The recent economic turmoil hasn’t left homeschoolers untouched. Even in the best of times, single-income homeschool families often need to watch their pennies. Add rising costs and economic instability to the mix, and the result can pose a real challenge.
In times such as these, it can be tempting to put the kids back in school so Mom can take a job to help pay the bills. But wait! Is that step really necessary? Perhaps not. Before you give up on your vision to teach your children at home, perhaps you can weather the financial storm by practicing some good old-fashioned belt-tightening. (I know, I know—that doesn’t sound like very much fun to me, either. But isn’t it better than the alternatives?)
Most of us already know some ways to live frugally and cut back on spending. However, sometimes it’s good to learn from the wisdom of others so we can glean new ideas and insights. That’s exactly what we’re going to do in this article. I recently asked many of the writers who write for Home School Enrichment to share their favorite money-saving tips and ideas, and they delivered the goods! Some of their ideas may be familiar to you, others may be new; use what you can, and may God bless your efforts to stay true to His calling through both the easy times and the hard times!
Know Where the Money Goes
One of the most important factors in living within your means is knowing exactly where you’re spending your money. Ray Lawson shares a technique he and his wife tried: “Go back over the past 12 months and document your family’s spending in categories (groceries, electricity, postage, gasoline, home repairs, out-of-pocket medical, etc.) on a month-by-month basis. Streamline your spending by determining which expenditures are ‘wants’ and which are ‘needs.’ To the maximum extent possible, focus on spending money only on ‘needs.’ You can start a cash envelope arrangement where you put the estimated monthly expenses for different categories in separate envelopes. When you deplete the funds in one envelope, you have to make a choice as to which other envelope you will take from. We did this for a couple of years, and it dramatically changed our spending habits. Crown Financial Ministries has a lot of good information about this method on their Web site, www.crown.org.”
Half the battle can be learning the lesson of contentment. Carmen Rockett writes, “Adjust your attitude—never compare with the neighbors to see what they have, nor feel that just because a store sells it, you need it. When I am tempted by row upon row of prepackaged, over-processed quasi-food, I remind myself that it’s not there for me. It’s the same for all the other trinkets and gadgets calling out to insist that I buy them.”
A big help in this area is to limit your exposure to media. According to research done by Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and Stanford’s School of Medicine, more time in front of the TV leads to more requests from children for the latest toys, snacks, etc. Even video games have an increasing amount of advertising built into them, and thus can also fuel discontent. Limiting “screen time” can be a big help in promoting contentment in both yourself and your children. As Shari McMinn candidly puts it, TV is “one big advertisement for a materialistic lifestyle.”
Prioritize Your Spending
“Make a monthly budget,” says Shari McMinn. “Ten percent tithe first; ten percent savings second; major needs third (groceries, housing, utilities); extras, fourth. This is very hard—it is a goal. You may get off track, but keep updating your budget as a plan.”
Avoid Costly Curriculum Mistakes
Karen Lange writes, “To save money on a packaged curriculum, invest in a good curriculum guide. Use this as a framework to make sure all your bases are covered. I recommend Cathy Duffy’s guides, available at www.rainbowresource.com, and the Unschoolers Network curriculum guides, at www.unschoolersnetwork.bravehost.com.” By utilizing a curriculum guide, you can make informed decisions about which resources to purchase, thus reducing the possibility of having to buy something else when one option fails to meet expectations.
Become a Techno-Peasant
Writes Cindy Puhek, “Some of you will be horrified by what my family does without in the area of new technology. Being slow to embrace new technology (the very definition of “techno-peasant”) is very thrifty, and we don’t even miss what we’ve never had. I have slow, dial-up Internet access that costs $10 a month. We don’t have cable TV. We have a ‘pay as you go’ cell phone. I think a cell phone is necessary for emergencies, but instead of paying for monthly service, we buy minutes that expire after a year. We get 1,000 minutes anytime, anywhere in the country, for $100 dollars. Since we don’t tend to use the cell phone to receive calls, this $100 covers us for the entire year. My cell phone is not fancy, does not have Internet capabilities, and cannot take pictures. I’ve never sent or received a text message. But my cell phone works great in emergencies, such as when I needed to call my husband because a tire blew out on our van. We spend less than $20 a month on Internet and cell phone.”
