When it comes to saving money for single parents, my advice is simple:
- Shop less
- Focus on maximizing time vs. money
- Focus on quality over quantity — this is true for products you buy, as well as life experiences. I prefer three weeks in Vietnam with my kids over three days at Disney. The former is less expensive, more adventure, more memories and life lessons.
Being a super-busy single mom is rife with opportunities to spend more — say, pick up unhealthy and expensive takeout, instead of cooking at home.
With a little bit of planning, consciousness and engaging the kids, you can drastically slash your bottom line. Then, the key is to focus on earning. After all, you can only cut so much from your budget. But when it comes to earning, the sky is the limit.
Here are my favorite cost-cutting strategies ….
The best ways to save on food
Get your groceries delivered.
Getting your groceries delivered via a company like Peapod or Instacart may sound like the ultimate indulgence, but it can also save you money. Sure, you’ll pay slightly higher prices, plus a delivery fee, but you won’t wind up throwing lots of “extras” into your cart.
The best way to benefit from grocery delivery is to do it strategically with a planned menu in mind. When you only buy what you need and get it delivered, you get to skip time and energy schlepping the kids to the store and avoid wasting cash on snacks and other food you don’t really need.
Plan meals ahead of time.
Whether you get your groceries delivered or not, you can save money by planning meals ahead of time. Doing so ensures you buy the ingredients you need for big, healthy meals (plus leftovers) while avoiding buying extra ingredients that will just expire in your pantry.
Let’s say you plan to make chicken enchiladas on Monday, vegetable soup on Wednesday, and tacos on Friday night, then eat leftovers or inexpensive take-out the other nights of the week. Of course, you know you also need ingredients for breakfast (cereal, eggs, bagels) and ingredients for lunch (sandwiches, fruit, snacks). In that case, write out the ingredients for each of those meals ahead of time and use it as your core grocery shopping list.
Cook in batches.
Cooking in batches is a great way to save some cash provided you don’t mind some meals doing double-duty. By making more food than you need on the nights you actually cook, you can use them as leftovers in the next day’s lunch or dinner. If you cook a lot more than you need, you could also freeze individual portions for future meals.
Limit restaurant meals.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2015, high-income households spent more than half of their food budget dining out. The obvious way to save money on food is to limit dining out as much as you can.
Instead of dining out 3-4 times per week, set a goal of once or twice. Tell your kids (over and over) that eating out is a special treat — not something you do on a whim in the middle of the week.
Clean out your pantry once per month.
Last but not least, one of the easiest ways to save money on food is to eliminate food waste.
Each month, clean out your pantry, fridge and freezer. Identify which items are soon to expire, and focus on those first. Get creative, and see what you can throw together to make a healthy, tasty meal. You might surprise yourself and your family — in a good way! Make it a fun game to see how little food you can throw out each week.
The best ways to save on entertainment:
Try Movie Pass or rent movies to watch at home.
If your kids love to go to the movies and you go out as a family often, Movie Pass could help you save, as it allows you to watch movies at home that are currently in theaters. This subscription service costs just $9.95 per month. You can also cancel any time.
Invite the kids to spend their own money.
If you’re tired of spending all your cash keeping the kids entertained, invite the kids to spend some of their own next time they pressure you to take them to a water park, skate rink or zoo. If they get an allowance or savings, they can set aside some of their own funds for entertainment. This teaches them responsibility, restraint and appreciation while also serving the goal of helping you save money.
Find cheap or free things to do.
Finding cheap or free things to do can be a huge money-saver. Look for free museum days, free entry to water parks, and free events put on by your city or local businesses. Hiking, picnics, family bike rides and beach days are all free, create great memories and are healthy ways to appreciate the outdoors and each other’s company.
Pay less (or nothing) for cable.
If you’re paying out the nose for cable television and don’t watch it enough to justify the cost, it’s time to dial down your package or drop cable altogether. With a Roku Box and Netflix or Hulu, you can get streaming television for less than $20 per month.
Related: How to negotiate lower bills
Buy used gear.
Whatever your kids need for fun, buy it used. If they’re into video games, buy their game consoles and games second-hand from stores like GameStop or local sellers through Facebook groups or Craigslist. If your kids are into sports, buy used gear online or through their peers.
The best ways to save every day:
Pay off debt.
If you’re carrying debt – especially debt at high-interest rates – one of the best ways to save money is to pay it off ASAP! If you’re carrying a credit card balance at 19 percent APR, for example, you can save a bundle by attacking those debts and eliminating them for good.
Stop telling yourself stories about — you can pay off debt. The first step is getting real with yourself, and you can read the other 13 steps to paying off debt as a single mom.
Use money-saving apps.
Some apps make it easy to either a) save money on everything you buy, or b) earn cash-back on your purchases. The Honey app, for example, adds every coupon code it can find to anything you buy online. Meanwhile, the Ibotta and the browser extension Rakuten (formerly Ebates) offer an easy way to earn cash-back and gift cards when you shop.
Related: How to save money on a low income
Look at the fees you’re paying.
Eliminating fees is another way to save money every month. Fees you could be paying include banking fees, ATM fees, debit card fees, credit card fees, and more. Look at your bank and credit card statements to see what fees you’re paying and if there’s a feasible way to get them off your plate.
Do all of your shopping online.
To save money, you need to step away from the mall. Shopping for fun or “retail therapy” won’t help you save money. Think about it.
