35 tips for frugal living with children – How we get by on less

In 2009 I wrote a popular blog post about how I made things work financially while being unemployed for nearly a year and in school to get my nursing degree. It outlined all the ways I had worked to pinch pennies and after putting it all down on paper, I realized I was more resourceful than I thought. It was then I really embraced frugal living.

In the years since, I’ve re-visited this topic a few times (like last year here). I still struggle financially (hello massive student loan debt, medical bills, and poor spending habits!) but I try to make better choices every day. Living on a tight budget can be super stressful and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to decrease the stress when you have limited funds, sometimes it just takes a little creativity and flexibility to embrace frugal living!

Where do I find ways to save money? Here my top 35 tips on getting by on less:

Clothing

  • Consignment. When my son was small, I consigned his clothing at a local consignment shop as he grew out of it. It took some advance planning to make sure I had the right seasonal stuff at the right time, but it was worth it. I then took the money I got from consigning his clothes and picked up things he needed in his current size. I’ve done this with Ella’s clothes as well. Every year, our city has a city-wide huge consignment event. Last year I consigned Ella’s baby clothes and used the money I made to buy an entire season’s worth of clothing for her for less than $100.
  • Garage sales. I sit down once a week and look at the garage sales, choosing to hit up those in well-to-do neighborhoods as they typically have the name brand clothing I’m looking for. I’ve found this is usually better for baby/toddler clothes as they tend to have less wear as the previous kid didn’t wear them for long until outgrowing it, but I’ve found some stuff for the older kids as well here and there. I once spent weeks looking for a pair of sandals Hannah would wear – shopping every clothing/shoe store in town with no luck because she was so darn picky. Eventually, I found a pair of sandals at a garage sale for $1 that she loved and wore all summer long!
  • Ebay. I’ve bought tons of nearly new clothes myself and the kids on Ebay for next to nothing. Everyone in this family seems to like Under Amour clothing – I’ve routinely gotten hoodies for the kids for as little as $15 and for myself for as little as $20, all of which looked brand new. I wanted a pair of Ugg boots this fall but couldn’t justify the price tag, so I scoured Ebay for a few weeks until I found the exact pair I wanted for $30. Hannah loved them so much she wanted a pair of her own, which I found for $20. I also bought Hannah a pair of North Face hiking boots for under $15 and some Chuck Taylor Converse shoes for under $10.
  • Thrift stores. I’m not happy with my weight currently as I have about 20+ pounds to lose post-baby (yes, I know she’s almost 2!) so I don’t want to invest much in clothes I know aren’t going to fit me when I get with it and lose the weight. I recently got a $75 pair of blue jeans for $3.49. You can’t beat that.
  • Wait for sales from retailers you like. I like buying the kid’s clothes at The Children’s Place but I never pay full price. They often run sale and promotions that can save you big. This Christmas, they had almost everything on their website 60% off, plus you got double cash coupons to use on future orders equal to the amount you spent. I shopped the clearance section and I scored tons of shirts for the girls for under $3 each and pants for less than $5. My kids have a closet full of cute, trendy, name brand clothing for next to nothing. I love Monkey Feet for moccasins for Ella. I wait until their classic mocs are on sale for $12.50 (from $20/pair) then stock up.

Note: I always buy things like undergarments and swimsuits new.

Baby/Children

  • Craigslist. Both times I had my daughters I hadn’t planned on having another child so I’d sold most of my baby stuff. I have picked up a bunch of good steals on Craigslist for my children, including a brand new Boppy for $5 (savings of $15), a Mamaroo for $100 (savings of $150) and a jumper for Ella for $20 (savings of $60). I turned around and sold those items when I was done with them for what I paid for them, making them essentially free to use.
  • Breastfeeding/Pumping. This saved me a TON of money with Hannah and Ella. I don’t even want to think how much we would have spent on formula if I hadn’t been able to breastfeed. We ended up spending $50 to get an extra freezer for all the breast milk I pumped while feeding Ella and resold it for $75 a year later.
  • In-home daycare. We are lucky to have a wonderful woman who takes Ella and Hannah part-time in her home during the week. It’s far less expensive than having them in a daycare center. When I was living in Madison, I paid $1,200/month for daycare at a center for my daughter who was there about 25 hours a week. In comparison, here where the cost of living is lower I pay $280 a month for the same number of hours.
  • Ask your friends if they have something you need that you could borrow for the time being. When Ella was born I wanted an Exersaucer but couldn’t justify spending upwards of $80 on one that she’d use for maybe six months at the most. I posted on Facebook that I was looking to borrow one and one of my friends offered to lend me hers. Six months later, Ella was done with it and I returned it.
  • Ask for specific gifts. If there’s something you know your child wants or needs and you don’t have the funds for it, ask a relative who may be getting them a gift anyway for their birthday or Christmas if they’d be willing to purchase it.

