We’re frequently asked how we make this whole 6 children and one middle-class income thing work. It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely possible! Here are a few of our tried-and-true tips.
#1: Hand-me-downs. I was SO glad to see that ‘used sucks’ trend in the early millennium go right back out of fashion as fast as it came in. Green is the new black, right? Recycle! Our kids pass clothes right on down the line, often from dresser to dresser. What we do buy new is always purchased secondhand, or at least on sale. Thrift stores like Goodwill and Savers are treasure troves for families on a budget. We live in an agricultural area, and our local Goodwill has been a great source for barely-used rubber barn boots for our kids. Winter coats, snow pants and pajamas are also easy finds at thrift shops. Why buy brand new when you can give new life to something, especially if they’ll outgrow it in a single season?
#2: Don’t toss it, mend it. Our lifestyle means we’re terribly hard on clothes. We’re always out in the goat pastures, crawling around with the ducks, exploring in our woods or working in the barn. We wear out the knees of our jeans and the elbows of our hoodies constantly. When I come across something too damaged to be fixed I set it aside to be cut up and used to mend other things. Get creative! Patch holey knees with contrasting denim and then replace the cuffs and back pockets with the same kind; it’ll look like you bought them that way. Add a contrasting flannel print for an elbow patch (double the flannel for durability.) I’ve sewn patches shaped like stars and hearts onto my kids’ knees, and gotten remarks on how cute they are. We cut off old jeans and sew them up into shorts or capris. I’ve cut up outdated flared jeans from our oldest daughter and sewn them into skinny jeans for our third daughter, and nobody noticed. It takes time but saves a ton of money, as well as teaching some priceless lessons in industriousness and important life skills for your kids.
#3: Downsize. When we first started house-hunting in Michigan, we had a clear idea of what we required: at least 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and 2100 square feet. We ended up finding a house that we loved, but it sat on land that was mostly swamp. We fell in love with another property, but not the house- 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom and 1500 square feet. Different things happened and the fates ended up pushing us towards the second property, which we bought. We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to adapt to a smaller home, even with our big family. The property itself is everything we wanted and more; we can change the house, we really can’t change the land. Once our kids have moved out this will be perfect for the two of us (which is good- our move was a nightmare and I’m never doing it again!) The biggest issue has been getting creative with space. Our kids have bunk beds, and a few share big dressers. Our girls keep their jeans and pants folded up in a hanging shoe organizer in their closet. Every inch of under-bed space is taken up by storage. Larger sets of toys (i.e. Playmobil, Little People, ect) live in the basement in storage containers and come out for a few days at a time. Each child has an off-limits spot for their treasures and they can decorate the walls around their beds any way they’d like. Individuality and privacy are still possible in a small house, and ours came with an amazing price tag.
#4: Go alternative. Small wind generators, solar set-ups and wood burning stoves and furnaces are a lot more affordable and available than they were even 5 years ago. Our house was built in 1883 and didn’t have electricity until the 1960’s; we constantly lose power for days at a time, even in the winter. We found a beautiful Vermont Castings enamel woodstove on Craigslist for an eighth of the retail price, put down cement board and tile and installed it in a barely-used entryway. The former shoe closet is now wood storage. Last winter temps dipped down into the -30 range with windchill, but the stove kept the downstairs of our house nice and toasty. The upstairs bedrooms got pretty cold, but each bed had a down comforter and extra blankets available. Thanks to the age of our home there are no pipes up there to freeze, although it never got anywhere near that cold. We made it through the entire winter on one tank of propane when before we needed at least 3. We get tons of wood for free just by utilizing the deadfall on our property, and friends and family are always finding dead trees they need cut down and hauled away. Our next projects are changing our barn’s well to a gravity pump and setting up a wind generator. Using alternative energy sources involves an initial investment but quickly pays off, both financially and environmentally. Another perk of living in a smaller, simpler home- no vaulted ceilings and largely unused spaces to pour money into heating and cooling! Just say NO to the McMansion, folks.
