- When I was a child, my mom went on federal assistance to make ends meet.
- At the time, I was embarrassed, but as an adult I’ve found myself using some of the money-saving tactics I learned during that time in my everyday life.
- For instance, I’m strict about sticking to a budget, I understand the difference between needs and wants, and I love wearing secondhand clothes that are both unique and cost-effective.
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Finance experts often say that someone’s relationship with money stems from their childhood, lessons they learned about how to manage finances — or not. When I was growing up, I got first-hand money lessons from my mom, even though I didn’t know how beneficial they’d be until years later.
See, she’d gotten divorced twice by the time I was eight and my brother was seven, and she wasn’t eligible for alimony or child support since neither marriage had been long enough. Not able to pay rent, let alone a mortgage, my mother had the three of us move in with my grandma — she lived in a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago — just as we had after my mom’s first divorce.
My mom was suddenly a single parent with two small kids and a part-time receptionist salary — it was challenging enough for her to live on it, she said, not to mention supporting two children, as well. Due to her low salary, she was eligible for food stamps (now the SNAP program), which came in booklets of 10 $1 “food coupons.”
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I learned a lot of money lessons then that I still use in my life today.
1. Stick to a budget
Both during and after the “divorce transition years,” as my mom liked to call them, she made sure to stick to a budget, from a weekly food budget to an annual school supplies one. Collectively, she tried not to spend more than $10 a day; perhaps she’d been inspired by the $10 food stamp booklets.
Now, as an adult, I, too, budget in various spending categories — only writing supplies have replaced school ones.
2. Put needs ahead of wants
When you are on a budget, especially a very limited one, it’s critical to put needs above wants.
As much as younger me wanted a designer pink winter coat from JCPenney that was close to $100, my mom had different ideas: the $1 brown bag sale (only on Saturdays) at the local church basement, where you could stuff as many clothes as possible into a brown grocery bag and just pay $1. So I got my pink winter coat — albeit a second-hand one — for probably less than $.25, although I hated not fitting in with everyone else’s brand new trendy clothes.
These days, I absolutely love secondhand clothes, as they’re often one-of-a-kind items that set you apart from run-of-the-mill clothes everyone is wearing. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that they’re cost-effective, too.
3. Repurpose items instead of replacing them
Growing up, when I’d get a hole in my jeans or top, my mom would just sew a patch over it — “Good as new,” she’d say. Although I was embarrassed to go to school dressed in patch-filled jeans, when one of my third-grade classmates commented on how she liked my “new jeans with the pink patch,” I didn’t mind as much.
All these years later, I, too, find myself repurposing old clothes. A few years ago, I had to attend several black-tie events, but was between jobs and didn’t want to keep buying a new black dress for each one. So I bought a red felt flower for a couple dollars and pinned it to my favorite black dress — even my best friend thought it was brand new. Another time, I used a red Christmas ribbon as a belt for the dress and moved the flower: yet another “new” dress.
Whenever I’m tempted to buy a new item of clothing — but know the money could be put to better use in my high-yield savings account instead — I try to think how I can make old things look new.
4. Buy in bulk, use coupons, and get creative with recipes
Another great lesson I learned while growing up is to buy food in bulk from a warehouse-type store, like Costco, and make it last and last — and don’t forget to look for sales and use coupons, too. While convenience stores are just that — convenient — they are often the furthest thing from a good place to get deals.
Just like repurposing clothing items, I’d see the way my mom would repurpose food, like potatoes (mashed one night would magically turn into fried the next) or entrees with cheese (from tuna casserole to tuna casserole salad), and now follow suit as an adult.
I’ve also learned the art of using a Crock-Pot and making something — beef brisket, anyone? — that will last the whole week, then repurpose it, too: from beef brisket stew to sandwiches.
5. (Try to) use cash only
Time and time again, I saw my mom use cash when buying our groceries — when she wasn’t using food stamps, that is. But I later learned how valuable her cash-only spending was: It was a lesson in limits — when it’s gone, it’s gone, no overspending possible.
These days, in this era of travel rewards credit cards, at times, it may be better to use cards rather than cash. However, if you give yourself a set weekly grocery store budget, like $50, and use cash only — and leave the plastic at home — when the $50 is gone, it’s gone. This is an especially useful tactic if you’re in credit-card debt and don’t want to increase your balance.
After a few weeks, you’ll see how many grocery items you bought that you actually needed versus those that you wanted. This doesn’t just apply to groceries, but to almost any area where you could benefit from curbing your spending.