Economic Meltdown, the Family Edition: 5 Ways to Cut Back on Family Expenses

Posted November 10, 2008 by

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With the economy melting down like a not-so-delicious chocolate lava cake, my husband and I recently came up with some ways to cut back on our expenses. These suggestions might not work for everyone, but they have helped us to save money in the last month or so:

1. Shop for the week instead of running out to the grocery store every day. (I tend to be a last-minute, “what are we going to have for dinner tonight?” kind of person. But those trips to the store add up! Especially because, if you go when you’re hungry, you can fall prey to what my Italian mother-in-law refers to as “liccardaria” — things that are produced to take your money, but that have little nutritional value. In my case, it’s the bagel chips that get me every time.) Shopping for the week takes a little planning ahead, but so far, it’s cut our grocery bill by almost a quarter. (Also, my husband has taken over shopping duties because he’s a better bargain hunter and isn’t lured in by the villainous bagel chips.)

2. We’ve pledged to agree to a budget and stick to it when visitors come into town, and for the holidays. That way, we know how much we can spend when guests are at our house or for gifts, etc. (I’ll let you know how this one goes!)

3. More vegetarian dishes, less meat. (It’s healthier and it costs way less, generally speaking.)

4. Making cookies, cakes, and snacks for school at home. I’m not the domestic type, so the joy of baking is kind of new to me. But I have to admit, I love this one because it’s a fun activity to do with your kids. (Except when you find your child chugging sugar from the jar when your back is turned. The detox during time-outs can be hairy, but so far, we’ve survived relatively unscathed.) If you can do it, baking at home is way more affordable, and of course, healthier. (Healthy-ish?)

5. When going out to eat, order appetizers, soups and salads. It’s usually cheaper than ordering a full entree, and you get more variety.

Anyone else have any ideas out there? With the holidays coming up, we need all the help we can get!


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. GabLilMom Report

    1. I told my girls, ages 5 and 10, there will be no more bday parties. They can invite 1 friend and we will do dinner and a movie. They get more quality time with 1 good friend than trying to over extend themselves with 5-10! They seemed ok with that, we will see when the time comes.
    2. Hand me downs! My husband was the youngest, had all of them. My girls are two diff body types, pants etc not going to work. I sell them on ebay or yard sale. However neutral size items like sweatshirts, coats, boats are good to go. He is bugged by it. Too bad for him. She doesn’t seem to care, it is still new to her.
    3. I also have reverted to the water at eating out. You can spend an extra 10bucks buying drinks. If the kids meal comes with it, ok. I do have to coffee with my breakfast meal though.
    4. I got so tired of hearing my kids ask to go out to eat every day, after day after day…. I told them I told them I will let know if we are going out. Everytime they ask will bump the next time farther out. They are getting the picture!
    5. I have deleted regular desserts. This is both for my grocery bill and their health, double whammy. They can have dessert on Saturday, end of story. 10year old knows what day that is, 5yr old asks. Took them about a week, they have that down now too. Consistancy is the tool.
    6. I have picked activies that are closer to home. I found a piano teacher less than 2miles from my house. She is actually cheaper than driving 10miles to the next bigger town. Save me gas and lots of time (priceless).
    7. Picking the local school. My kids go to the school designated for our address. THey can ride the bus to and from. My neighbor however, thinks that school is not good enough. She will be driving her kids about 20miles round trip 2 times a day. What a waste. She is a stay at home mom. Has no understanding of time is priceless! Unless there is a real problem with the school, stay local!
    8. If you really want the great channels on cable, get the digital box on only 1 tv. We have this. You often have to pay extra for each box. I don’t think so. We like to watch the movies, actually for the monthly price not too bad. I only need it on the main tv though.
    9. Skip the pricey air fresheners. Applesauce mixed with cinnamon into a paste and then cut into shapes, like xmas cookies, works quite nicely. Probably could try other scents, this is the only one I have tried. Those smellies can get awefully expense when you put them all over the house. Also putting water in a pot with some nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and simmering emits nice smells. Really cheep.
    I could ramble on, but it’s getting late.

