7 budgeting tips to save money on family expenses

Get the whole family in a savings mindset with these tips.

Figuring out how to save money while raising a family is no small feat. The average cost of raising a child born in 2015 through age 17 is $233,610, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that doesn’t include paying for college.

Whether you’ve got one child or a growing brood, it pays to consider ways to save money on family expenses. Check out these money-saving tips for families:

1. Focus on food costs

Figuring out how to save money while raising a family can seem difficult when your grocery bill is sky-high. Adding some structure into your family’s eating habits and planning meals are two ways to save money on family expenses.

A woman shopping at a grocery store looks through her coupons.

Jessi Fearon, a financial coach, mom of three, and personal finance blogger, says she plans breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for her family weekly. She shops for groceries once a week, based on her meal plan, which includes salads and fresh vegetables. She also uses cash for grocery shopping so there’s no temptation to pick up extras. Giving yourself a cash limit can keep you from going over budget, whereas it may be easier to overspend if you’re swiping a debit or credit card instead.

If you’re meal planning weekly, tailor your shopping list to what’s on sale. Jennifer McDermott, a New York City-based consumer advocate with a personal finance comparison website, says your mobile device can be a way to save money on family expenses as you create your menu.

She recommends using an app that will aggregate sales flyers according to your zip code so you can search for the best deals. You can browse apps to see what’s on sale and build your meal plan for the week or the month around those items. You can also search for apps that will allow you to take advantage of coupons after you’ve paid for your groceries.

“All you do is buy the products on the list, snap a picture of your receipt and you’ll get cash back in return,” McDermott says. Some apps allow you to accumulate cash back in your account and once you hit a certain dollar amount, you can request a cash out payment, which is mailed to you as a check.

2. Keep birthdays simple

Birthdays can be a source of dread if you’re worried about the cost. Erin Durkin Voisin, director of financial planning at a wealth advisory firm in Torrance, California, says the emphasis should be on making memories, not spending money.

“My best birthday parties were spent sledding and having friends over, which were both low-cost options for my parents,” Durkin Voisin says. She suggests taking advantage of no-cost or inexpensive activities for kids’ parties, like spending a day at the beach or hosting a sleepover with pizza and cake.

McDermott says if your child’s heart is set on a specific venue, you may be able to save by booking at an off-peak time or having a joint party with another child and splitting the cost. Keeping the guest list small means less to plan and is a good money-saving tip for families.

A little girl blows bubbles while her dad and grandparents adoringly look on.

3. Give secondhand a chance

Buying new children’s clothes and shoes can be a money-wasting mistake. Shopping consignment shops, thrift stores and yard sales, or hosting a clothing swap with another family, are simple money-saving tips for families.

You can also check out online marketplaces to buy and sell items locally, or scope out what people are selling in your local bargains group on social media. These same outlets are also great for reselling clothes, shoes, toys, books and anything else your kids have outgrown.

Buying used is also a way to save money on family expenses if your kids are involved in sports or extracurricular activities. Durkin Voisin says e-commerce websites are excellent resources for finding used sporting gear and musical equipment. You could consider leasing musical instruments if you’re not sure whether your child will stick with it for the long term.

4. Choose frugal fun

Vacations and entertainment are two big budget traps for families. Fearon says one of the easiest ways to save money on family expenses in these areas is to stop overthinking. Entertainment or travel doesn’t have to be extravagant to be fun and memorable.

“We think that if it doesn’t consist of this or that then our kids won’t have a great family memory,” Fearon says, “but the truth is, kids just want to be kids.” Her family loves weekend camping trips, which don’t cost much and are simple ways to unwind.

Swapping out a trip to the movies or an amusement park with a bike ride or a museum visit on a no-admission day are money-saving tips for families that don’t require a huge lifestyle overhaul.

If you don’t have the budget for a pricey vacation, try an inexpensive staycation at home. Pitch a tent in the backyard or be a tourist in your hometown. In addition to museums, state parks and historical sites often have low or no admission fees, and you can save even more by packing a lunch instead of eating out.

5. Plan ahead for the holidays

If you’re thinking about how to save money while raising a family, prep for the holidays early to avoid a shopping frenzy late in the year. Fearon says she sets a spending budget for gifts, which typically ranges from $400 to $600. She keeps a separate savings account for these funds and budgets a set amount of money to add to the account each pay period to reach her savings goal.

“That way, when it’s time to buy gifts we know how much we can afford to spend,” she says, “and there’s no stress in January from trying to pay back credit card bills.”

Graphic showing someone shopping online during the winter holiday season.

Shopping earlier in the year is another way to snag deals when you’re looking for ways to save money on family expenses. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day are all ripe times for sales. If you prefer shopping online, some websites have special sales in the summer which provide opportunities to rack up savings on gifts.

If you plan to swipe a card for holiday shopping, be smart about it. You could use a cash back rewards debit card, such as the one that comes with a Discover® Cashback Debit account, or you could use a credit card. You can then use your reward as a way to save money on family expenses in the new year.

Remember to set a budget if you’re spending on credit so you don’t go overboard. Limit yourself to what you can afford to pay in full to avoid interest charges.

6. Hack your housing costs

Housing is likely to be your largest expense as a family, and there are several money-saving tips for families so you can trim these costs.

You could install a programmable thermostat to keep your heating and cooling costs down. Set the thermostat to lower the temperature automatically when you’re out of the house or turn off the air conditioning when you don’t need it. For even bigger potential savings, refinancing your mortgage could lower your monthly payment.

If you’re open to something more drastic, you could think about downsizing to a smaller home or rental—perhaps after one or more children have left for college—as a way to save money on family expenses. You could also consider using your home to generate income by renting out a room on a vacation rental website. If you’re considering this route, be sure to check your local housing laws to make sure it’s allowed. Many cities, counties and municipalities have restrictions on short-term rentals.

A man changes a lightbulb.

When considering how to save money while raising a family, taking in a foreign exchange student may be another option if the exchange program offers you a monthly stipend for hosting. The amount of the stipend may vary based on the program, your location and the school the student attends while they’re staying with you.

7. Talk budgeting and saving with your kids

Learning how to save money while raising a family isn’t just for moms and dads. You can also get children involved by having regular budget talks. You don’t have to get into all of the nitty-gritty details about your income or expenses, but you can go over the basics of spending and saving. What children learn about money when they’re younger can come in handy later when they’re raising families of their own.

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