#5: Cook and shop smart. Highly processed food isn’t just unhealthy, it’s expensive as hell. When you have a lot of mouths to feed, buying the ready-made crap will drive your grocery bill sky-high. Cook from scratch whenever possible. Shop the sales, find your target per-unit prices and stick to them. Stock up when you find good prices. We buy all our meat in bulk from a local butcher shop for less than half the per-pound prices of the little styrofoam trays at the grocery store; I weigh ground beef and sausage out into 2lb groups, seal them in freezer bags and then squish them flat. They stack up in the freezer and thaw quickly. When we find French bread on the day-old rack for 50 cents a loaf, we make French bread pizzas. Don’t be afraid to go meatless for a dinner or two a week either. ‘Breakfast dinner’ with pancakes and eggs, bean burritos or three-bean chili are cheap and filling for big families. It takes minutes to mix up a batch of cornbread or soda bread to go along with it. A few other cost-effective big family meal ideas:
- Biscuits and gravy. One pound of breakfast sausage, milk, flour, salt and pepper are simple to mix into a thick, delicious country gravy. Scratch biscuits are easy enough. When the exploding cardboard tube-biscuits go on sale for 75cents apiece we’ll often stock up- even processed biscuit dough that might blow up all over you is cheaper and healthier than fast food for the masses. Serve with fruit.
- Taco Tuesday! A pound of ground beef, a medium onion, a can of black beans (rinsed and drained) and seasoning will feed our crew of 8. When tortillas come on sale, buy 10-15 packages and toss them in the freezer. Pry individual frozen tortillas off the stack with a butter knife and thaw for 15 seconds in the microwave. Spanish rice or refried beans with garlic salt added are easy and filling sides, or serve with fruit as well. Liberal use of LEGO Movie’s President Business quotes is mandatory.
- Huevos Rancheros, breakfast casseroles and other egg-based main dishes. If you keep chickens or have another source for free or near-free high quality eggs, use it to drop your grocery bill. Eggs are an awesome source of protein. We eat at least one egg-centered meal per week, courtesy of our extremely cheap-to-keep free range flock.
- Baked potatoes. A 20lb bag of Idaho russets can go for $2 at our favorite store in the winter. Top with broccoli and cheese, green onions and sour cream, even salsa and shredded Pepperjack. Bake an extra 10 potatoes and make potato soup from scratch later on in the week- milk, a few strips of crumbled bacon, sour cream and shredded cheese heated with mashed-up potatoes. We serve with carrots or celery sticks. This is a favorite of ours for cold winter nights.
#6: DIY haircuts. My hairdresser friends are probably going to lynch me for recommending this, but here I go anyway (sorry ladies, I love you!)… Quit paying $15 apiece for a 3 minute buzz or trim for each of your children. It’s ridiculous. Buy a decent pair of hairdresser scissors from a local beauty supply store and a middle-of-the-line pair of clippers. Watch a few tutorial videos on YouTube. Decide which one of your children would be the most forgiving of your fledgling efforts and take the plunge.
We started cutting our kids’ hair ourselves about 5 years ago. It definitely wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be; my first attempt at a tidy little crew cut ended with our oldest son looking exactly like Toad from Super Mario Bros. Luckily, all our boys were born with the ability to go from a Mr. Clean chrome dome to looking like Justin Bieber in under 2 weeks, so it grew out quickly. After a few more disasters (think Ernie from Sesame Street) I mastered the clippers. I cut my husband’s hair now, too. It’s pretty fun- our boys have had mohawks, fauxhawks, bi-hawks, spikes, devil locks and more. They can rock their new look for a few days, then I can shave it off. Our younger daughters require basic trims, which were very easy to learn. I can do simple layers now as well.
To put it bluntly, my hair is its own force of nature. I’ve paid almost $200 for a haircut, I’ve paid $20 for a haircut; once I went home and washed all the salon-touted product out, it was the exact same (albeit slightly shorter) mess it was before. I now cut mine myself too, partially because I’ve given up on trying to tame the beast. It’s easier to just chop the ragged ends off by myself and call it good. *However,* do not decide it’s time to give yourself a trim after having a few beers. It will NOT end well… Trust me.
We do have one exception to our DIY haircut policy in our family- our teenage daughter. After much internal debate, I’ve decided I value my life too much to attempt to cut my 15 year old girl’s hair. That’s a hornet’s nest I refuse to kick. She gets a trip to whatever local joint is having a sale; if they screw it up, they aren’t the ones living with her.
These are a few of the ways we stretch our budget to allow me to stay home with our minion army, I will add others in the future as we figure them out.