When my oldest three daughters were 6, 4, and 2, it seemed like there were birthday parties to attend every weekend. The girls, of course, were thrilled to be part of the social scene, but all those presents were sabotaging our budget. To save money, I began stocking up on children's books that were on sale. When an invitation arrived, I'd "shop" through my stash. As the mother of seven, this tactic saved me tons over time! And birthday gifts weren't the only area in which I cut costs. I scoured secondhand stores for kids' clothes and skipped the gymnastics classes in favor of free story hour at the library.
Once you get into the swing of things, you'll be amazed by how much you can painlessly trim from your budget.
- Toys go on sale every January, so stock up after Christmas and keep items on a designated gift shelf. I found $25 Dora and Diego two-adventure deluxe activity sets for $6. I log the toys in a notebook so I know what I have "in stock."
- Savvy shoppers hit the stores when items are going out of season. At the end of July, you'll find 50 percent reductions on beach balls, pails and shovels, and assorted sandbox gear. Load up at summer's end for next year's warm-weather birthdays.
- Buy half-price Christmas wrap in generic solids like blue, gold, red, and green, and use it year-round. No one will be the wiser. And instead of shelling out $3 per birthday card, have your kids create them by hand or on the computer.
- If possible, fly when others can't. This means Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or early Saturday mornings, says Jerry Chandler, a travel blogger who writes for Cheapflights.com. The most expensive travel times (and the most crowded) are Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings. When Debra Palella and her husband, of Monroe Township, New Jersey, were planning a trip to the Dominican Republic with their kids, they saved $250 per airline ticket by moving the trip up by one day.
- Find off-peak destinations and travel during off-peak times, Chandler recommends. In other words, don't book a Disney vacation at Christmas. And it often pays to fly in and out of an alternate airport.
- Save on pricey airline food. In addition to packing bags of Cheerios along with sandwiches, crackers, and string cheese for the kids, bring adult snacks too.
- Check out deal Web sites such as Expedia.com, but also cross-reference with the hotels and airlines to see whether they offer lower rates.
- Hit the biggest, best clothing sales, which are typically in February and August. If you know your toddler is a size 2T this winter, guesstimate that by next winter he'll be in a 3T.
- Pick up great deals at thrift shops and secondhand stores, recommends Stacey Francis, of New York City, mother of Sebastian, 2. Many of the items are practically unworn, says Francis, who heads up the Web site SavvyLadies.com.
- During the fall back-to-school sales, stock up on a year's worth of school supplies: paste, glue, ribbon, tape, etc.
- Buy diapers, wipes, and formula online, says Stephanie Cannizzaro, of Yorktown Heights, New York, mom to 5-month-old Vince. She orders everything from Diapers.com. You can also sign up on the Web sites of Pampers, Huggies, and other companies to receive special offers.
- Consider limiting your child's extracurricular activity to one pay-to-play pastime, such as soccer or ballet. Then sign up for a few freebies -- Cub Scouts or Daisy Girl Scouts, for instance. I let each of my daughters play soccer (and with three playing, even that was costly) and then signed them up for arts and crafts and baton twirling at the local rec center.
- Don't forget to factor in the gas you're using as you chauffeur the kids around town, not to mention money for meals after games.
- Call local dance or gymnastics facilities and ask if they'll let your child try a class for free. After a couple of previews, you and he can determine which class is best for him to join.
- A restaurant meal costs six to 10 times more than eating at home, says Jonni McCoy, author of Miserly Moms (Bethany House). Think of dining out as a special treat, and consider going for lunch, which is considerably less expensive than dinner.
- Eat in ethnic restaurants. They're often much less costly than, say, steakhouses, and your children will get acquainted with all kinds of cuisines, from Thai to Indian to Mexican. Worried that your picky eater won't have enough choices? There's always something kids will love, from the terrific breads and tandoori chicken in an Indian restaurant to the dumplings in a Japanese restaurant to the quesadillas in a Mexican restaurant.
- Take home leftovers. When my daughters were 5, 3, and 1, we occasionally went to the local Chinese restaurant. The waiters wrapped up our leftovers in foil shaped into a swan, which they gave to 5-year-old Miranda. One night, after we had friends for dinner, I asked if they'd like to take home some dessert. Miranda ran into the kitchen, expertly packaged the chocolate cake inside a foil swan, and proudly presented it. Leftovers, she was learning, were fun to eat -- and share.
Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in the May 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.