  2. Bridgette Report

    Dinner my way is also Dream Dinners in other areas. I know there are more franchise names. My family just did our first purchase and it’s been a huge success. It took me almost a year to try it out because I kept thinking I could do the same thing myself for less. However, a year later, despite the planning and friends to do it with… we never actually did it. I think the idea of all the shopping, cutting and prepping – plus the actual amount of time it would take to pull it off — just made it a physical impossibility.

    The one thing I have the least of is time! So we tried the sample menu with Dream Dinners ($75 for 36 meals (ie: 3 portions of 6 different entrees). It’s changed our home. I know that sounds dramatic, but it has.

    We aren’t so stressed coming home because we know we have a great meal that will take less than 30 mins to cook. Throw some veggies in the microwave to steam and we can sit down. And because we made this commitment to spend just a touch more, we have more time to spend in a POSITIVE way as a family. For the first time we are sitting down regularly to eat together. I’m a fan and go for my second meal prep on Thursday night! Can’t wait! I’m in Irvine if anybody wants to join me! 🙂

  3. Jen Report

    In these hard times, call your phone, internet and satellite companies. Tell them you are going to go with a cheaper company if you cannot figure out a way to lower your costs with them. My phone company offered their new customer promotion to me for the next year. It will save me about $225 in the next year. Also, with the high cost of TV, consider scaling back your channels or better yet, turn it off completely and watch movies once in awhile.

  4. tonivitanza Report

    We have a rule with our now 15yo……If you order a soda when we are eating out, then dessert is out of the question. (Especially at one of the places where the waitperson seems to think the kid is the one tipping, and thinks therefore that he or she should refill the soda glass constantly. Are any of you restaurant managers listening?) If he orders water, a dessert is a POSSIBILITY.

    That begs the question, though. Eating out used to be a treat. It is no longer a treat. Often eating out is more hassle than it is worth. Loud, obnoxious people all around. And your kid will learn that EVERYTHING HE’S SERVED SHOULD BE SERVED HIS WAY, EXACTLY AS HE LIKES IT. See the problem here? And we wonder why our kids are such picky eaters. I have a friend who is a very successful full-time professional with an adored and spoiled son and when this kid says what he wants to eat, it sounds something like this: “I want the fried chicken sandwich, not grilled, fried, and pickles but NO mayonnaise. And the medium coke. Not small. With the crushed up ice. And a straw. Don’t forget the straw! And the onions need to be on the side.” YIKES. He eats with his family, at the table, food his parents cooked, so rarely that he doesn’t know HOW to do it, how to just eat and be happy. SAVE eating out. Keep it special by doing it less. Learn to cook. Cook for the week once a week. Get together with your neighbors and fire up a pot of Folger’s (notice I didn’t say “meet at Starbucks”) and trade some new casserole recipes. Drop your gym membership and walk. Buy a second-hand deep freeze. Use COUPONS!!! We do and it saves lots of money, no rocket-science or downloading or making a game of it. Get a straightedge, keep it near where you read the Sunday paper and make it easy. Most stores double them.
    I once asked a dear friend of mine why she was still cutting grocery coupons, even though her husband had paid off his med school debt and was board-certified in both surgery and plastic surgery. They were living in a lavish 6,000-square-foot house. And she said, “My husband works too hard for me to throw away money from the newspaper.” You gotta respect that.

    Before we were married and our son was born, eating at HOME was special. Now I wonder what we could have done with all the money that was spent. We could have lost even MORE in our 401Ks last month! But seriously, just STOP IT. Right now, we are planning on eating out when we pay off our car in a couple of months. That will be our celebration. Lunch at Olive Garden is $40, when it’s all said and done! How many bags of pasta and cans of soup and cans of Pillsbury bread sticks could you buy with $40 and some coupons? You could have a spaghetti and soup and breadsticks PARTY!!!

    Speaking of cars….Don’t EVER buy a brand-new car. Buy a fuel-efficient late-model used car and buy the warranty. Then maintain it well AND DRIVE IT INTO THE GROUND. Repeat every 10 years.

    Do not feel that you must buy as much house as you qualify for.

