Family Budget Secrets From Real Moms Holding the Purse Strings

Find out how real women rule a budget, afford their dreams, and find ways to make the most of their household income.

woman laptop tablet cell phone computer
Photo: Pixabay/kaboompics

Whether you're a dual-income household with great benefits, or a single mom trying to make ends meet, being the master of the family budget takes discipline, creativity, and hard work. Here, three moms from across the country talk about holding the purse strings and making budgets work.

Karen Akpan, 29

Los Angeles

Occupation: Clinical Research Contractor

Spouse occupation: Nurse

Number of adults in household: 2

Number of children in household: 2-5

Annual household income: $160,000

Karen Akpan, author of The Mom Trotter and founder of Black Kids Do Travel, has built a family budget largely around one familial value: travel. It's a cornerstone to their life, and the family budget. It also isn't cheap, especially with a family the size of hers: In addition to her own two children, Akpan's three nieces and nephews frequently live—and travel—with them. Yet travel is so important that it's the family's third-largest expense, after housing and savings. To prioritize for this, they cut out many luxuries, and use a combination of airline miles and hotel points to pay for travel whenever possible.

Still, Akpan would like to do more. "At this point, I don't feel that I am doing as well with budgeting as I would love to," says Akpan. "As much as our family loves living in Los Angeles, our mortgage and bills are very high. This makes it hard for us to travel as much as we want. In order for us to be able to live the lifestyle that my husband and I have envisioned for our family, we absolutely have to lower some bills—starting with housing."

Karen Akpan and family
Karen Akpan and her family at Joshua Tree National Park in California. Courtesy of Karen Akpan

The Akpan family monthly budget

Housing: $4,160

Utilities: $1,000

Groceries: $400

Restaurants: $150

Transportation: $200

Education: $0

Entertainment: $200

Healthcare: $500 (Insurance premium. "We don't visit the doctor often, so we generally don't have extra costs here," says Akpan.)

Savings: $3,000

Other: $2,500 for travel

Karen Akpan's best budgeting advice:

Live below your means. Not within it, below it.

Elaine Willard,* 35

Maplewood, New Jersey

Occupation: Physical therapist, but currently stay-at-home mom

Spouse occupation: Systems engineer; VP and manager at a hedge fund

Number of adults in household: 2

Number of children in household: 4 (ages 8, 6, 4, and 2)

Annual household income: $330,000

The Willard family, who lives near Manhattan, take budgeting seriously. They're saving scrupulously in hopes of moving closer to family, which will mean a huge pay cut for Elaine's husband, Mark. The parents of a 4-year-old with Down syndrome are also are funding a special needs trust for her as 50 percent of individuals with Down syndrome have early onset dementia.

While extra expenses from her daughter's early years have dwindled, others remain, like orthotics at $60 per pair twice a year; wide, quality shoes to fit around them ($40), and outpatient speech therapy in summer when school's out.

To meet their life goals, the family is putting money away as fast as possible, and modifying their needs to fit.

"Once you elevate your lifestyle, it's harder to step back," says Willard. "We want to be able to retire young, and visit our kids and grandkids, and pay for fun adventures with them."

The Willard family monthly budget

Housing: $2,600 mortgage, including taxes

Utilities: $285

Groceries: $340

Restaurants: $60

Transportation: $427 combined. $227 train; $200 gas

Education: $0, but next year: $300-$400 for preschool

Entertainment: $50-$75

Healthcare: $50

Savings: $5,450 (including retirement contributions)

Insurance—car, life, and home: $250

Other: $400 for sports and piano and ballet lessons

Charitable donations: $300

Elaine Willard's best budgeting advice: Pay yourself first. Track expenses and meet and talk about your budget. Eat at home as often as possible. And, want what you have.

Another trick: Rather than cab, Mark walks the one mile to and from the train station. Once in Manhattan, he uses a bikeshare, not the subway—which his insurances reimburses him for, like a gym membership.

Nicole Stinson, * 46


Occupation: Editor/writer

Number of adults in household: 1

Number of children in household: 1

Annual household income: $86,500

Single mom Nicole Stinson is finally getting a little bit of breathing room in her budget. In 2012, she left her magazine editor job in Seattle, moved to Ireland for love, and got married. Even with her visa, finding work was incredibly difficult. Soon, she was pregnant with son, Finlay, now 5. And still struggling.

"While living in Ireland things were brutal. I wasn't working and my then-husband didn't make much," says Stinson. "There were times we didn't have enough money for the oil needed to run the heat in the winter—and forget about going out for dinner. It sucked."

In the process, Stinson fell behind on credit card payments. "I'm still trying to catch up after that fiasco," she says.

Now back in the States, Stinson is working at a software company as a writer and editor, and ends are beginning to meet at last. She's even making small dents in the credit card payments—about $100 every month. She's looking forward to the day when she can invest that money in her son.

"I'd love to be able to put even $100 a month away towards Finn's education."

nicole stinson and son
Nicole Stinson and her son. Courtesy of Rick Dahms

The Stinson family monthly budget

Housing: $2,700 mortgage

Utilities: $100

Groceries: $300

Restaurants: $90

Transportation: $160, including ferry fares

Education: $0

Entertainment: $50

Healthcare: $200

Savings: $0

Other: daycare $900

Car payment: $375

Insurance: $70

Nicole Stinson's favorite budgeting tool: Mint. I used Mint to get my expenses in front of me and see how much I was making versus spending. I like that they send emails updating your credit score, too.

* Some names have been changed at the source's request to protect their privacy.

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