by Barbara Frank
A lot of popular items from the 1970s have come back into style over the past several years: fondue pots, platform shoes and wrap dresses come to mind. But now, one of the worst features of the 1970s is back, and it can hurt a lot more than falling off your platform shoes. It’s inflation.
Inflation causes your dollars to be worth less and less. All of a sudden you’re paying more at the supermarket each week. The sale prices of clothing and supplies seem high; after all, 25% off of a rising price equals a rising sale price. When an economy is subject to inflation, it seems like prices are higher every time you go shopping…and they are.
This can really hurt homeschooling families. We tend to be single-income families, or maybe we have two parents working at least part-time. Homeschooling families are not generally classified as wealthy because we tend to put more time into raising children than earning money.
A rise in expenses can force us into a higher-paying and more time-consuming job that prevents us from homeschooling, and that’s something we must avoid. But we can’t stop prices from going up, and we need to buy food and clothing. How can we keep our budgets under control even as prices rise?
It’s not always easy, but it can be done. I’m willing to do whatever I have to in order to be home with my kids, and I’ll bet you are, too. So let’s look at some strategies for fighting inflation
Strategy #1: Saving Gas
Whether you’re worried about the planet, your wallet, or both, saving gas is more important than ever. Gas prices have skyrocketed over the past few years (it’s $5 a gallon in some cities) and continue to do so. This is a real problem for homeschoolers on the go, spending the week driving from co-ops to music lessons to organized sports. If you have several children, you probably drive a gas hog, but even if you toodle around in a small car that goes easy on the gas, you’re probably seeing a jump in what you spend at the pump.
This is a good time to reevaluate the activities your kids are in, and decide which ones are not really essential to their upbringing. If you remove the lesser activities, and keep only those that can be limited to one day a week, you’ll find that your gas consumption (and expense) will drop quite a bit.
Combining trips also makes a big difference. If you’ve got to take the kids to a class, shop at the nearest grocery store before heading back home instead of making a separate trip on another day. The more you combine your errands, the more gas you save. Get used to organizing your trips out so that you hit a number of spots in a row, rather than making separate trips on different days and using up far more gas.
If you live out in the country, driving is a necessity. But if you’re in a city or suburb, rediscover public transportation, your bike and your legs. Use backpacks and totebags to carry purchased items and library books. A family walk or bike trip to the public library will save gas and also count as P.E. for that day.
One side effect of saving gas is that you end up staying home a lot more than usual. If you’re a homebody, high gas prices can be a ready excuse to get things done around the house. But if you usually prefer to be on the go, you may discover that staying home is not a bad thing. There are so many things you can do while you’re home that will save you even more money (more on that later), plus you’ll have more time for homeschooling.
Strategy #2: Controlling Food Costs
When all my kids were living at home, I could fill our minivan with grocery bags packed with food, and yet have to do it all over again two weeks later. During their growing years, my kids seemed to inhale food. With the steadily increasing prices we’re seeing in supermarkets these days, feeding a growing family is becoming a very expensive proposition. But it’s not impossible.
Even though most food prices are rising, convenience foods still cost far more than basic ingredients. If you learn to make even a few of your family’s favorites from scratch, you can save a bundle. There are hundreds of cookbooks that can help you with this, but you probably don’t have time to scrounge them up, so let me just suggest two things:
- Search for recipes online
- Buy The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn (I consider this the equivalent of a graduate course on saving money)
Please don’t say you don’t have time to cook from scratch. You’re going to be home more often anyway since you’re saving gas. And this is something your children should help you with, so that the burden isn’t all on you. Even small children can peel potatoes. Not only does it count as Home Economics, but kids who help cook grow up into teens who make dinner, and believe me, that’s a wonderful thing.
If you’re lacking the proper cooking supplies, don’t rush to buy them from a store (rising prices, remember?) unless you have to. Try garage sales and thrift stores first. Also, ask friends and relatives if anyone has a such-and-such they want to get rid of.
Another way to keep food costs down is to limit how often you go out to eat. With food prices going up, restaurants have to raise their prices if they’re going to make a profit, so you’ll be paying more there, too. Save the eating out for special occasions. Replace trips to the ice cream shop with make-your-own-sundae evenings at home. Bring a cooler of food and drinks with you when you travel or run errands. A cold 2-liter bottle of pop and some paper cups will save you $8-10 on drinks at a fast food drive-through.
For those busy days when you’re going to get home too late to make dinner, keep some convenience foods (bought on sale and preferably with coupons) in your freezer. Yes, convenience foods cost more than those made from scratch, but they’re worth it if they keep you from going out for dinner, which costs far more.
Strategy #3: Controlling Clothing Costs
Kids grow, and that means you’re always hunting down larger clothes for them. It’s a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. First off, get it out of your head that every piece of clothing has to be new. As Amy Dacyczyn of the Tightwad Gazette often said, used clothing is just new clothing that’s been washed at least once.
