Best of Both Worlds: Frugal parenting tips

Best of Both World podcast with Laura Vanderkam

Sarah and I had a lot of requests over on our Instagram for frugal or low-cost parenting tips, so today’s episode covers this topic!

(Sadly, for two people who hate to waste time, this was actually the second time we recorded this episode. We recorded it when we were together in Miami, then realized that we must not have turned the mic on. All the sound files were blank. At least this didn’t happen with a guest! Sigh – so a quick recording session after Sarah got home from work yesterday.)

Listeners sent in a ton of tips, such as making good use of the library, swapping clothes and toys with friends (especially newborn stuff! do not spend much on newborn stuff!) and shopping from lists at a limited number of stores (e.g. Aldi and Costco) that you know have the best prices on whatever it is you buy.

Several listeners suggested asking for memberships at area kid-friendly attractions (zoo, aquarium, science museum) as presents for birthdays or Christmas. Instead of a grandparent buying a $30 toy for each of three kids, plus a present for you and your spouse that you don’t need, he/she could get a zoo membership, and you all would have free entertainment for many weekends all year.

One listener suggested that if you’re going to buy a membership somewhere, buy it in mid-summer. That way you get the feeling of two summers for the price of one (you’d go a lot during late summer the first year, and then a lot during the beginning of the summer the next year. Related, but not mentioned in the episode: If you’re buying annual passes to theme parks, look for fall specials. Often, post-Labor Day, you can buy annual passes for the following year that will then cover the rest of that year and then the next calendar year. So for the first year you do this, you’re getting 15 months for the price of 12. And by the end of 15 months, you might be tired of that park anyway!)

A few hacks I use…We’ve lately figured out how to use Libby (which lets you borrow ebooks from your local library). I’ve already checked out a handful of Encyclopedia Brown books for my 9-year-old, who is consuming them at a rate of about 1 per hour. Not buying them has been a big savings!

We also joined the YMCA, which is great for winter entertainment (indoor swimming!) and is comparable in cost, for a family, to what a private gym might charge for one person. This also gives you access to discount swimming lessons and kid activities, plus older children can use the gym. The child watch center offers up to 2 hours of care per visit.

Sarah pointed out one major savings: a bigger family doesn’t automatically mean you need a big car. She can fit three Diono carseats across her backseat. Of course, once you cross to 4 kids…but still, minivans can be cheaper than some of the SUVs out there. We will be driving our 2014 Toyota Sienna for a while.

Also: Kids can share rooms. Buying (or renting) a 3-bedroom place vs. a 4-bedroom place could dwarf the savings on a lot of these other tips!

For people looking for affordable summer activities for kids, I suggested looking into local churches’ Vacation Bible School options. Obviously, if you follow a different religion, or would prefer to avoid religious instruction, this wouldn’t work, but we’ve found that these tend to be the cheapest day camps out there (like $50/week/kid, vs $200+ for places with similar hours). Very few places require that your family be members to send your kids.

Another summer activity/camp hack: Area businesses and camps often donate a week for school/church/league silent auctions. The starting bids tend to be much lower than face value, and these are often not the items that get bid up. I once got a week of gymnastics camp for about 50-60% off through one such silent auction. (Of course, once there, I then signed up for another week…and a year of gymnastics lessons…which is why places offer such things to get you in the door. But of course you don’t have to do that!)

We’ve also found that renting vacation spots through VRBO (or Air Bnb) can be more economical for a larger family than multiple hotel rooms or a suite. Plus you have a kitchen, so you can eat breakfast/lunch at your vacation spot rather than needing to eat out for every meal. And don’t forget visiting family and friends as an affordable option! Kids the same age can entertain each other, so you don’t have to shell out for pricey activities.

And one of our favorites: if you don’t want to or can’t outsource, insource to your kids! Certainly by the time kids are pre-teens, they can do various chores such as laundry, assisting with cooking, and lawn work. We just (literally this last weekend) started experimenting with the sibling babysitting concept. Small steps (like less than an hour to start with) but this opens up all sorts of possibilities!

Please give the episode a listen and feel free to share your tips too.

