The Low-Income Family :: Making it Work with Less

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us
We don’t have much money, but our life is full.

I fell in love with this kid (that’s what I call him because he was 21 at the time) and we would go walking every week at Riverfront Park (all 6 miles). That was our date, and it still is.

He was working at Burger King, I was a single mom making $7.25 an hour, and there just wasn’t money for a proper date at the time. Things have improved a lot since then, but we still can’t really afford to spend money on dates.

This weekend we’ll be walking the length of the riverwalk and playing tourist in downtown Columbia. It’s beautiful, and neither of us has ever really explored this beautiful city. The best part? The park, that beautiful walk with the opportunity to relax and enjoy each other’s company, as well as play tourist, are absolutely FREE.

I could go on for days listing all the things we do that are free. We go to the art museum (free on Sundays right now); we go on picnics with our two kids; we play cards; we take walks after dinner.

We do all these free things because there’s no other choice. The money for other things just isn’t there.

The Realities of Being a Low-Income Family

My husband has a good, stable job with the state, and for that I am extremely grateful, because I know how hard a job is to come by. But while his income is steady, it isn’t much (let’s just say it’s less than $1,400 a month), so we do have to live somewhat paycheck-to-paycheck. There is money in savings, courtesy of tax refunds, but we have to gradually borrow from savings to get by. Eventually that money will be gone too.

Something I tried to make the other night that is now going to go in the hallway!  Art for the home!
Art supplies like oils and pastels can be inexpensive; mine were $1.92 and I was able to make art for our home.

Right now, after bills are paid, there is about $20 left over every two weeks. That can easily go toward cat/dog food, toilet paper, toiletries … any kind of necessities, really.

So that $20 chair I just bought my husband for Father’s Day? Totally an extravagant purchase, because it really only leaves enough to buy gas, nothing more.

When it comes to affording gas, we use $90-100 every two weeks for our two cars. I strategically plan where I have to go for the week to make sure I’m not making a double trip somewhere. We also save up our fuelperks at Bi-Lo, and once they hit $1, we use them to fill up both cars. We’re spending a lot less in gas than other people do, but that’s only because we can’t afford to spend any more. The little bit that we do spend is a lot for what we currently live on.

I know firsthand that it can feel overwhelming, and downright depressing, to barely have enough to get by. Trust me. I know.

The thing is, it is absolutely livable, and it is completely possible to make it work for your family. Once I stopped working when I had my daughter, Elind, I figured out a few things that really helped us live on a small budget, so I’d like to share a few of my money-saving tips.

Budget

The one thing with the most massive impact on making this work for our family has been knowing our budget. If you don’t know where your money is going, it is impossible to make any kind of change.

Here’s how you can can create your own budget:

  1. Write down your monthly income.
  2. Write down everything you spend money on every month, from bills to groceries. Write it all down!
  3. Subtract the monthly expenses from the income. What you have left is what you have to work with.

Some of your money, even if it’s just $5, needs to be put into savings. It might not seem like a lot, but it will add up, especially if you make it a habit to do this every month or every paycheck. And when something breaks and you need that money, you’ll be glad you set it aside.

Once you know exactly where all of your money is going, it makes it a lot of easier to cut back where you can, whether it be cable, excess fuel (maybe cut down trips across town), trips to the gas stations for snacks (this was a major source of output for us), salon visits (I’ve reformed; DIY is virtually FREE), and the list goes on. Knowing your budget is your best weapon when you don’t have a lot of income, because you at least know what you’ve got and what you don’t, and then you’re able to plan accordingly.

Personal care

You’re a woman, and part of being a woman is feeling good. Of course we want our hair done and our nails done.

I know for me, with these extra baby pounds still hanging on, a trip to the salon is probably the only thing that will make me feel good about myself, since clothes sure don’t.

The thing is, there’s no money for such a luxury right now. So I taught myself how to do my hair. Now, it might take me way longer, but I can do everything my stylist did. Nails? You can teach yourself to do that, too. What about the spa, right? There are all kinds of affordable at-home spa treatments. I’m not missing out on anything (except the luxury of being pampered by someone else).

But the good news is, YOU can totally pamper yourself! There are a gazillion YouTube videos out there for everything. You can learn how to trim your own hair; how to do ombre color (I did this!); or how to do your nails like a pro. The list of how-to videos is endless!

Kids’ activities

Being resourceful has been my best weapon when it comes to finding activities for my kids on a limited budget. There is really no money left over for trips to the zoo or anything that really costs a lot (to us), so I have to be creative.

Take a guided tour of Japan and the Jazz Age
The Columbia Museum of Art is free on Sundays.

