How A Single Mom Creates Christmas Magic On A Limited Budget

Making Christmas special for your kids doesn’t have to cost an arm and leg. This mom of six shares her tips and tricks for making it all work.

When people find out I have six kids they ask me two questions: Do you know what causes that? And how do you afford Christmas?

The answers are: yes I do, and by planning ahead and creative thinking.

When the kids were younger and their Christmas wish list changed regularly, I used the five dollar bill method as my Christmas savings. Any time I receive a five dollar bill as change, I put it aside – depositing it into a savings account, or simply stuffing it in an envelope at home.

Not only did I never miss that five bucks out of my wallet, but all those five dollar bills quickly add up to a significant savings account.

Now that the kids are older and their wishes are more costly, I start my Christmas shopping in August by purchasing one gift per payday. By the time the beginning of December rolls around, I’m pretty much finished with my shopping, except maybe for last minute stocking stuffers or wrapping paper.

Speaking of wrapping paper, I’m not above buying half-off Christmas wrap on December 26th and storing it for the next year. I’d much rather find room to store a few rolls of paper than pay full price during the last-minute Christmas rush.

The gifts my children enjoy most, though, are usually the ones that benefit the whole family:

Quality, not quantity.

Last year, my kids knew they would be getting just two gifts each. What they didn’t know was that one of those gifts would be orchestra section tickets to a Broadway show at our local theater! More affordable pricing and seating options are available by purchasing tickets for a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday evening show.

Consider one gift that can be used multiple times.

Local museums and attractions offer discounted family memberships that often include special events for members only. A few years ago, I purchased a zoo membership and was able to add a family friend to the membership. I definitely got my money’s worth – she took my kids to the zoo quite a few times, and I enjoyed the break.

Take the kids swimming inside when it’s snowing outside.

Local YMCAs and rec centers often see a decline in membership during winter months. Check for special, limited time membership deals. Aside from swimming, many also offer other fun family activities like game days or movie nights.

Plan to cheer for the whole year by purchasing advance tickets to different local sporting events.

Big-league tickets prices may be out of your budget, but local triple A leagues offer cheaper ticket prices with just as much excitement. Check for lawn seating or standing room sections for even more discounted pricing. Game-time snacks are also more affordable at local team concessions.

Go to the movies.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Despicable Me 3” are just a few of the exciting movies planned for release in 2017. Many theaters offer gift cards in any denomination that can be used on all new releases. Keep the gift cards handy and be prepared to hit the theaters on opening weekend.

Give redeemable vouchers for gifts and experiences.

Another single mom I know gave her kids 12 handmade gift certificates under the tree last year. The certificates were good for one gift (or one date) per month with mom for a year. She was able to spread out the cost of Christmas over 12 months, and gave her kids something to look forward to as well. 

How My Shopping Habits Changed When I Became a Mom

I used to go to Target, sure, but when I became a mom they let me start paying rent there.

Since having kids, I’ve noticed many changes in the way I shop. Here are a few of them.

I Shop Realistically

Before I had kids I would shop with aspiration: buying lots of healthy foods in the hopes of doing things like make fancy smoothies, cook elegant dishes, and try out new recipes.

But gone are the days of having time to cook for hours, read cookbooks, or research nutritious snacks. I still try to eat healthy, but I also know that if I buy only foods that require a lot of prep, I’m going to be very hungry.

Now I buy things like cans of soup and bags of rice that can be steamed in the microwave in just two minutes. TWO MINUTES.

I also resign myself to the fact that I’m going to want to eat tons of post-baby-bedtime carbs and just buy frozen french fries and boxed macaroni and cheese. Realism is key.

I Do Aisle Research

Now that I have a child I always find myself using my smartphone to get information on different products while shopping.

I look up product reviews, text my friends to ask what they think, Google “side effects of (insert product name here)”, and, if everything comes up clear, am ready to be on my way.

Okay, okay. Sometimes I also read the company’s mission statement on their website just to be sure.

Supermarket shelves and corridor

I Buy “Average” Products

When shopping for things like diapers, baby foods, or baby bathroom products, it’s easy to separate the products by quality. Take diapers for example.

I stare at the assortment of urine catchers and can place them into three obvious categories: good, better, and best. I consider the good and decide that I won’t go for them because for whatever reason in this moment I am imagining that the popular cartoon characters plastered all over are intended to hide the stain of the thousands of chemicals that were used in their making.

I then find the best diapers there, all shiny and set-apart. I cringe to see that they are being sold for my entire savings account because they are soft and gentle and made out of angel’s wings.