Jenefer Igarashi agrees: “We’ve saved money by going to dial-up—we pay about $4 a month to be online. Another way we’ve cut costs has been to ditch our TV. This has also given us more time to actually be productive during the day and evenings, plus we immediately noticed that our relationships improved. We also adjusted our phone plan to the bare basics. No more long distance calls, but hey, with the Internet, who needs ’em?”
Forget the Dryer
Another tip from Karen Lange: “To save money around the house, cut down on your dryer use. An initial investment of a clothesline, clothespins, and/or a drying rack for the laundry room or other available space can pay off in electricity and gas bill savings. Even air drying small items, such as socks, dishcloths, washcloths, etc, helps cut back on the use of the dryer. It takes a little more effort, but will pay off in the long run.”
Another way to save some money around the house is to use homemade cleaners. Cindy Puhek shares: “I discovered the cleaning properties of vinegar when we installed hardwood floors in our house. Vinegar and water are the only approved cleaning products for hardwood, and since I had them on hand, I started using vinegar for other cleaning purposes. A 10% vinegar/water solution is great for cleaning glass and mirrors without streaking. It will also safely clean shiny bathroom fixtures.”
MYO and DIY
As Katharine Trauger shares, those initials stand for Make Your Own and Do It Yourself. Although we can’t all have the skills necessary to do everything for ourselves, mastering some basics can save a family plenty of cash. In addition, forgoing some conveniences can also save money. As Katharine points out, a knife to cut your vegetables costs less than a food processor; a push mower costs less than a rider; a snow shovel costs less than a blower, etc. Time is money, which means the more of one you’re willing to spend, the more of the other you’ll save. If you’re paying someone else to do what you can do yourself with a little more time, it may be worth your while to stop paying and start doing.
Eat at Home
It probably goes without saying, but eating at restaurants costs a lot more than eating at home. To cut down, try one of two things: either eliminate eating out completely, or set a definite budget that you won’t exceed. Our family has an amount set aside in our monthly budget that we spend eating out. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to allow us to get out of the house now and then—perhaps 2-3 times in a month, depending on where we go (I should mention that this includes everything—a quick stop at a fast food place comes out of the budget just like a visit somewhere nicer). Rather than simply going out to eat every time we might want to, or every time it might be convenient, we check the budget first to make sure we have the funds available. The choice of restaurant and menu items is based more on the funds left in the budget than on what we might “feel” like ordering. If we go out somewhere that costs more at the beginning of the month, we have to stay at home later in the month—it’s as simple as that.
Of course, the biggest savings will come from not going out at all. But whether you opt to set a limit on the amount you’ll spend or choose to just stay home, getting your spending in this area under control is a huge way to save some serious cash.
Other Mealtime Savings
Melanie Hexter notes, “The #1 rule with mealtime savings: don’t eat out at restaurants. Something else our family does one night per week is have ‘leftover night’ on the menu. To be honest, the kids love to pick their favorites from amongst the options, and I love getting the fridge cleared out. I also keep a couple of large plastic, sealed tubs in my freezer, one labeled ‘soup solids’ and the other ‘soup liquids.’ Any small quantities of leftovers, too small for a portion on leftover night, go into those tubs. Once a month or so, when they are filled with solids (like green beans, corn, rice, pasta) or liquids (spaghetti sauce, chicken broth, and boiled potato drainings), I add spices and additional liquids to make a vegetable soup. Served with a loaf of homemade bread, this gives us yet another dinner on the cheap!”
Cindy Puhek adds, “Every family must eat, but there are ways to save money at the grocery store. First, try to institute more cooking from scratch. The ingredients required to make bread are much cheaper than buying a pre-made loaf, and homemade bread is much better for your family too. Always shop with a list, and try to do the bulk of your shopping on the edges of the grocery store, which is where the meat, produce, dairy, and bakery are typically located. The prepared foods in the middle of the store are expensive, and money can be saved if these foods are cut from the family’s menu.
“However, if your cooking method has typically involved assembling and warming food someone else has prepared, make the change to cooking from scratch slowly. Prepared food from the grocery store is still more economical than eating out at a restaurant, which is where you’ll end up if you quit buying prepared food cold turkey.