I feel it’s really important to get the kids — and myself — out of the house. Columbia is such a phenomenal community that is dedicated to our kids. There are so many resources available for children to get involved in, for free or close to it:

  • EdVenture has $1 Tuesdays once a month.
  • Libraries in Richland and Lexington counties have an endless list of activities for kids. Earlier this month, my 6-year-old was able to go to the Richland Main Library and read to a service dog. (This is a monthly activity; the next one is July 12.)
  • Saluda Shoals’ splash pad, while not always in our budget, is affordable. And when we can’t spare the price for parking and for the splash pad, there are quite a few others in the Midlands that are free!

There is absolutely no shortage of things to do here, and it’s something I really love and appreciate about this city. I find lots of events via the Columbia SC Moms Blog event section every week (I love it because everything is pretty much listed in one place!).

Request Better Rate/Discounts

One thing you may not have thought to do is call a company and request a better rate. The worst thing they can say is “no,” but at least you tried.

SCE&G has a program called Budget Billing, which takes a look at your last 12 months of usage, adds the cost up, and divides that amount by 12 to come up with an average amount for you to pay over the next year. This helps with being able to budget, because you know how much your bill is going to be every month. At the end of the year, the program is re-evaluated and your Budget Billing amount will be adjusted accordingly based on your usage. Mid-Carolina and other utility companies offer similar programs.

With cell phone carriers, if you call and let them know that you are not really able to afford their services, you will find that they’re often willing to work with you. Many times they will offer you a discount, and they’ll help you figure out how to change your plan so that it is something within your budget. Our cell phone bill went down $30 a month, and that has helped tremendously.

Credit card company, water company, car insurance company — make sure you have called everyone possible to get the best rate and any applicable discounts. When needed, you can drop features so that it’s something more affordable.

Cloth Diapers

A few of our cloth diapers.  They can also be used as swim diapers or covers if we take the inserts out!
A few of our cloth diapers. They can also be used as swim diapers or covers if we take the inserts out!

Let’s face it: diapering is one of the most if not the most expensive part of having a baby, but it absolutely doesn’t have to be. I know it may seem completely insane to be hearing this, but cloth diapers are not what they used to be! Today they are much more sturdy, leak-proof and easy to use. Some are made like disposables, they have awesome prints and they’re budget-friendly. (Here’s a video guide to the basics.)

My favorite thing about cloth diapers is the resale value. Whenever we’re ready to sell them, we’ll be able to make back just about as much as we paid for them to begin with. My favorite source for cloth diapers is a buy/sell/trade group on Facebook called Cheapie Dipes. All diapers are $12 and under (shipping included).

Some would say that starting cloth is expensive upfront, but to me it isn’t. Even if you’re trying to buy a whole stash all at once, you can do it affordably: I have a friend that just bought 10 for $60. That’s really not a lot of money in the grand scheme, at all. You can also buy maybe 5 covers for $6 apiece ($30) and use prefolds inside them. These days, people use prefolds as burp cloths, but they’re also the old school cloth diapers that most people are used to seeing held together with safety pins. The covers are water-resistant and go over the prefold.

Couponing

My grocery bill this week will come to $24, and that will completely stock our kitchen. I shop the sales with my coupons weekly to keep our home fully stocked. I know it may seem complex, but it’s totally not. Check out my blog post Couponing 101 :: A Step-by-Step Guide to Saving Money on how to get started. There are also great beginner tutorials on southernsavers.com and thekrazycouponlady.com.

I honestly don’t know how we would be able to eat without coupons. We’re able to have a very well-balanced and plentiful diet because I coupon. And we are fully stocked for the next year with toothpaste, deodorant, beauty supplies, hair supplies, air fresheners, feminine care items — you name it, I just might have it.

If you read my post about couponing, you’ll remember that I am not an extreme couponer at all. I’m really just able to make it work for our family so that it helps us make ends meet.

Remember What Really Matters

Even without a lot of money, we always find a way to be able to make it work. I feel like I was given everything growing up, and I do wish I could give my kids the world. We all do. But I can give them stability, love, guidance, discipline, and a host of everything they need and want, and that’s more than good enough. I was a little sad that we can’t afford to send our very gifted soon-to-be first grader to camp, so I came up with a list of gifted programs and ideas online and a summer curriculum for him. There is always something you can do.

Playing gin rummy!
Playing gin rummy as a family brings us together without tearing our budget apart.

We currently are trying to plan a trip to the beach but can’t really afford a hotel stay overnight. Instead we may just drive down for the day and enjoy the beach and a family dinner at our favorite restaurant. Or we could just go to the beach at Lake Murray, and then travel to Discovery Place in Charlotte the next day.

I know that being low income doesn’t say anything about me as a person, but I do tend to stay in my corner because I feel like I can’t associate or fit in with people who have more than me. I know that I’m not beneath other people, but I do fear all the time that other people don’t realize that. The harsh reality is that people don’t always see a person. They see circumstances and then sometimes they judge.

Writing this was a risk, but I felt I needed to do it for myself, for those moms like me, those families like mine and those people who can’t relate. It’s important to understand that it’s just a dollar sign. It isn’t the end-all or be-all.