Note: I always buy car seats new. Buying a used one is not worth the risk in my opinion. Safety first.

Home/Decor

  • Craigslist again. When furnishing our new house, we were in need of a sofa as our old sectional wouldn’t fit through the door. I turned to Craigslist and found the perfect sectional (that fit through the door!) for $200. We sold our old sectional for $100 on Craigslist, so it only cost us another $100 to find something that worked in our home. Having small children, I don’t want to spend a fortune on nice furniture only to have it covered in food and God knows what else. We’ve also gotten a ping pong table, a desk and a bedframe off Craiglist in the past.
  • Thrift stores. I needed end tables for our living room but didn’t want to pay furniture store prices as again, I have young children and things in my house tend to be well-loved. I found the perfect set of matching cherry end tables that matched the rest of our living room furniture at Goodwill for $30 each. When I had a sewing studio, I needed something to store my fabric in and found a beautiful solid wood buffet at St. Vincent de Paul for $50 that fit all my fabric perfectly. Other great finds include a $5 rocking chair I recovered for my daughter, tons of Pyrex which I collect and display in my kitchen, vintage wood I’ve used to cut and make into frames for two large mirrors in my living room, vintage milk crates I use to store baby toys, and a variety of vintage decor like old kitchen scales, a tool caddy, ceramics and more.
  • Know the sales cycles of your favorite stores. Hobby Lobby rotates through what’s on sale in their home decor category weekly. If what you’re looking for – say picture frames – isn’t on sale this week, it’s likely going to be on sale the following week and that’s the time to buy them when they’re 50% off. Michaels does the same.
  • Shop around. Recently I redecorated the girls’ room. Hannah fell in love with a rug from Home Depot that was soft and beautiful and cost upwards of $300. We were able to find a similar, just-as-soft rug at Target for half the price. Read here about how I decorated their room on a budget!
  • Use nature to decorate. Take a walk outside and look for decorations for your house. I have a large ivory pillar candle in a bowl on my dining room table, surrounded by pine cones I’ve picked up on walks in the neighborhood. I also have a small glass greenhouse on a sofa table, filled with little trinkets (and, in turn, memories) from walks on the beach with my husband – smooth stones, driftwood, shells and even a very beautiful bird’s nest.

Household

  • Automotive. We don’t have car payments – huge savings. We don’t have the latest, greatest vehicles (no heated seats and leather interiors) but they get us where we need to go and that’s what counts. My husband does all the auto repairs himself, often watching YouTube videos from mechanics to learn new skills. This has saved us thousands in shop costs.
  • Cell phone. Research cell phone providers. I went with a company that offered 20 percent off my plan because of where I was employed. This saves me about $20/mo. Consider whether you really need insurance on your phone. We were paying an additional $10 line (2 lines) for insurance. When I looked at the deductible for phone replacement I found out it was essentially equal to what we owed on our phones, so it made no sense to keep paying the additional $20/month. If you already own your phone, consider going with a discount plan or pay-as-you-go, depending on your needs.
  • Eliminate cable. In the past, we’ve done without cable TV. We paid $9.99 for Netflix and $7.99 for Hulu Plus each month and used a digital antenna to get local TV stations and didn’t miss it one bit. We have it now because bundled with our high-speed internet, it was only about $20 more (and now my husband can watch football).
  • Make your own products. I make my own laundry detergent. It costs about $12 for all the ingredients and it lasts about four months and we do a lot of laundry. You can also make many of the household cleaning products you use for pennies. Check out this post on Natural Cleaning Recipes for tons of cleanser ideas for your home!
  • Eat your leftovers and pack a lunch. Enough said. We also don’t eat out unless it’s a special occasion.
  • Don’t use credit cards. We don’t have a single credit card. If we can’t pay cash for it, we don’t buy it.
  • Prescriptions. Shop around for the best deal. One month we didn’t have insurance and I needed to refill a particular medication. The cash price at Wal-Mart was $419 for a one-month supply. The same medication at a small local pharmacy was $119. Consider asking your doctor for free samples, if available. I take a medication that costs $250/mo. with insurance and a manufacturer discount card. My doctor’s office has provided me with free samples of that medication for the last four years. (That alone has saved me $12,000 in those four years!).