“Eating fewer ‘meat and potato’ meals also tends to save money. Soups, casseroles, and dishes flavored with meat, rather than having meat as a main dish, will help cut the grocery budget. Having a vegetarian dinner once a week is not only economical but also very healthy. My family enjoys having refried bean tostadas on a regular basis. One of my goals this year is to learn to cook with economic, nutritious dried beans in ways my family enjoys. I’m going to try my hand at homemade baked beans tomorrow.”
Katharine Trauger, an avid gardener, suggests, “If you have space, you can raise all your vegetables, which will cost you about fifteen cents per quart if you can them. They are nearly free if you eat them fresh.” Ray Lawson agrees: “If your family is into canning fruits and vegetables, raise and can what you are able. Take advantage of farmer’s markets and U-pick farms to buy fresh in bulk.” He continues, “If you have a freezer, you can get some decent buys from outlet stores on food that is approaching expiration. You can freeze it, or prepare it and freeze it.”
Shari McMinn writes, “Discuss with your spouse every purchase before you make it, large or small.” Making this commitment will help develop financial accountability and provide additional wisdom and discernment in knowing the difference between wants and needs.
Melanie Hexter writes, “I am careful to group my errands into town so I don’t waste either my time or gas money. Today I went to the bank, grocery store, and recycling site on one quick outing. Another day of the week is reserved for two lessons and the library. The other three days of the week, we don’t leave the house, and we manage to get lots of school done! I am not shy about turning down ‘good’ opportunities with our co-op or other friends on our home-based days.”
Plenty of R&R
No, that doesn’t stand for rest and relaxation—it stands for reuse and recycle! Carmen Rockett writes, “If you’re in a pinch, you can reuse Ziploc bags, foil, and even plastic grocery bags. Grocery bags work for covering many food items in the fridge. For a more airtight cover, use two bags. Grocery bags make suitable small trashcan liners also.”
Use the Library
This probably goes without saying, but using the library is a great way to save money on books you don’t need to own permanently. You can also find videos, DVDs, and music CDs at many libraries. Suzanne Broadhurst puts it simply: “Homeschooling: Library card, pencil and paper.”
. . . But Avoid Late Fees
“I know too many families who owe a significant amount of money to the library every month in the form of late fees,” says Melanie Hexter. “Find a system to organize your library receipts so you won’t return items after the due date. My system is simply keeping all my receipts sorted in chronological order, attached to the side of my fridge by a big, magnetic clip. I only go to the library once per week, so my books are always due on Tuesdays. If I should need an extension for a particular book, I do a renewal online on the library’s Web site. I also have cultivated a good relationship with our Children’s Service librarians. If I need something extra, they often come to my aid.”
Pray Before You Shop
Katharine Trauger shares this timely advice: “God can do so many things for the praying mom when she is shopping. He alone has actual control of the prices. He knows what I need better than I do, and He knows where to find it, not me. Often, when I am shopping, the store runs a special on something I need, just as I walk into the store. Often, when I check a sale table, I find exactly what I needed for some occasion in the future, and it wasn’t even on my list. I can recognize it, though, as the work of His hand. A simple prayer might be, ‘Lord, You know what I need and You know how much money I have. Please help me save money while I shop today.’”
Use Unit Studies
“Unit studies, where subjects and grade levels can be combined, are also a way to save on materials for school,” suggests Karen Lange. “There are many great unit studies available, such as KONOS and Considering God’s Creation.”
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Cindy Puhek writes, “I love books and curriculum. However, I have discovered that one can have too much of a good thing. We have so many books in our house that we often have trouble finding a particular title that has become buried in one of our 20 bookcases. When I started homeschooling, I picked out my own resources and tended to purchase more curriculum than we could ever utilize in a school year. When I switched to a ‘boxed’ curriculum, I began saving money. The authors of the boxed curriculum know what can be reasonably completed in a year’s time, so no books sit on the shelf gathering dust.”
When it comes to making gift wish lists, some options fit a frugal lifestyle better than others. Melanie Hexter says, “I usually ask for memberships, magazine subscriptions, and lessons as Christmas gifts from the grandparents. The chance to go to the zoo or local museum as a family for a whole year, receive a monthly magazine we’d otherwise forgo, or take ice skating or snow skiing lessons is money well-spent vs. toys which will quickly gather dust on our shelves. If your budget is really tight, suggest essentials (clothing, grocery store gift cards, bookstore gift certificates) as Christmas and birthday gifts from the grandparents.”
