When my husband and I had our first child several years ago, we felt financially prepared. We had to dip into our savings for fertility treatments and related medical expenses, but I was steadily freelancing as a writer and editor to supplement the loss. Our bank account was in solid shape when our baby boy was born. We were a little family of three.
A few days after our son’s first birthday I took a pregnancy test, assuming it would be negative. It wasn’t. It was a wonderful surprise, but this time our balance sheet wasn't looking so good. We were in the middle of home renovations, and our savings had taken a dive due to unforeseen renovation extras.
After our baby girl arrived, I'd walk out of Babies R’ Us with a receipt totaling $250 or more and feel like I bought nothing. Kids' essentials like diapers, wipes and formula add up lightning fast, and it’s easy to blow your monthly budget.
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I’ve since learned to shop around for the best deals so my family can better stretch our dollars. These are the tactics that help me—and can help you—save big when you have small kids taking a bite out of your bank account.
Budget Buster: Baby Formula
Monthly Savings: $5–$80
Buying formula gets pricey. Of course, nursing is the cheapest option, but that doesn’t always work out for every new mom. A wide range of baby formula is available, and some of it is very expensive. One of our babies has a cow's milk intolerance, and the formula we use in its place is pricey: $25 for a 12 oz. can is the cheapest we’ve found.
To slash the cost, we signed up on the manufacturer's website to receive monthly coupons ranging from $5 to $16 off. Our pediatrician also helps us. She offers us sample 8-ounce cans that were given to her practice by the manufacturer. Formula expires, so they need to keep the supply moving. Whenever we’re in the neighborhood, we check to see if she has any to spare.
You can also ask your pediatrician for a prescription if your child uses a specialty formula, which shifts some or all of the cost to your insurer.
Budget Buster: Groceries for a Family of Four
Monthly Savings: $120–$150
When I'm in a grocery store, I can be a big impulse shopper—it’s like I’m afraid the zombie apocalypse is about to hit and we won’t be prepared. (Of course we need a 5-pound bag of rice, dried beans, four bottles of wine and four pints of Ben & Jerry’s!)
Fortunately for my bank account, there’s online grocery shopping and pickup: A store staffer puts together your order, then loads the bags in your car when you arrive curbside. I live in the sticks—perfect zombie apocalypse country—but this service is creeping all across the U.S. Harris Teeter, Kroger and Wal-Mart are a few of the bigger names.
Ordering groceries online allows me to buy only what I need. I also save on meal planning by purchasing meat and vegetables that I can see are on sale. I spend around $130 (plus a $5 fee) per weekly trip this way. In store, I'd drop at least $175.
Our wholesale club membership also helps us keep a lid on our food budget. We make a trip once a month to purchase meat and fish in bulk. Many wholesale clubs carry organic and grass-fed options as well as kid-friendly foods, so we stock up on things like baby food and cereal.
Budget Buster: Diapers
Monthly Savings: $35–$55
Buying diapers for two kids costs us $150 to $200 a month, but fortunately there are some ways to cut that back. We use Amazon Subscribe and Save to get a once-a-month shipment of diapers, wipes and a few other essentials, knocking 15% off our diaper budget.
Big-box-brand diapers and wipes are also a good option. Stores like Target have regular sales designed to promote particular diaper brands. If you buy $100 worth of that brand, you get a $25 gift card, which in turn cuts your diaper outlay even more.
Budget Buster: Kids' Activities
Monthly Savings: $60+
Family memberships are the way to go. A few times each month, we take the kids to a nearby zoo or the play area inside our local children’s science museum. Because we bought memberships—$89 for a family per year at the zoo, and $85 for a year at the museum—we save hundreds of dollars annually on costly entrance fees.
Budget Buster: Clothes for Growing Kids
Monthly Savings: $50–$200
The best thing I’ve done to score deals on kids' clothing is to find a great children’s consignment store. And there's no need to turn to a brick-and-mortar store anymore.
Online options abound, such as the Kidizen app and ThredUP. These virtual retailers usually accept items per season, so you can get a return on your investment by selling back to them; I get from $50 to $75 off on my purchases for both kids.
Another money-saver is to stock up on family essentials like pajamas, T-shirts and jeans during big holiday sales events (40% to 60% off). Also, buy a year ahead. At the end of a season, you can snag huge discounts on clothes kids can wear the next year. Who wants to pay $30 for a pair of shorts next summer when you can get them for $4.99 on clearance now?
Finally, never shop without a coupon. Whether online or in store, kids' clothes coupons can always be found. Sign up in the shop or via email or social media to be in on deals on the regular, and always check sites like RetailMeNot.com for extra discounts before you buy.
Ebates are also a good idea. These give you cash back for purchasing online; I’ve received checks for as much as $50.