I have a phenomenal partner, and while I would love to have more money to be able to afford a house, someone made me realize how much more important it is to have a life filled with love. We have so much love in our home, and I consider ourselves beyond lucky in that respect.

Being low income can feel suffocating, but when you’re committed to making the circumstances work for your family, the possibilities are endless. We’re not missing out on anything, and neither are our children. And you and your family don’t have to either.

Does your family function on a limited budget? What ways do you save money? Are there any free or low cost activities I left off the list?

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Simone Praylow
Simone Praylow is wife and bestest friend in the world to Otis (better known as Odor) and mom to football and soccer loving Grayson 12, competitive cheerleader Elind, 7 and tantrum expert Ozzy Voltaire, 2. She is a native of New Jersey but relocated to Key West and later Columbia. As an overachiever, she believes learning is the best gift she can give her children and spends much of her time teaching her children at home (Grayson attends school, but the learning doesn't end when he leaves the classroom). Simone finds motherhood and family life are most easily managed by having a system in place for homelife, kids' schedules (including learning, screen time and reading) and meal planning. She is an avid reader who finds books are one of the best ways to unwind at the end of the day. She spends a lot of time boxing and at Pure Barre getting her burn on. You'll often find her buried in a book or on Pinterest getting ideas for her next project or yummy meals for the family menu.

12 COMMENTS

  1. You are so resourceful! I love how you take the time and energy to provide “camp” for your kids! You are so right… It’s all out there and easily accessed if you make the effort! Smart lady! The only judgement I have is…. Why am I not doing all of this? We recently created a budget…. It’s eye opening for sure how much we could be saving if we just keep track. We also signed up for that budget billing with SCE&G – best thing we ever did! Also got rid of our home phone…. Only 2 people and telemarketers called on it… So now we’ve saved $25+ a month there… (Obviously we have cell phones only) the house phone is still plugged in for access to 911.
    Thanks for sharing all these tips!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog. It felt very honest and open. Although we do live on a budget that I am a stickler about sticking to, your post put into perspective for me that I am not nearly as conservative as I could be. I think living on a budget is about a mindset, and you sure have a good one.

    Thank you for writing this, because I truly was inspired by it.

  3. Love this article Simone! No matter what income level your family is, it is important to not over indulge, but to find meaningful family activities. Great tips! Thanks for always being honest and true to yourself.
    Growing up, we did not have a lot of money, but I have the best memories of family camping trips, playing cards and board games together, hiking and so much more. No amount of money could have made those experiences any better.

    • I loved your article and all of the money saving tips. Thank you for your willingness to share your story with others. You have really helped me to become even more budget focused with many of your money saving ideas. I think it is also important to instill these money saving ideas in our kids as well. My kids all know by now that if we are doing something outside the normal budget there must be a coupon or special discount. They also understand that they are not going to have all the things their friends may have, not because we don’t love them but because we can’t afford it.

      Outstanding article Simone!

  4. I love this article! Thank you for some great tips… life isn’t about how much we spend, and I get a clear picture of a family who knows how to live and live well as I read your writing. See you at Bi-Lo!

  5. This was a great read, Simone. Although my family would not be considered “low income” we choose to be a one income family so I can be at home with our children and that puts us on a more limited budget than many of our friends. These are some great tips. I think one of the best things we do is “want v. need”. We are definitely able to splurge but I also know how the little things add up, so things as small as not going thru a drive thru for a soda when I know I will be home and can get one from the fridge in 15 minutes adds up. Waiting to purchase things when we have saved up the full amount for it is also something we insist on and let’s us not worry about finances – we couldn’t enjoy something if we were worried about paying it off. We might have more than most and less than some but the bottom line is also that we want our children to know what is most important and be grateful for all that they have. THANK YOU AGAIN for sharing!

    • I agree Emily! We try to be be grateful for all that we have because so many people have less! We don’t keep soda in the house so at this moment I am DYING for a soda sooo someone might be taking a trip to the gas station lol

  6. Oh thank you soo very much for writing this. I am a single mom of 2 boys 13mo and 4yo. I was doing pretty great being able to afford all of what we needed and still be able to like grab fast food on Dr.s apt days etc. BUT yesterday my monthly income dropped by $300.oo a month. OH MY GOD>>>> THATS HUGE>>> So i spent all of yesterday crying my eyes out and then all of today trying to figure out what next. HOW do i make my world work without being in the red, which is where my budget is running as of this morning? So i found your blog. I just kept thinking, THANK GOD i love my house because im going to be seing alot more of it. lol anyway. THank you again for brightening my day. Sincerely , Deeba T

  7. So refreshing to read an article about “real life” low income budgeting. I am sooooo sick of reading about how I can save money by cutting back on Starbucks, bringing my own lunch to work, and doing dry cleaning less frequently. NONE of those things were ever in my budget. I am in the $20 per month discretionary spending club! And I know I am not alone, but as you mentioned, it seems many people fail to understand that we exist or look down on us.

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