Art by Jonan Everett
At the last professional event I attended, I was able to share some best practices for freelance writers with a small group. During the Q&A, I revealed rather nonchalantly that I was somehow able to balance a career with raising six kids.
After the session, another writer timidly approached me and asked, “You were kidding about that six kids thing, right?” No one could believe that as a sole breadwinner, I could do what I do with a half dozen kids underfoot all day long.
I regularly get asked about the logistics of caring for what is considered a large family by today’s standards. Many people understand the joys and benefits of a big brood. However, they usually turn to finances as the sole reason it would never work for them.
It might shock you to know how little my husband and I have earned during our leanest years. But our most prosperous years had less to do with cash and more to do with using resources wisely. While I do sometimes lay awake at night trying to plan out paying for summer camps, homeschool courses, new tires for the van, and shoes for the teenagers, I do so with some historical assurance that we’ll get by.
Here are the areas that we have found most flexible for making our large-family budget work:
- Saving on food
- Making our own rules
- Being creative and consistent with allowance
- Being flexible about luxuries
Hopefully, some of our large-family budget tricks can work for your family, regardless of size.
Eat to Live
When I see what the U.S. government expects a family of our size to spend on groceries each month, I feel an amazing burst of pride. Why? We come in at the “thrifty level” for a family half our size, without the hassle of coupons or shopping schemes. For those who do use coupons, apps like SavingStar make it easier to find deals.
Since our family works at home and homeschools, we consume more groceries than others might, but we also rarely eat out. Instead we shop the weekly sales at our local grocers and chains such as Aldi. We also use super-basic recipes that have five or fewer ingredients. Plus, we make grow some of our food in our garden. Some staples include potatoes, tomatoes, and squash. We also have several dozen hens that provide us with up to three dozen eggs a day.
I try to stay off Pinterest for recipes, which can be more expensive at times. Instead, I stick with cookbooks handed down by my farming grandparents, who ate similarly to me.
Perhaps more important than the tricks I could share about using a pressure cooker to tenderize cheap cuts of meat, or how we use dried beans instead of canned (and lots of them!), is how we train our kids to approach food.
While we indulge in our share of treats each week, when they're gone, they're gone. We teach our kids that we eat to live, not live to eat.
If a food isn’t particularly tasty but is filling and healthy, we eat it. Bruised bananas, bread heels, and the tops of leeks get used without complaint at our house. We also buy in bulk, while taking advantage of a second fridge and freezer in our garage for freezing discounted milk and keeping cheap bread loaves fresh.
Creating New “Old” Wisdom
Perhaps the most effective opportunity to save with a large family comes in the form of making our own rules. When I first realized we were going to have a bigger-than-average family, I was certain we would make ends meet with traditional tips from blogs and books, such as having kids pass along their hand-me-downs and wringing the life out of everything we owned.
As it turned out, we often saved the most money by spending more on things and tossing out old conventions. Because our oldest child is our only girl, the next child is a boy who shops from the husky section, and the boy after him is of lanky build, it has been impossible to share as many assets as we had hoped.
We chose to buy better shoes, more expensive jeans, and coats that could be worn for years. We knew how hard boys could be on things; but with more durable items in the closet, we needed only a few staples for each kid, plus an assortment of graphic tees and crazy socks. We embraced the capsule wardrobe for our tween boys long before it became a thing for trendsetting women.
While consistency has been a tough battle for me, we have found that allowance has a powerful effect on children — and adults. We give our kids necessary chores to do each day, ranging from folding laundry to helping a younger sibling brush his teeth. These chores are tabulated using an allowance app, and the kids are paid out weekly into three buckets: investing (usually stocks), spending (cash or debit card), and giving (children we support overseas).
Because my time is money, the kids all know how much I make an hour as a full-time writer, and that if they don’t finish their chores, they cost the family opportunities. It’s not enough to take something away as punishment or to withhold the few dollars a week they would earn.
They must understand how their contribution to the family helps us move toward our goals. I’ve often had a child offer to handle a chore, saying, “Mom, let me do this. You make too much to spend your time clearing my dishes from the table.”
Since they understand the relationship between time and money, they know that an extra hour working could mean an extra night for our family vacation or a night out at the movies.
Once each child turns 6 years old, I also start putting a small amount — $20 per kid, per month — into a college savings account. It doesn’t seem like much, but it provides nice momentum for the kids. They are also allowed to transfer from their investing bucket of money into their college savings at any time.
Ideal for this are 529 plans, as they are sound vehicles for low-risk investments and can be used tax-free for eligible school purchases. Upon graduation from our homeschool high school, the kids would have enough for a year at a community college or a sizeable chunk of tuition at a four-year school, should that be appropriate. So far, the rest of the costs have been covered by scholarships, work-study, and in my daughter’s case, the bare minimum in manageable student loans.
We don’t do many of the things that some families enjoy doing, such as eating out often or visiting Disney theme parks. But we have still had our share of adventures while remaining within our small budget. Our most effective tool for living the life we want with a single income — my husband is a stay-at-home dad and our in-house gardener, mechanic, science teacher, and house remodeler — is flexibility.
Because I set my hours, and the kids are homeschooled, we can enjoy many things during the off-peak season, when they cost less. Getting away to an indoor amusement park on a Tuesday in the fall, for example, is cheap if purchased through Groupon. We have the freedom to do things on our own time when the price is best for our situation.
When I first started writing on financial topics in 2006, I shared in an article how our family went without air-conditioning one summer to save money for a large expense. It was the prerecession era, and I was met with some ridicule for the “drastic” choices I made.
While I haven’t had to go without AC since that year, most people have had to make some sacrifices since that time. Many of us are still reeling a bit from the recession. Many have since accepted various means of frugality — even the more drastic sort — and understand the concept of personal choice in spending and saving methods.
Final Thoughts on Making a Frugal Large-Family Budget
This new acceptance of frugality has been good, especially for families who have long made the tough decisions of choosing what to buy and what not to. Though larger families have to make the same decisions as small ones, they usually need to think a bit longer and make them for a few more people.
When people ask how I manage to raise six kids, I often tell them that I was blessed that they came into my world one at a time. The adjustment was slight with each one. As such, I had a few years to get acquainted with a tighter budget, which usually meant getting much better with our resources. As the kids get older, they are eager to help us reach family goals — something that has been a joy to witness!