Ellie Kay, a Moms Money Clinic advisor for Parents and mother of seven, answers your questions about personal finance issues. Here, she's offering parents ideas on how to make better spending decisions to improve their bottom line and achieve their savings goal.
Q: As parents of young children, we want to start saving for their college—but we can't ever seem to set aside money every month. Do you have any tips for helping us pare back in other areas so we can start contributing to a 529 account?
A: As a mom of seven, I understand how important it is to budget for the long term. Saving for your children's higher education is a noble desire, and it's great that you're thinking about it while they're young.
Now is the perfect time to do some financial "spring cleaning." Following even a few of my favorite strategies will help you free up funds for your kids' future.
1. Track your spending.
Studies show that parents who formulate a spending plan are more likely to reach their financial goal. Download the free Mint app, which makes it easy to follow those dollars. I like the fact that both my husband and I can make entries on the same app, so we stay on the same page. Even when traveling (a time when expenses often exceed expectations), I know exactly how much we are spending in real time.
2. Avoid shopping therapy.
Never head for the mall or click "buy" on your phone when you're stressed, sad, or lonely, because you're far more likely to make irrational spending decisions. Instead, try calling a friend, taking your baby for a walk, or sending texts to friends.
You may wonder what acts of community service have to do with saving money. Plenty: Studies show that people who volunteer tend to have the most balanced financial lives. If you don't have a specific organization or cause in mind, you'll find a host of options at VolunteerMatch. When my kids were little, I found groups that supplied my childcare while I volunteered. Plus, many nonprofit opportunities can be done from home—or with your children.
4. Play the waiting game.
When you see something you like that's on sale in a store or online, wait 24 hours to purchase it. During that time, go to a price-comparison site such as MySimon or PriceGrabber to see if it's really a good deal. Delaying the purchase also gives you time to consider whether the item fits with your budget and is consistent with your savings goals.
5. Have a money buddy.
Accountability is a wonderful tool. Every mom should have someone who will ask the hard questions that inspire you to stick to your budget, pay down debt, or fund your child's education. It can be a parent, a Facebook friend, whomever. Having someone to support and prod you greatly increases your odds of success.
6. Become comfortable with negotiation.
Whether you're haggling over the price of a car or comparing bids on a paint job for your house, you should feel that you're getting the best price possible. Say, "I don't feel comfortable with that amount—can you do better?" Then be quiet. I've found that nine out of 10 times I'll get a counterbid that I can live with. And if I don't, I simply walk away.
7. Ask for a discount.
When shopping at a retailer, check for coupon codes and discounts at RetailMeNot. If you don't find what you want, ask. We were at a home furnishings store recently, when my daughter (without any nudging on my part) approached a salesperson and inquired about whether there were any special deals. The associate happily handed her a coupon good for $10 off $30. Now that makes a mom proud.
8. Become a subscriber.
It's worth signing up for deals that come to your inbox, especially at stores you frequent regularly. During the last month, I've used e-mail discounts on a Disney pillow pal (I got it for $9 with all the reductions!), Mimi's Café (a BOGO free entrée), and Chicos (a $25 off coupon). Then sign up for Unroll.me, and all those subscriptions will be combined into one email you can review at your leisure. The site also enables you to unsubscribe from any vendor you don't want with a single click.
Ellie Kay is a family financial expert, the author of Heroes at Home and a mom of seven. Read more of her advice at elliekay.com.