Coupons

  • Sign up for weekly coupons at the places you do shop (Hobby Lobby, Michaels, JoAnn’s, etc.). I never buy anything full price at those stores. Ask if other stores honor competitor coupons… you’d be surprised how many do.
  • Sign up for retailer’s money saving apps. Wal-Mart has a Savings Catcher app that lets you scan your receipt and compares it to other stores in the area. If they find an item for cheaper than what you purchased it, they credit you the difference on a gift card. So far I’ve made more than $100 with this app! Target has their Cartwheel app which lets you select ten coupons to use in-store. I always check this before buying kids clothes, clothes for myself or household goods.
  • Download and use coupon apps like Ibotta and Checkout51. Using these apps the past year I’ve saved $100.
  • Sign up at coupons.com. I regularly get Pampers coupons emailed to me for $3 off a case of diapers. When you’re going thru three boxes of diapers a month, it adds up.
  • Sign up for websites where you can get heavily discounted products. I belong to Elite Deals, a site that offers Amazon items at very low cost or even free. I’ve picked up shampoo, hair care products for myself and my son, body wash, face soap, moisturizer, face cream and other beauty products as well as an iTouch case and a silicone case for my new iPhone. Most items cost $1 and some were free. Because I’m an Amazon Prime member, shipping is free and it comes in two days. You can’t beat that and I’ve found some products that I really like that way.

Get stuff for nothing

  • Sign up for your local Freecycle group or Facebook buy/sell/trade group. Not only have I given away plenty of things I no longer needed (fabric, decorations, roller blades, candles, bath and beauty products, etc.) but I’ve received plenty of things I did need. Some scores include fabric, a Belgian waffle maker, a grilled cheese maker, a baby bathtub, a wooden potato bin and a paper shredder to name a few.
  • Trade things you do have for things you need/want. I used to love cold processed soap but often had a hard time justifying spending $5-6 for a bar of soap. So, I’ve traded items from my Etsy shop with other sellers on Etsy who sell soap. I’ve also traded for a very cute baby toy for my new daughter and photography for my walls. I’m not shy about approaching shops for trades… the worst thing they can say is “no thanks.”
  • Scour the internet for freebies for things you do need. Check out Freebies and this great post by the Huffington Post about the top 31 websites to score freebies.

Other ways I save money:

  • Haircare. I grew out my hair and keep it my natural color. By doing this I’ve saved hundreds of dollars a year, lopping off a $75 color expense every 12 weeks and a $30 haircut every 8 weeks. I wear my hair pulled back in a ponytail and a headband. If my hair is looking shaggy, I’ll drop in at a quick haircut place for a $10 haircut, which I’ve seriously done once in the last year.
  • Financial rewards program. I signed up for my credit union’s reward program and earn points every time I use my debit card. These add up and I recently cashed them in for a $50 iTunes gift card.
  • Clothing. Working as a labor and delivery RN, my scrubs are provided by work, so I no longer have to purchase my own, a savings of a few hundred dollar a year. I also pared down my clothing, choosing to go with a capsule wardrobe. Check out this post on creating a capsule wardrobe. I live in my pajamas most of the time I’m not working, so my clothing budget is very small!
  • Books. I don’t buy books. I have a Kindle (free – handed down from my mom when she bought a new one) and I have it linked to her account. She has (seriously) more than 1,000 books on there, so there’s no end of stuff to read. Bonus: she’s always buying new books so my library just continues to grow and grow. If there’s something I want to read that’s not on there, I go to the library.
  • Blogging. I will occasionally write a sponsored post and I use affiliate marketing within my blog. Some months I earn an extra $500, some months it’s more like $250. I make sure I only promote products I use myself and love and stay true to that for my readers.

Bonus: I use the wait-and-see approach for big purchases. If I want something, I hold off, I never buy it immediately. I take my time and think about it. Often I’ll see that I don’t really need it and the money is better spent elsewhere.

Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. If you have additional ideas on ways to save money, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment and get me thinking!

Here’s a bunch more resources for other bloggers I follow on ways to save money:



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43 Comments

  • Laura Gibson

    These are awesome tips for new moms and experienced ones. I had never thought of a lot of these, so I will use these for the one I have and the baby on the way! Thanks for collecting these and sharing.

