes fast food, going out with friends, etc. Some weeks are easier than others. This is a hard one for us to stick to, but we are trying. My girlfriends often make fun of me, but I always pack food for Will where ever we go during the day. I always have fruit, string cheese, crackers, a water cup, and usually, more substantial things, too. I hate paying $5 for a kids meal that he might take two bites of, so I bring meals with us when we go to restaurants and let him also eat off our plates. It's a pain sometimes, but it saves money.

#5: CANCEL, CANCEL, CANCEL, OR JUST SAY YOU WILL

I regularly call our phone, cable, and internet companies to ask what better promotions they have going on right now. If you don't pay attention, those sneaky people will raise the rates on you and not offer anything to lower them. I am sweet as sugar when I make those calls and it doesn't always work, but there is usually some sort of promotion going on where I have saved us everything from $5 to $50 a month on a service. We have been long term customers of all our major services and I think this helps my cause, but usually I say things like, "My husband wants to cancel our service because it is too expensive. Is there anyway you can help me out? I love your company and don't want to have to go to the competition."

#6: GIFT CARDS

Everytime anyone asks us what we would like as a gift for an event, we answer gift cards. Then we use those for fun stuff. My personal favorites are Star.bucks and for pedicures, so then I don't feel so guilty about my guilty pleasures.

#7. CRAIGSLIST, THRIFT STORES, GARAGE SALES, HAND ME DOWNS

I will probably lose a few folks on this one, but it is extremely rare that we buy anything new. From toys and clothes to Will to clothes and toys for M and me, we just buy it all secondhand (not underwear or shoes, however, I do have to draw the line someplace). Will has a very impressive playroom, but with the exception of gifts from family and friends, it is all second hand things. I have to usually launder, power wash, or soak in bleach water (or all three) whatever it is that I get for Will, but end the result is that he doesn't go without and I pay a fraction of the price. Craigslist is best for specific things (if you have a brand you must have, for example, or you want something in particular, like a train table), but you will pay a bit more. I bought my Ergo baby carrier on craiglist for less than half the price of a new one and it was still in the package. Garage sales are great if you aren't as specific about what you are looking for. We also sell old things that we don't want on craigslist to make some extra spending money. My only rule is that I never meet people at their homes or have them come to us. I always meet in public spots - safety first!

I am also friends with a lot of other mommies with similar age children and we all beg, borrow, and steal shamelessy from each other when we need to. My girlfriend takes my Ergo tailgating, my other girlfriend borrowed my amazing umbrella stroller (a craigslist find) to travel with, and I borrow my girlfriend's carseat when we need an extra rather than buying a second one. I could give a lot of examples of our trade system. Usually, what I do is just do a Facebook status update, letting someone know that I need to borrow whatever it is and I usually have two or three offers within an hour or two. Most of Will's clothes are hand me downs and we pass his clothes on when we are done with them, keeping only things that we would be sad if they didn't get returned to us. I use a fabric marker to mark the tags, but I also know that it's quite possible that some things will get lost or stained, so if it's a special outfit, I set it aside and don't care about the rest.

#8. FINANCIAL SUMMIT

This is a big one for us. M and I often review where we are at financially. We have done this since we were married. M does pay the monthy bills, but I still know what's going where, how much we are putting away in savings, putting into Will's college fund, etc. We usually do this right after M has paid the bills biweekly. We also discuss any major purchases (for us, it's anything over $100, even if it's something for Will or the house). We look at the spreadsheet, see if there is anything to cut back on or add to and that's it. Because we have been doing this so long, it's rarely longer than a ten minute conversation.

#9. FUN

Of course, we have to have fun! We still do go out, we still have times when we make silly purchases, and we are planning our first big family vacation for the wintertime. We just make sure to budget for it and have a realistic expectation that we might not be able to do it up as we would in the past. Maybe we can't stay in the nicest place or go out to the best restaurants, but we do still go have fun.

We have a family membership to our local children's museum. We actually got this as a birthday gift from Will's very generous Aunt, but it wasn't really that expensive when used over the course of a year ($75). We go at least once a week (we've already gotten her money back and more in the time we've had it) and Will has a blast. Zoos, acquariums, and things of those nature usually have similar memberships and there are often other advantages (early admission times, discounts at food courts and the gift shop, discounts for guests, etc.) to buying them.

I scour the internet for great, free family things to do. Usually, you can just do a google search for local things to do with kids for your specific area. For my eastside Seattle readers, you might like the Ruby Slipper Guide. Not everything is free, but most things are, or are very low cost. I also use my local county website to find free family things to do. Public libraries also have story times, concerts, puppet shows, arts and crafts sessions, and it is usually all free. City-sponsored recreation centers usually have the cheapest deals on swim and athletic lessons.