    And about the writer above who said to buy a bread machine. I will echo that; it makes the house smell good. It’s fun. It’s a great way to cook with your kids. Teach your teens to make yeast rolls. (Recipe follows.) It teaches delayed gratification to youngsters. Save the stale ones (if there are any left!) for dressings and stuffings or to feed the birds. But here’s the key: DON’T BUY YOUR BREAD MACHINE NEW. These are often given as wedding and holiday gifts and are often NEVER used before being donated to Goodwill or Salvation Army. I frequent these shops often and I can tell you that there is ALWAYS a new or nearly-new bread machine there, in the box, for $5 or $10. If you can’t live without the instructions and they are missing, go online and download the instructions.

    Now, here is what to do with your bread machine. In this order, put into the pan:
    1 cup lukewarm water, 1 cube of butter from a standard stick (2 tablespoons), 1 egg, 3 and one-quarter cups of Gold Medal Better for Bread flour, one-quarter to one-half of a cup of sugar, teaspoon salt, 2-3 tablespoons of yeast from a jar. Push the “dough only” button on the bread machine and in 90 minutes you should have a beautiful risen dough. Spray some Pam on your hands, take out the dough, slap it into a greased 9×13 pan, stretch it out to the edges, run your pizza wheel or a knife across it until you have 15 rolls. Cover with a towel. Turn oven to 375. Put rolls near oven so they are warm. If your microwave is above your oven, set them in the microwave. After 40 minutes they should be beautifully risen. Pop in the oven for ABOUT 15 minutes. (Keep an eye on them til you get the hang.) My grandmother tithed her church by providing the preacher these rolls, and as the oldest grandchild, it was my duty to get up on Sunday mornings and take them to him. Can’t say they ever arrived INTACT.

  5. Susy Report

    When we go out to restaurants, my husband and I always order one main dish for both of us. It saves money, but also, after an appetizer and salad, it is more than enough for two.

  6. suzeegirl Report

    There is wonderful information here thank you all. There is also and that help track grocery stores and match them with ads and helping people to use coupons and budget to the full advantage. You can also contact your local newspaper, they have classes on teaching people how to use your coupons to their full potential. These sites are must see to help with budgets and saving!

  7. hatlady Report

    Hi guys, my sons are grown and I enjoy reading the newsletter. what prompted me to respond to this article was the ‘shopping for coupons’response which does not work for me very often as the coupons are frequently used (by the stores, to get us to purchase PROCESSED products that are actually bad for us. (since I eat these types of items when they are in the home… I do my best to NOT purchase processed, unhealthy products.I find that if I ignore the coupons, I can concentrate on fresh produce and high quality protein… which I have even learned about and actually enjoy ‘nigari’ TOFU by Soy Deli, which is 15 Gr Protein for 3.5 Ozs,in the extra firm(SOFT Tofu is 3 Gr protein for 3.5 Oz!)
    . Trader Joes market puts out the best FROZEN whole green beans that can be tossed in hot sesame oil and spiced and removed quickly (heated NOT cooked) OR I toss the beans in the sauce from the Trader Joes Frozen/seasoned in green spice sauce SALMON. It feels like I’ve eaten at a french restraunt.
    Fresh broccoli dipped into Trader Joes ‘O’ Fat Greek Yogurt @ 20 Grams protein per cup makes a great meal! The broccoli may be QUICKLY cooked in a few tablespoons water and 1 tsp sesame oil to soften yet still crisp:-) Enjoy

  8. Carmen Report

    When I get my local grocery store’s weekly ad, I only purchase the items on sale that week. Then I plan my meals around what is available in my freezer and pantry.

  9. Louise Sanborn Report

    Thanks for all the great advice — I love hearing about creative ways to save money. I’ve found that since my husband and I implemented some of these ideas in our family, it’s cut down on stress around the house, too!

  10. Brooke Report

    We bought a bread maker.

    It was about $50 and when you consdier that a good loaf of bread can cost you about $4-5, its a real savings.

  11. RobJ Report

    When you go out to eat, order water. If you look at your bill, the costs of soft drinks are huge now. Iced Tea and other soft drinks now run close to $2.00. Water is better for you and free. We have our kids drink water or milk at home and so they don’t mind. A treat is a soft drink on occasion.

    Every $2.00 helps.