    • Jen

      You’re welcome! Many have come in handy of the years – hope they help you too!

  • Jackie | Fresh Fit Florida

    Really great tips!!

  • Tiffani Purdy

    Love love love this post!! This is exactly what women like us need — tangible actions they can take to maximize their dollar. If you’re ever interested in guest posting, I’d love to see a post like this on fair+frugal! xx Tiffani

    • Jen

      Thank you! I’d be honored to guest post!

  • val

    Wonderful list! I use local Facebook buy/sell/trade groups for clothing and home stuff, too. We REALLY need to cut the cable cord :/

  • Sarah Althouse

    I’m a big thrifter and Craigslist shopper. The nice thing about living in DC is that people are always moving and selling their items for cheaper than elsewhere. OR they just leave for free in the garages. Sometimes brand new.

  • Marieke

    In our house a few of the things that have helped:

    Having a budget. Just having all your income and expenses written out as thoroughly as possible has made us much more accountable and aware of where we’re spending and where we were overspending (food was a big one). We have all kinds of different columns (food/family/automotive/pet/savings/etc.), and if we have “leftover” money at the end of the month, it tends to go to things like paying extra off the car payment or into savings. We also budget a bit of fun money for each person, so that even on a tight budget, you have a little money to spend on yourself and it doesn’t feel oppressive and un-fun all the time. Like cellphone minutes, it rolls over monthly so we can save for bigger fun purchases.

    I like Target for kids’ clothes when I get them new. Especially end of season when it goes on clearance. I buy up in sizes, so I can get things for a fraction of the price for whenever that season rolls around again. (Also, candy and decorations are a lot cheaper after the holiday).

    For adult clothing I will say that I have found I prefer to get quality items rather than cheap ones when I buy new. I’d prefer to save and spend a bit more for things that will last longer, than get the cheaper thing that loses its shape and falls apart after a season. In the long run it’s cheaper.

    If your mom has a Prime account on Amazon, you can also borrow Kindle books for free. And our local library lends e-books too. Many libraries take requests on what to add to their collections, so I’ve requested quilting books that they added which I could then borrow and not purchase myself unless I really “needed” to have them. Sometimes people sell theirs used for cheap on Amazon too (and so I got a copy of Patchwork, Please! for $0.01, plus shipping).

    We also invested in decent haircutting scissors and thinning shears at a beauty supply shop. My husband had a Wahl trimmer when we met that’s still going strong. For a long time we cut each other’s hair, and we still do the kids’ hair too.

    Oh, and some pharmacies have prescription savings plans that can add additional bonus savings on over the counter and prescribed medication. You do pay for the membership, but if the savings can be significant enough to quickly pay for it. I have a Walgreens family plan. It cost me about $35, but I have a cat on a “human” medication (pets count as family), and instead of paying $36 per refill, I pay $12. Two refills and it has paid for itself.

    For grocery shopping, it pays to shop around. I live near a large Korean grocery chain (Hmart), and their prices on vegetables cannot be beaten, and neither can the selection. So many vegetables you never see in a major US store (bitter melon, jackfruit, half a dozen types of eggplant). They also sell rice that’s a lot cheaper than many conventional US stores and comes in massive bags, and there’s often a much better seafood and meat selection. Trader Joe’s also often sells quite a lot of basic items for less than my local chain groceries, even though it has a bit of a reputation as being fancy or something.

    • Jen

      Those are awesome tips – thank you so much! I have borrowed Kindle books for free and I love that feature. I too will spend money on quality clothing that lasts, that’s a great tip. Your idea about investing in hair cutting scissors is wonderful! I know my daughter’s hair needs a trim and I have a hard time paying salon prices for something I could do myself!

      • Marieke

        Another thing I remembered about books. If you do prefer actual paper books, libraries often have once or twice yearly donated book sales (at least wherever I’ve lived they have). They tend to sell paperbacks for $0.50 and hardbacks for $1-2, and occasionally discount by half on the final day of a multi-day sale just to get rid of as much as possible. I’ve gotten great deals, including one year having bought most of the hardback set of Lemony Snicket for my kids for a fraction of the cost.