#10. DEALS, BARGAINS, AND MORE

Again, I use coupons for just about everything if I have to buy it new, I at least am going to get a discount. I love the following resources for saving money.

Thrifty Northwest Mom is one of my favorite sites, since it combines free stuff, grocery store reviews, and coupons all in one spot (this is northwest specific but also has good nationwide resources, too).

Coupon Mom and Shortcuts.com are two great coupon resource. So is Smartsource and this is a free 14-day trial for the Entertainment book online. It's only a 14-day trial, but if you are sneaky, you can enter different people in your household so that if you have a vacation or specific going-out need, it can save some real money. Use it for restaurants, site-seeing, hotels, and more.

If I am buying something on-line, I check first for a discount or coupon code. There are tons of sites like this (just google search coupon codes) but here is an example.

Do you like Old Navy? Check out their weekly site where you can search for coupons up to $75 off a $100 purchase. Those are rare and hard to find before they run out, but the site refreshes every week and there are usually other good coupons to be had (15% off is usually always on there and it's better than nothing).

Wow, well that was longer than I thought it would be. I hope some of it is useful to you. Please share your own cost-saving advice in the comments sections OR make a post of your own and I can link to it off of this one. Then, link back to mine so we can get the word out!

7 comments:

Tracy said...

Great minds think alike! :) I could have written this post. We had to make many of the same adjustments when I decided to stay home with E&R, but it's totally been worth it. It's much less stressful for Scott having me home and taking care of "things", especially since he travels so much and we both know that in the long run this is what is best for our family.

I now LOVE menu planning and coupon clipping, and we joke about my "buy of the week" every week. I'm so competitive that it's like a game to me.

The only big thing that we do differently, in addition to WEEKLY summits (yes, weekly...otherwise we feel like we'd get off track), is that we do NOT ever use credit cards with the exception of online purchases (for the buyer protection.) I know we could earn points, but for us, it's just better to not use them. Instead, we have figured out that we can live on less than $XXX per week for all of our "variable" expenses (not the regular, fixed expenses like car payment, mortgage, insurance, utilities, etc.) We start the week out with that much cash, and when it's gone, it's gone. For that reason, we have to have weekly summits, so we can plan ahead. If there's a week with not a lot going on, but we know the following week is going to be a stretch, we cut back to allow for some "carry over."

This system works for us, and allows us a cushion that goes straight into savings. It really does make us think about EVERY purchase, which was the point. :)

Have you seen Baby Cheapskate online yet? Great site, especially when the babies are younger.

Katie said...

Tracy, we are very alike in so many ways!

I probably should probably clarify that only big stuff, like home impovement things, groceries, an some bills that can be paid via credit card are things we put on the card. Small expenses, personal things for M and me, and things like dinners out and such are paid with cash. It definitely helps keep thoughtless spending down!

HereWeGoAJen said...

Very interesting. We do a few of those things, but not all of them and you have some ideas I'd like to implement.

Intrepidgirl said...

You are amazing. I aspire to that level of organization!

Gibson Twins said...

It's interesting to see the perspective of how working people become stay at home moms / dads. I often wonder why we hadn't been so savvy before kids.

For us, my income was strictly savings money and I made about 2% less than my husband. We had no student loans, no mortgage, no credit card debt, no kids so it was really easy to save money and when I decided I didn't want to work anymore (about 26 weeks into pregnancy), I just put in my notice and haven't looked back.

We bought an almost-new foreclosure dreamhouse so we got the best of both worlds- nice house and nicer price. But beyond the financial aspect, after three years, I was really truly bored with being home with kids all day long so now I am going to school full-time (interesting to figure out on a single income btw) and found that the 10-12 hours/week I'm away from the house has done a lot of good. Looking back though, at the 1 yr old stage I would've said I wanted to be a SAHM forever. But things just change.

Ms. J said...

I "heart" you, my fellow Frugalista!

I am going to have to take some serious time and go through all of your suggestions and make sure I am not missing any opportunities ;o)

Nicky said...

You have no idea how much I love reading stuff like this. We do similar stuff, with minor tweaks. (I'm a full-time student for one more year, and my stipend barely covers daycare, so our financial situations are similar even if the other circumstances are different.)

Talking to people and reading financial articles, though, I get the sense that we are seriously the only family in America who is NOT living off credit cards and buried in debt (while also buying luxury cars and dozens of new televisions, of course, because how would you survive without a TV in every room in your house?).

We have no debt outside of our mortgage, we don't buy crap we can't afford, we can easily live on one income, and we have a big savings safety net. When we talk to friends (most of whom make more money than us) they seem oddly amazed, and insist they couldn't survive without carrying debt. And then they buy more new cars and go on expensive vacations before throwing up their hands and whining about credit card interest rates....