Thrift stores and garage sales are great sources of clothes for kids, and they’ll save you a lot of money. Also, after reading part one of this article last month, Imperfect Homeschooler reader Debra J. from Texas suggested Freecycle as a great resource for free goods for families. But if you have issues about putting strangers’ clothing on your kids, why not try a clothing swap with your friends? Trading outgrown clothing with people you know and like may make you feel better about dressing your kids in used clothes, and a clothing swap can be a social event, too. Bring snacks for the kids and let them play while you go through the clothing.
Sewing for your kids is another option, but it has its limits. Patterns are ridiculously expensive unless you find them on sale for a few dollars, and the same is true to a lesser extent for fabric. I’ve found that sewing works best for special occasion dresses, saving you a lot of money because dressy clothes cost more than play clothes.
For the clothing you prefer to buy new (such as underwear), be sure to hit outlet stores and sales. This is where it really pays to know your prices. When underwear is on sale for a good price, buy the next size up as well as each child’s current size. Do the same for socks and jeans. The thing about inflation is that it makes tomorrow’s dollars worth less than today’s, so anything you can stockpile saves you money. Of course, you’ll need to be organized about storing clothes for future use, because if you can’t find them once you need them, they’ll be wasted money.
You may have to handle clothing purchases differently with your teens than your younger children, because they’re likely to be pickier about where their clothes come from. There’s a simple solution for this. They should earn money and buy their own clothes. It’s amazing how quickly they learn to find good deals when the money is coming from them and not you.
Strategy #4: Controlling Entertainment Costs
Movie tickets are going up, but there’s an easy way to fix that. It’s called staying home to watch movies. DVD rentals (local, Netflix and even your public library) will save you a fortune on movie tickets and refreshments, too.
As for other entertainment like mini-golf, bowling and amusement parks, it’s time to look at them as rare treats instead of regular events (and even then, use coupons to reduce fees). Instead, stay home and play board games. Bring home stacks of library books and computer games. Buy a second-hand trampoline for the back yard. Dig out the toys the kids got last Christmas. It will be good training for your kids to learn to use what they have instead of going out to be entertained all the time.
This goes double for birthday parties, those money-eating events that can leave you dazed and broke. Let’s bring back the old trend of a birthday cake, ice cream and no goodie bags. Set up a few games in the back yard or family room. The birthday child and his siblings can make decorations for the party room. (A homemade pinata out of papier-mache can count as an art class project.) Ideas for party games and decorations can be found in books and magazines at your public library. Use creativity instead of money.
Strategy #5: Controlling Shelter Prices
The previous strategies were for controlling relatively small expenses that occur regularly. The cost of your housing, however, is something that you’re locked into for months or years at a time, so making wise decisions in this area is crucial.
Back in the late 1970s, inflation caused home prices to skyrocket along with everything else. But this time around, strangely enough, house prices are dropping because of the after-effects of the housing bubble that’s deflating. Many people have to sell their houses because they can’t make the rising payments of adjustable loans. As a result, there are so many houses on the market right now that prices are being forced down. The irony is that you can buy a nice house for less money, but only if you can get yours sold. If you decide to go that route, be sure to price your house very competitively, and be prepared for a long time on the market.
If you’re a renter, you may find that rents are dropping because so many vacant houses are coming up for rental. Unable to sell them in the slow market, their owners have decided to become landlords so that the monthly rent will help defray their mortgage payments. If you’re feeling cramped in your rental house, you may be able to find a larger nicer house for less rent than you’ve been paying. This could work out well for you! However, before you sign a lease, make sure the house is not about to be repossessed; a few unscrupulous sellers are taking security deposits from potential renters knowing full well the house will be going into foreclosure and repossessed before long.
Whether you own or rent, you can save money on rising utility costs by being careful about your energy usage. Wearing sweaters and keeping the thermostat a few degrees lower than normal this winter will take the edge off the higher heating bills we’re sure to see. Hanging damp laundry around the house instead of putting all of it in the dryer will add to the humidity level (making you feel warmer) while reducing the amount of electricity or gas you use to run your dryer. We hang shirts and jeans from the door trim in our house in the cold months; you’d be surprised how quickly the clothes dry, especially if the humidity in the house is low. No, we’ll never make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens with clothes hanging from the doorways on laundry day, but I’d rather have lower utility bills than live in a model home.
In summer, keep shades and blinds down wherever the sun shines to keep the house cool. In winter, leave your shades and blinds up on the sunny side of the house, and down on the cold, windy side. If you live where the winters are very cold, you’ll find that insulating windows with plastic can help keep out cold drafts. Back in the 1970s, people made draft dodgers (long, skinny stuffed fabric snakes that lay along the crack where the door meets the floor) to keep out drafts; maybe that’s another trend that needs to make a comeback!
These are just a few ideas to combat inflation, but if you know anything about the 1970s, you know similar ideas made a big difference in keeping costs down. If the 1970s were before your time, ask your parents about how people fought inflation. Knowing how to do so could make the difference between being able to homeschool your children, and having to put them in school so you can get a full-time and/or better-paying job.