17 thoughts on “Best of Both Worlds: Frugal parenting tips

  1. This was a fun episode to listen to. Bummer that you had to re-record it, though! You talked about diapers early in the episode. We actually use cloth diapers and really love them. They are completely different than what you remember from when your brother was in them. They snap closed and it’s as easy to put one on as a disposable diaper. There was an upfront investment although we did register for some on our amazon baby registry. I am going to estimate that we spent about $400 on cloth diapers. We bought really high quality diapers so they weren’t cheap but we knew we’d be using them for years. It’s not as disgusting to deal with as I thought it might be. When the baby is exclusively breast fed, you can just throw the diapers straight into the washing machine as breast milk waste is water soluble. You don’t use bleach or anything harsh – we just use regular detergent. Obviously you do not wash anything else with the diapers, though! When they start eating solids, you do have to remove the waste before putting it in the wash but it’s not too hard. We installed a sprayer on our toilet so we spray the poopy diapers before putting them in the diaper pail. Our daycare uses cloth diapers so we are able to just wash diapers once a week since we aren’t dealing with all the diapers he goes through during the day. We’ve definitely saved a lot of money doing this but we also went this route to cut down on the amount of garbage we’d be generating otherwise. It’s obviously not a common decision to make but I will say that it’s been way easier than i thought it would be and way less gross!! We do have disposables on hand for trips and we put our son in a disposable on weekday mornings. The last time we bought diapers was early February. We bought a 168 pack for $47 which is branded as a one month supply. 4 months later we still have quite a few left, so I would estimate we’ll spend maybe $100 on disposables/year! There is a cost associated with washing them, but it’s 2 wash cycles/week so not all that much more laundry than we are doing.

    1. @Lisa – glad to hear the cloth diapers are working for you! And fascinating that your daycare uses cloth diapers – I was under the impression most places were pretty insistent on disposables (because of the extra work involved with cloth). I’d be curious on the time factor and how this figures into the economics. But I do imagine they’ve gotten better since the mid-80s. I feel like all baby products have gotten better since then. I think that hiring women at consumer products companies had something to do with it….

      1. For us moms with nannies – I’ve always had my nanny wash the cloth diapers (as well as all other baby/toddler laundry – my school age kids do their own). I include it in the job description and it’s never been an issue!

      2. I think daycares are getting better at cloth diapers in the US (anecdotally from friends) and in the UK, I think their regulations require they accommodate. My nursery used to do cloth for all but this was a headache for the teachers, but they’ll happily use cloth diapers from home. I don’t know how much cheaper it is when you account for electricity and water usage but for us, it makes sense from an environmental perspective. Also, apparently cloth diapered babies potty train earlier.

        1. @cb and @Laura – Our daycare actually uses their own cloth diapers which is awesome! It’s becoming more popular here in Minneapolis as several day cares use cloth diapers. It’s really nice to not have to deal with the daytime M-F diaper laundry!

    2. Another fan of cloth diapers, we used some of each — way more cloth than disposables. Daycares in my state aren’t legally allowed to use cloth, so we did have to use disposables for that, and sometimes trips + overnight. Found them very straightforward and, as described, neither noticeably gross nor a hassle.

    1. @Connie C- for ours there is, though in the past I know it’s been capped per family (at the cost of 2 kids) and scholarships given out on request.

      1. I wondered about the VBS cost as well. Our area churches do not charge, but the program is for aprox 3 hours per day with a snack for the kids. Some are in the morning and some in the evening. I wondered if your church’s program was more hours per day? Or maybe there is a fee to help limit the number of people who register and then do not actually attend.

  2. Great episode today. Very balanced between being frugal while still enjoying life and doing great things. I have a huge dislike for people who’s idea of frugal living is simply never leaving the house or saving money while doubling the work you need to do hence killing any time or energy you may have had for fun.

    My best tip for expecting parents is: stores are still open after the baby is born. I’ve seen so many people getting so stressed about having everything before the baby arrives that they end up buying lot’s of stuff they don’t need and eventually don’t use. Buy the bare minimum and add as you go. You might actually like having a reason to leave your house during the new born stage.

    1. Yep, agreed. I didn’t buy any newborn clothes because I expected to have a bigger baby and Amazon primed a few outfits from the hospital and just did a lot of laundry the first few weeks.

    2. @Sophie – great advice to wait on buying. Not to give too much away, but we have an upcoming podcast interview with a woman who literally became an (adoptive) parent with about 24 hours notice. It turns out you can in fact go to Target and get everything you need in a very short time frame.

  3. Consider a pre-podcast checklist (like the pilot flight checklist) to avoid mic mishaps. Sarah must know this from work, a lot
    Of medicine uses check lists!

  4. Similar to the VBS Tip – Girl and Boy Scout day camps are typically lower priced in our area. You don’t need to be a scout to attend.

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