My husband Eric and I have been parents for over four years, and in all but the past six months of that time Eric has also been a student. Like many people, we never planned it that way. But sometimes opportunity comes knocking and it just makes sense to open the door.
Although we knew that him returning to school with a wife and a child would mean that things would be very tight financially, we also knew that furthering his education now would be the best thing for our family down the road. As we looked into the future, we agreed that our goals as a family included having several children, work that brought us joy and satisfaction, and financial security that met our basic needs (and a few “wants”). Enduring a few hard years seemed clearly worth it if it meant the chance to achieve our long-term goals.
Now that that season of life is behind us, I can say that we were right: it was worth it. It certainly wasn’t always easy and we had our share of fights about money, but we also learned a lot along the way about raising a family on a tight budget. Here are some of the things that worked really well for us.
Don’t be too proud to seek out services, and be your own best advocate.
Once we got over the mild embarrassment of needing government assistance, we quickly became very thankful for what was available to us! Medical care, day care costs or admittance to public preschool, free or reduced school lunches, and rides to appointments are just some of the possibilities to take advantage of. The Medicaid office is a wealth of information, so start there.
Keep track of your budget and set goals for getting off services.
Government assistance is very helpful, but nothing can beat the pride of caring for your own. Keep track of what things cost, even if you’re using government assistance, and try to save money so that when the time comes to get off government assistance, the cost of things doesn’t shock you.
Learn the art of navigating secondhand stores.
Most cities have at least one or two consignment stores, which tend to have better quality clothing than the typical Goodwill. I shop secondhand almost exclusively for my children and myself, and have found some really nice stuff while saving tons of money. In addition to clothes, I was able to find almost any household item I needed at one of our local thrift stores.
Cook from scratch as often as possible.
While my husband was in school, eating out was a luxury that we only afforded ourselves about once a week. Cooking at home is by far the most economical choice, and using fresh ingredients is not only inexpensive but much healthier than packaged foods, so you might just have fewer doctor’s visits as well!
Don’t buy the hype from corporate America.
We all hear so much about how expensive having children is these days, and there is of course some truth to that. But part of that hype is due to the fact that we have all bought into the myth that babies need every new item on the market, and it’s simply not true. If you’re able to breastfeed your babies, that’s free food! If you have a convenient washer and dryer, cloth diapers save an insane amount of money and are not as scary as they sound. Babies and toddlers always prefer pots and wooden cooking spoons over their own toys anyway, and laying on a blanket on the floor is actually better for their development than any fancy swing or bouncer on the market. When we had our second baby, I tried to think about how people raised babies 200 years ago, and mostly stuck to that.
Putting one parent through school is tough if you have children (and especially if you’re the only parent!), but it can be done. And the long term result of the short term sacrifices is that you are planning and preparing for a more stable future. From one parent to the other, you can do it too!