Haircuts 4 U
Another tip from Melanie Hexter: “Our library had a great book to teach how to give basic haircuts (a boy’s layered, boy’s buzz, girl’s layered, girl’s blunt). After reading it, making notes, and investing about $25 in a good pair of clippers and scissors, I gave my first haircut. My husband joined in and now gives the boys all their haircuts. We’ve saved hundreds and hundreds of dollars over the years by giving haircuts to our five children.”
Know the Secret of Buying Bulk
You can often save money by buying the larger cartons, the bigger containers, etc. However, buying bigger isn’t necessarily best if you don’t know a little secret that most people have never heard. Companies who sell a standard size and jumbo size bottle of shampoo aren’t giving you a discount on the jumbo size just because they’re generous. Financial author and speaker Matt Bell references research showing that people use more of a product when they’re taking it out of a larger package. Apparently, we subconsciously feel that we can use more of a product when it’s coming out of a large container because we don’t feel the impending possibility of running out. (As an example, think about how you feel when you’re using one of those little bitty bottles of shampoo at a motel, compared to using your own large bottle at home. If you’re like most people, you’ll use less out of the little bottle because you subconsciously realize you could run out if you use too much.) The lesson? Go ahead and buy the large size if it’s cheaper, but pay attention to how much you use. If you find yourself using more than you need to, make a deliberate effort to cut back. Don’t let the size of the package lull you into thinking you can use more than you need!
“What skills and abilities do your family members have that others may want?” asks Melanie Hexter. My husband is a computer whiz, which means his skills are often in demand. But his time is valuable, so when he’s asked to recover a neighbor’s hard drive or help an acquaintance purchase and install new memory or hardware, we’ve sometimes asked to trade his services. We have beautiful hardwood stairs in our home as a result of one such barter! My 14-year-old daughter has been earning some of her horseback riding lessons through hours worked at the barn, doing the dirty work in the stalls. Cooking meals, childcare, auto repairs, landscaping, piano or other lessons, office work, mending, legal services—the possibilities for bartering are limitless! It never hurts to ask about a trade before you decide to purchase something.”
Shari McMinn shares, “Do not pick up any hobbies that are expensive—golf, skiing, etc. For recreation, just play backyard sports with your family, friends, or church members in a group setting.” Melanie Hexter agrees: “Get creative with family entertainment that’s virtually free: bonfires, hikes and bike rides, board games, and playing catch in the yard.
Keep the Right Focus
Christa Sterken offers these insightful thoughts: “I would offer encouragement to stay focused each day on God’s presence. I have been through financial difficulties. Many times. When my husband lost his job two years ago, we had no savings, no notice, and plenty of bills coming. We lived in a small coastal town with few jobs to apply for. It was a scary time, but we worked hard at focusing on ‘this is the day which the Lord hath made,’ determined to rejoice in it. It was hard work, but we knew that having me stay home with our kids was a priority. Life isn’t easy, but the choice to keep homeschooling was one we made and are still making. We remind ourselves that homeschooling is a privilege, and sometimes life calls for re-prioritizing to allow us to keep it. I have had to take part-time jobs, but I have been able to find work that allowed us to still homeschool.
“It can be scary, discouraging, and difficult while we search for the light at the end of the tunnel. When we focus on the light of Jesus each day, He will get us through. Sweet readers, fight for it. Keep returning your thoughts to what you have to be grateful for each day. No matter how small they seem, each blessing builds upon another.
“If you do have to work, God will use this time to grow something wonderful. If homeschooling is a passion, determine to make it work, no matter your employment situation.”
By Jonathan Lewis
(With assistance from many homeschooling parents!)
Jonathan Lewis is a homeschool graduate who enjoys working with his family on Home School Enrichment Magazine. You can get in touch with him at jonathan@HomeSchoolEnrichment.com. Many thanks to all who shared their ideas and tips for this article!
This article was originally published in Home School Enrichment Magazine. To learn more, visit www.HomeSchoolEnrichment.com.