        For less expensive new furniture: Ikea, if you have one near you. Not everything there is very cheap or inexpensive, but there are items that definitely are and are good value. I just bought a floor up-lamp with a reading light attached, for $7.50, and they have their basic little Lack side/end tables for $7-8 I think. Ultimately they have a lot of things for very good prices, and if you find yourself needing to furnish and with little budget and if charity shops and Craigslist don’t have what you’re looking for or you want more of a one-stop-shopping experience, you can go quite a ways there.

        • Jen

          Great idea for books! I sometimes pick them up off Amazon used for like $0.01 if I’m dying to have a hard copy. We don’t have an Ikea near here (closest is 2.5 hours away) but I do love their stuff! I think a road trip might be in order soon as I have to decorate the boys’ bedroom yet!

  • Marette Flora

    I don’t pay for hair color either! Same with getting my nails done. I haven’t tried some of these tips but I’m always looking for new ways to save! I’d also like to learn to make my own products this year.

  • Stephanie Chavez

    These are all great ideas, and some of them we’re already doing, but man how I wish we could be done with our car payments! We have two! 🙁

    Thanks for the tip about Freecycle! I’ve never seen that one. I’ll have to give it a try.

  • Amy Beeman

    Love these tips! Thank you!

  • Stephanie JEannot

    I have a kindle but I love flipping pages on a real book. I love thrift shops. I am thinking of doing a garage sale this year. sounds like a great idea for decluttering.

  • tineke - workingmommyabroad

    These are great tips!! Definitely found some new ideas that i will be implementing right away

  • Leah

    So many great tips here. Pinning it to my Make Life Easier board. Wish you had a section on saving money with teenagers. They get more expensive as they age!

    • Jen

      Thanks! Tell me about it – I have a 13-year-old son!

  • Krysten

    These are awesome ways to save money! I didn’t even think about doing a few of them. I mean, ebay, I should have known to go to Ebay for my baby stuff and clothes, but I just didn’t think about it!

  • Leila

    Such a great post. I shop a lot in charity shops and local facebook groups. Great tips.

  • Corey | The Nostalgia Diaries

    Such awesome tips! As a single mom, I’m always trying to find ways to save money!

  • Lisa

    This is a great list! I have 5 kids of my own and I need all the tips I can get on living more frugally. Some of these I’m doing already but not all. 🙂

  • Katie

    These are such good tips!! I found some new ideas!

  • Jessica Peresta

    What an awesome and helpful list! Thank you!

  • Dearlyndsey

    So many great ways to save money. This is such a helpful post. I try to buy frugal as much as we can.

  • BETHANY

    Really thorough and great list of tips!

  • Amanda

    These are really good tips! I never get my hair done either; saves a ton!

  • Stephanie

    Fantastic set of tips!! With 5 kids I have been scowering the internet for ways to save. So glad I came across your post! I especially love the idea of making your own stuff.

  • Kate AL

    We’ve implemented many of these tips already, but you have some here we haven’t tried yet- and they’re completely easy to use. My hubs will be thrilled… he’s always happy to save a little money wherever we can!

  • Hanna

    These are great ways to save money! A game changer for us was joining a whole sale club. We save so much on things we need a lot of – like toilet paper, diapers, wipes, dog food AND they have great deals on potatoes, apples and bananas at the one we go to so we eat a lot of those!

    • Jen

      We actually have a Costo membership but we hardly ever use it – I really should! Thanks for reminding me!

  • Tabitha Shakespeare

    These are all great tips! I love how practical they all are and do a lot of these myself!

  • Jennifer Corter

    These are some great tips, I love this! I am bookmarking this! 🙂

  • jehava

    These are amazing tips and consignment saves us so much money with our kids!

  • Dani Adams

    Amazing life tips. I NEEDED this post badly!

    • Jen

      Hope it was helpful! Good luck!

  • Andi Franklin

    This is the most thorough list of money saving tips I’ve ever seen! So many great ideas on here, thank you.

    • Jen

      You’re welcome – hope you found something that helps!

  • Vicki @ Babies to Bookworms

    These are great tips! We get such great deals at our local consignment shops! I’m so glad they started popping up around here just as I had my daughter!

  • Allison

    These are great tips. I’m becoming good at sales and consignment shops for little one’s clothes, you can get a lot for so little if you do it right!

  • Sharon Chen

    These are all helpful tips! Craigslist seems really great.

  • kirstin morabito

    I am ALL about frugal living – especially now that im a SAHM! My new favorite store is the salvation army!

  • Eryn Lynum

    These are great tips! Those online selling and recycle groups can be so helpful.

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