  12. Dr. Maria Report

    Hi all, I also have been struggling with this issue as of late. With 6 kids at home and 1 in college, food budget is a biggie for us. I’ve been participating in a great new game called which I wanted to share with all of you. The first 4 weeks cost 1 dollar to join and try out, after that it is $10 for the 1st store and $5 for any additional stores you participate in. THe grocery game, follows the trends of local stores in your area according to zip code and will print out a list of the cheapest prices of items sold that week, referred to as “rock bottom prices”. The game also gives you a list of free items for your store per week. Stores sell items in 12 week cycles, so the idea is to buy items in bulk or stock up when you don’t need them when they are at the lowest price. It also tells you which items have coupons and which week the coupon came out in the local paper, so you can find it. I’d like to tell you that since I’ve started this game I’ve been saving $200/week and buying as much as I had before, if not more! I’m also finding it easier to plan meals, since I have such an overwhelming amount of stock compared to the old days when I only bought what I needed as I needed it. One week at CVS I payed $1.41 for over $80 of merchandise. You can do this too! Good luck. Maria

  13. Nanners Report

    A great idea for training the kids in dining out …
    A friend told his hungry teen to follow his lead when out to dinner… only order the same priced or less expensive item on the menu as Dad did. Dad used this as a silent training exercise to stay within the budget and eliminate the restaurant confrontation of reeling in a “big spender”.

  14. Nanners Report

    Dinner-My-Way may be a great solution for your family! For full time homemakers or working parents, this company turns out to be a great deal in many ways…

    Go to and see if there’s a branch in your area. Pre-order dinner main courses, decide if YOU want to go prepare them in their professional kitchen (this is an out-of-the-ordinary experience – fun!), or if you want DMW to do the prep for you. You prep or pick up your food in ready to COOK containers, pop them in your frig, and gourmet meals, with HEALTHY INGREDIENTS are at your fingertips!

    The cost is about the same as buying all the ingredients yourself (you save a lot of money on herbs & spices alone!). The ingredients are fresh, healthy, and simple (no added preservatives and additives). The outcome is a new trend in creating restuarant quality meals at home, for a fraction of the cost! Great food, pretty plating, and creative “tablescape” can become your “Restaurant at Home”!

  15. meditation mom Report

    What has helped me is cutting back on all the activities my children do. So instead of 3 or 4 we are down to one per season. i am surprised at how this has had positive results beyound just the purse…like less stress for everyone. Thanks for all your great ideas too!

  16. Lynn_C Report

    I also purchased an environmentally friendly, reusable coffee cup and make my first two cups at home so that saves 2.00 per weekday (working mom).

  17. Lynn_C Report

    Make your own snack bags of chips, pretzels or trail mix and prepackage them for the week. They are healthier and cheaper than prepackaged bags of chips.

  18. SingleDad Report

    Great Suggestions Elisabeth,

    My Budget Reminders look like this:

    With a little effort, your family can enjoy better meals and you can save hundreds of dollars a year on food expenses.

    Necessary Things:
    meal plan

    Step 1:
    Making and adhering to a pre-planned menu will be the basis for your savings plan. It will also ensure good quality meals that your family enjoys. Start by recording a list of meals that your family enjoys and the cost and time involved in preparation and the approximate number of servings. Select from this list according to the family budget and plan each week’s menu two weeks in advance.

    Step 2:
    Purchasing foods in bulk from stores such as Costco can offer savings in the long run. Divide and freeze or store foods in usable portions.

    Step 3:
    Packing lunches will also help to save on unnecessary expenses.

    Step 4:
    Pot type meals such as stew, spaghetti, jambalaya, soups, goulash, etc. will likely offer the most cost effective options and may even provide for two meals. You can add salads, breads, or other side dishes to add variety and nutrition.

    Step 5:
    Discount grocery stores offer many of the same or equal quality brands as main stream grocery store chains at a reduced price. Be sure to shop around and purchase items according to your upcoming menu needs. Purchasing foods on short notice will definitely cause food prices and the gas used in travel to increase.

    Step 6:
    Have dedicated days for eating out pre-planned with a budget of spending allowed. Restaurant costs add up quickly.

    Step 7:
    Eat at restaurants for lunches rather than dinners if possible as costs may be more affordable. Also be sure to keep a stock of local restaurant coupons ready and available when preparing your menu plan. Often restaurants have allocated days that children eat at a reduced price or free. They also may offer specials such as all you can eat etc. on certain days.

    Tips and Tricks:

    keep acurate track of your budget
    make a shopping list and stick to it!



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