Six kids means more than multiplying diapers, food, clothing and toys ... the dollar signs multiply as well. Angela Coffman, of Kansas City, Missouri, one of the four subjects on the recent TLC special Extreme Cheapskates, was a stay-at-home mom of six, and in debt to the tune of $89,000--hoping to get her mortgage, car loan and credit card paid off ... somehow.
Through extraordinary dedication, effort and big-time penny-pinching, she managed to pull her family up by its bootstraps and erase all that debt ... in just six months!
Today, Coffman works from home, teaching others how to live frugally on her website, Grocery Shrink. We caught up with this reality TV star to talk about how she paid off that debt, and how she budgets to keep it off.
What were you doing to acquire so much debt?
My husband and I were living the American dream. We had several credit cards, but we mostly used one that gave us cash back on our purchases. We would put everything on it—food, clothing, all of our necessities—and then try to pay it back at the end of the month. We borrowed $20,000 to buy a car, we had put $75,000 down on a house that we were using as a rental property and borrowed $1,000 to buy a leather couch. Then my husband Darren, who's an accountant, lost his job, and we couldn’t pay off the credit card any more.
How did you become motivated to do something about it?
I knew there was a better way to handle our money. My parents paid off our home when I was in the fourth grade, and they never borrowed money again. They really had taught me better. One day, I heard finance expert Dave Ramsey on the radio announcing a contest to win a trip to the Bahamas. You had to be one of the top ten families in the nation who paid off the most debt or saved the most money in a six-month period. About that time Darren got a new job, and I figured, even if we lose the contest but we give it our all, we’ll end up winners. We won—and got to go on the trip.
What did you do during those six months to save money?
We went all out. We spent nothing that we did not have to in order to survive. We ate food that we picked from our yard, we turned off our heat and burned wood in the fireplace instead, we used cloth diapers, cloth napkins, cloth toilet paper—anything that you would usually use paper for. We hand-made gifts, I made clothes for the kids out of leftovers from garage sales that neighbors would give me. So my sons wore denim skirts ... but they looked like shorts after I sewed them.
Family Fun on a Budget
How do you budget for family fun? What sites do you use to find good deals?
We decided to sell our house and wait for a time when we were financially able to support an investment like that. We sold some cattle that my husband owned, and we sold whatever else we could. We only kept $1,000 for ourselves. That was our only cushion between us and bankruptcy. The rest went to paying off debt.
By the end of the six months, we were completely out of debt. Three months later, we had actually saved $40,000 to put down on a new house.
Tell me about the reusable toilet paper.
It started when we were doing the contest, when every dime made a difference. But then we realized we liked it a lot better. I cut up squares of cloth. It's softer, lint free and doesn't tear up—it's fantastic. We were using cloth diapers at the time time, so we would just pour it all in the wash together. There were people who said, "Cloth toilet paper, that's disgusting!" I've seen disgusting, though, and this isn't it. But, I realize there is a cultural line that we had crossed. I do buy a pack of toilet paper every year to keep in the guest bathroom or for backup. But the kids get really upset when there are no cloth wipes.
How much do you think you save with the cloth wipes?
Since we have eight people in the family, I would guess we’re saving between $15 and $20 a month. And we’ve been doing it since 2005.
What other strategies do you still use today?
We live in the country, and the nearest grocery store is 30 miles away, so I started going to the grocery store once a month to conserve gas. That was our transition to a whole new way of shopping. I started working on a pantry system. Instead of buying food for a week’s worth of meals, I would buy a month’s worth of food in one trip. At the time of the contest, I had three kids and my monthly food budget for the five of us was $185.
And what is your budget today?
We have six kids now—ages 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 and 10 months—so our monthly food budget for the eight of us is $400 total, $50 per person. We save $400 per month by shopping all at one time.
Could you explain the pantry system?
Over time, I built a pantry with a three- to six-month supply of food like tomato sauce, whole wheat flour and brown rice pasta. Now, when I go out for my monthly shopping trip, it’s just for fresh items and the really good deals. When I see great deals, I stock up. I got to the point where I would never pay full price. If I see that tomato sauce is really cheap, I buy 30 cans. We won’t use it that month, but I can store it for a year.
Also, I plan menus for the whole month. It gives me something to shoot for when I’m at the store and I see deals.
(Want to save on food by planning ahead yourself? Check out our Food for a Month series.)
What other thrifty tactics do you use?
We only use cash. Every month, my husband I work out a budget, and whatever that is, we pull it out in cash. I have a plastic coupon organizer with tabs for categories like groceries, clothing, gifts, etc. that I use to divvy up the cash. That way when I’m at the store, I can see at a glance if I’m over budget. When we were putting everything on credit cards, we technically had a budget, but I couldn’t tell how close to it we were when we were at the store.
What about for your children’s clothes?
Twice a year, in the fall and spring, we plan a clothing menu for every person in the family. For example, for my oldest daughter Heidi, I will write down that she needs three pairs of jeans, two church dresses, this many socks, etc. First we look through what we already have and we write that down on the menu, so we know exactly how much we’ll need to buy for her. We start looking at garage sales, then thrift stores, then the clearance racks at high-end department stores like Dillards. Also, Old Navy has amazing clearance racks. Then, if I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, I’ll look on Craigslist and Ebay—especially if I’m looking for something special like soccer cleats. My last resort would be to buy it new.
On the TLC special, you used a babysitting club. Do you still do that?
Yes, we do. We trade every other Tuesday night with another family. One week their family comes over, and I provide food for their kids. The parents have four hours to do whatever they want. And the next week it’s our turn. It’s fantastic. Darren and I weren’t able to eat out because it was too expensive with the children, but now when it’s just the two of us, we can afford it.
Do you ever splurge?
Last year, we took our three older children on a cruise to Mexico. We found a deal at Vacations To Go. The tickets were $250 each for Darren and me, and the children’s tickets were $150 each. That included a week on the cruise ship and all of our food and entertainment. It was a splurge for us, but we can only go if we find a deal like that.
(If Coffman's story intrigues you, check out the story of one married couple—and fellow Extreme Cheapskates—so frugal they managed to pay for a child not their own to attend college.)