If you absolutely need something, shop online. Not only can you usually score the best price and free shipping through websites like Amazon.com, but you avoid window shopping and buying stuff you don’t need. Of course, the key si to buy only what you need when you shop online and nothing else.
Set up automatic bank transfers to savings.
Setting up automatic bank transfers to a savings account is another easy way to save. You can set up automatic transfers on payday or on a certain day of the month – whatever is easiest. Either way, making your savings automatic removes the guesswork and the possibility you’ll forget.
The best ways to save on clothes:
“Buy used” is the most generic advice out there when it comes to saving on clothes, but it’s also the best and most feasible tip to follow. Clothes depreciate in value at rapid speed, and that means you can save a lot (often more than 60 – 70 percent off) by buying used clothes for yourself and your kids.
You don’t have to go to garage sales though. You can buy used clothing online through websites like ThredUp.com, Poshmark.com, through neighborhood Facebook groups, or from people you know.
Hit up consignment stores.
Consignment stores offer some of the best and highest quality used clothing you can find, but the prices are usually pretty low. Check local consignment stores for business attire, work out clothes, or fancy dresses you won’t wear often. Meanwhile, teen-focused consignment stores can help you afford the best brands for your kids – at a discount.
Sell what you don’t wear.
While buying from consignment stores is a smart idea, so it selling clothes you and your kids no longer wear. When you sell your clothing or take a payout to consign them, you can turn around and spend that cash on new clothes you’ll actually put to use.
While it’s tempting to buy cheap clothes from China online or shop only at discount clothing stores, cheaply-made clothing doesn’t tend to last long. This is a lot more important for you than your kids, as they grow out of clothes in about a minute (as you know). You’ll be better off if you buy high quality pieces that will stand the test of time, specifically if you buy them second-hand. A great pair of classic pumps, boots, a wonderful winter coat or suit will pay for itself. I have a great black and white houndstooth wool jacket that I have worn for 10 years and get compliments on every time I step out, and a royal blue Marc Jacobs shoulder bag that I have used daily for four years and still looks brand-new.
Buy timeless pieces and avoid trends.
Since fashion is often fleeting, you’ll save a bundle if you avoid most of the trends and purchase timeless pieces instead. Remember when Juicy Couture tracksuits were in style? Or when head-to-toe denim was actually a thing? Yeah, me neither.
The best ways to save on travel:
Get a solid travel credit card and rack up airline miles or flexible travel points.
You can save on travel with the right travel rewards credit card, although the ideal card for you will depend on where you live and your travel style. If you fly often, look into getting a co-branded credit card through your favorite airline. If you mostly need hotel stays because you’re within driving distance of your favorite vacation spot, then get a hotel credit card or a card that doles out flexible travel credit.
And if all else fails or you just can’t decide, get a standard cash-back credit card and rack up cash-back for everything you buy.
Go off-peak when you can.
Traveling with kids can be expensive because you have to plan around school schedules or “peak” travel times. With that being said, however, it may be possible to go off-peak if you’re flexible.
If you have two weeks for spring break, for example, you can often save by traveling Tuesday – Tuesday and skipping the weekends at the airport. You could also opt to take the kids out of school a few days to get the best prices close to your school breaks, although this option tends to work best for single parents with younger kids.
Cruise or pick an all-inclusive resort.
All-inclusive resorts and cruises are ideal for single parents for one simple reason – they have supervised kid’s and teen’s clubs! Traveling alone with kids can be exhausting, which is why these clubs are a life-saver if you just need a break or want some quiet time.
The good news is, both cruises and all-inclusive resorts can be affordable if you shop around and don’t choose the highest-end option. MSC Cruises, for example, frequently offers seven-night Caribbean cruises starting at $449 per adult, and they let kids under 11 cruise free on select itineraries. As with all cruises, your meals, lodging, and entertainment are all included in one low price.
Book condos or Airbnbs.
Hotels are often the death knell for family travel budgets – and often travel comfort. Who wants to sleep four-deep in a hotel room anyway?
To save money and have more space, consider renting a condo or Airbnb. Having separate bedrooms for the kids can make travel a lot more relaxing, and you can save some cash by preparing at least some of your meals in your room.
Do a home swap.
I am a big fan of HomeExchange.com, a marketplace for people open to swapping homes. There are tens of thousands of members, who pay $199 per year to be a member. My kids and I have used this amazing service to visit Copenhagen, Denmark, Sarasota, Fla., a resort town in upper Michigan and a Venice Beach, Los Angeles bungalow — all for free. Read: 7 tips for taking a road trip with kids
Let the deals pave the way.
One final way to save money on travel is to never get your heart set on a specific trip. If you decide you’re absolutely going to take the kids to Disney World for spring break this year, you might miss out on a deal to another destination they would like just as much. I recently booked a trip to Vietnam when an email alert informed me that my two kids and I could travel to that country for a total of $1,200. I used points from my travel credit card to get it even lower.
As you plan your travels for the year, try finding the best deals you’re interested in then figuring out which one you want to pursue. For some of the best deals on travel, check out Groupon Getaways, Expedia, and CheapCaribbean.com.
Holly Johnson is a financial expert, award-winning writer, and Indiana mother of two who is obsessed with frugality, budgeting and travel. Her personal finance articles have been published in the U. S. News, Wall Street Journal, Fox Business, and Life Hacker. Holly is founder of of the family finance resource, ClubThrifty.com, and is the co-author of Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love. Learn more about Holly here.