We all love our families. But when the kids need new shoes, the stove needs replaced, and the family laptop is broken — well, there’s no other way to say it: staying on budget isn’t easy.
So we asked a few financial experts for their secrets. Here are 12 budgeting tips for families, broken down by common expenses.
Your rent or mortgage payments may well be your single biggest expense every month. For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has held that housing should require no more than 30% of household income to be affordable, yet some families spend more than 50% of their household income on housing.
1. Factor in housing fees.
Buying an affordable home is, of course, the first step to building a realistic housing budget. But the family-budget experts at Our Freaking Budget point out that the purchase (or rental) price isn’t the only factor to take into consideration. They write, “You also need to consider other, regular costs that come with any property. This could be property taxes, HOA fees, utility costs, deferred maintenance costs, ongoing landscaping, and much more.” Think about day-to-day expenses: how much will it cost to heat and cool the space? How much time and/or money will it cost to clean?
2. Consider downsizing.
If you struggle to make your rent or mortgage payment every month, that’s a sign you may want to consider downsizing. Rather than leap immediately into a much smaller house, The Fun Sized Life recommends doing a “trial downsize” in your current home. You can close off certain rooms, boxing up the contents or moving them to other rooms to see how well you manage for a month or two in a smaller space. If the experiment is a success, great! Downsizing may be an effective way to slash your family’s housing expenses.
Of course, make sure your home is still big enough for your family to fit—the trial downsize will help you achieve space efficiency (and savings) without making your family uncomfortable!
3. Slash your electric bill.
Utility bills are a regular (and often significant) part of family housing expenses. Miko Love, The Budget Mom, has some ideas for using energy conservation to reduce your costs. Her tips include standbys like turning off the lights when you leave the room, along with some more unusual ideas, like switching to a low-cost energy supplier.
Food for the whole family can easily cost over $1,000 per month, making groceries a significant part of the family budget.
4. Minimize food waste.
Miko Love, The Budget Mom, recommends doing a periodic one-month Freezer Challenge, “to take advantage of what you already have on hand in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.” The challenge involves creating a food inventory and then planning meals that use those foods instead of buying more. Miko says that she saved over $300 doing her first Freezer Challenge.
5. Establish a grocery database.
Meghan Rabuse at Family Finance Mom says her number-one secret for saving money at the grocery store is using a grocery database. She uses a spreadsheet for her database (and provides a free template on her website), but you can use any system that works. It contains “the products I buy most, and the prices I find them for at different stores.” Meghan likes to snap photos of key items at the store using her phone and then enter those prices in her database, so she’ll know which stores have the best prices for those foods.
U.S. auto loan balances hit a total of $1.2 trillion in 2020. Granted, interest rates on auto loans tend to be far more affordable than rates on, say, credit cards, but that’s still a lot of debt.
6. Refinance your vehicle loan.
Miko from The Budget Mom says that paying off your loan is a great long-term goal, but you may be able to save money in the short term by refinancing. According to Miko, there are three reasons to consider refinancing a car loan: your credit has improved, interest rates have dropped, or your debt to income ratio is lower. In these situations, a refinance can save you a significant amount of money on your car payments.
7. Buy used vehicles (but not too used).
Our Freaking Budget points out that buying a slightly older vehicle is a smart financial move. “We don’t mind driving a car that’s five years old since most cars these days were built to last a really long time,” they write. A vehicle that makes it to the five-year mark has proved its reliability and has already depreciated enough to be far more affordable than it was when brand new. But beware: buying a very old car can end up costing more than you expect, thanks to constant repairs.
8. Consider public transportation.
Choosing trains or buses over maintaining your own vehicle can save you tons. Kara from the Frugal Feminista has some tips to help you save even more on public transportation costs, such as looking for free shuttles in your area and buying tickets in bulk rather than individually. You should also check with your employer to see if they offer a public transportation stipend.
Health care issues can be catastrophic to your family’s financial situation, thanks to high medical bills and the possibility of having a wage earner out of work for a while. Health insurance can help, but premiums can be so high that they’re simply unaffordable.
9. Get regular checkups.
Detecting health problems early can save you not only money but also a lot of pain and suffering. That’s why regular medical checkups are crucial for the entire family. Hilary from Pulling Curls says that the easiest way to remember when you’re due for a checkup is to schedule them around each family member’s birthday.
10. Start a medical emergency fund.
Miko from The Budget Mom recommends a health savings account (HSA) to help keep insurance costs low. “A Health Savings Account (HSA) is a medical savings account with significant tax advantages. It is like a regular savings account, but the money can only be used for qualified medical expenses,” she explains. Since HSAs are always paired with high-deductible health plans, you’ll have relatively low insurance premiums, yet a well-funded HSA means you’ll be able to cover those pre-deductible medical expenses.
Childcare expenses can account for a huge amount of your monthly income. Care.com’s most recent Cost of Care survey found that 72% of families are paying more than 10% of their income on childcare. With expenses so high, finding ways to cut the cost of care can make a huge difference in your family’s balance sheet.
11. Look at child care alternatives.
Rachel Cruze, daughter of savings guru Dave Ramsey, suggests looking at alternatives to traditional childcare. For example, you could get together with other families and create a “nanny-share” system or look into scheduling alternative work times with your spouse, so someone is always at home to watch the kids.
12. Try free and low-cost activities.
Watching the kids yourself becomes a lot more practical when you have plenty of ways to keep them busy. Kari from Money for the Mamas has a long list of both at-home and away-from-home family activities that are either free or inexpensive. Her suggestions range from setting aside space for a kids’ garden in the yard to calling your city’s cultural center for their schedule of free family-friendly events.
A family budget that the whole family can love
Sticking to a family budget over the long term is one of the biggest challenges in personal finance. Yet it’s also a powerful tool for resolving financial problems and hitting your most important goals. Using tips and tricks like these, and taking one step at a time, can make family budgeting far easier.
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