I hate both extremes more than I do the morning after a big debate, so I settle on the average, run-of-the-mill urine catchers because they are, after all, used for catching urine.

I Return Stuff I Don’t Need

Before I had kids, I used to have stuff I didn’t need in my house. There were things lying around serving no purpose and this was perfectly alright with me. I would buy stupid things knowing that I shouldn’t have, but once they made it inside the house, they were pretty much going to stay there.

Now I do this brilliant thing called returning things for store credit. If I come home from the store having purchased a roll of tape and realize we already have a perfectly fine roll of tape in the drawer, I take it back the next time I go to the store.

If I get pajama pants for Christmas that are too big, I don’t save them for some fat day in the future (even if I sort of want to), I ask for the gift receipt and take them back.

If I come home and find the coupon I had forgotten at home for the baby wipes I just bought, I take them back and use the coupon to buy them again. I end up with a fair amount of store credit in the end, but store credit at Target is almost better than money to me now and I’m not ashamed to say that.

I Actually “Come Back Later.”

When I used to grocery shop before I had kids, I would try and get it out of the way by getting everything I needed in one trip.

Sometimes I would see products that were a little pricey and claim that I would “come back later” when the price was more where I hoped it would be. But I would hardly ever remember to come back later or to check for that product when I did indeed return.

Now that I have kids I know that the grocery store is not a place I will forget about anytime soon. I have learned that no matter how much I prepare for grocery shopping, I will still run into some emergency, something I forgot, or something I didn’t even know existed, and need to come back to the store.

So I will actually “come back later” with 100% certainty. While that means I don’t ever feel quite as accomplished as I did in the past, knowing I had finished my grocery shopping for the immediate future, it also means I am able to shop more intelligently.

Knowing that I’m going to be back at the store within the week means I won’t end up buying things that are overpriced or not exactly what I’m looking for at the moment just out of convenience.

Instead, I will say I will come back later when they have what I’m looking for, and I actually will come back later when they have what I’m looking for. It’s genius.

I “Clip Coupons.”

It’s sort of a cliché to imagine moms clipping up coupons from newspapers. And maybe that really doesn’t happen as much as I thought before being a mom, but frankly, it probably should. Because it’s just plain smart.

I used to let all kinds of coupons and deals filter into my inbox without even noticing, but now I am careful actually to take note of when deals are going on and how I can save money on products.

I don’t wait on the edge of my seat for emails about cheap baby socks by any means, but I do search for recent emails from stores before I shop at them so that I can grab extra discounts while I’m there or plan my trip for a time when more things will be on sale.

Because if a little more planning could save me something like 50% on baby clothes I’m gong to do that planning.

I Go to Target

This has come up before, but perhaps the bottom line of all of this is that I go to Target a lot. I used to go to Target, sure, but when I became a mom they let me start paying rent there.
I used to go to Target, sure, but when I became a mom, they let me start paying rent there.
It has everything I need (baby food, wine, cheez-its, and Starbucks) in one place. So I only have to get my kid out of his car seat and into a cart one time. (This post is not sponsored by Target but if they wanted to throw a little store credit my way I would not be mad).

8 Christmas Gifts I’m Glad I Can’t Afford

If you have more cash than brains or taste, this list is for you.

One of the greatest gifts the internet has bestowed upon us is the ability to drunkenly shop for Christmas gifts, snug on the couch.

You may end up falling victim to the Amazon One-Click®/Deal of the Day sucker punch and thinking it wise to get your ten year old an electric scooter, because a decade of having a face with skin seems long enough.

Anyway, what I’m saying is, there’s a degree of risk involved.

Recently, as I was doing just that, I stumbled into the underbelly of internet shopping. A place that appears to cater to a subset of privileged folks with more cash than brains or taste. A site that gouged a hole in my bucket of hope for humanity. A site whose name alone could make you want to drop kick a puppy.

I couldn’t look away.

Here are my findings.

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  1. New England Lodge Playhouse, $54,000

Pardon me? A $54,000 “playhouse?” They sell full sized ones in Detroit for a pocketful of gum wrappers and paper clips. You know what kind of playhouse expectations kids should have? Some shanty town style shit. Throw a sheet over the dining table and call it a day. Hell, drag a dumpster full of cardboard into the yard and duct tape that junk together. I don’t ever want to dislike a kid, but if they have opinions on whether their miniature mansion with central air should have marble or Mexican tiles, only a few short years after they stopped wetting their pants, I can’t control my feelings.

 

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This was the only photo available. Apparently the “luxury” does not extend itself to merchandising. (Or naming the product.)

 

2. Child’s Off-Roader, $32,350

Turns out, the 1% don’t have to wait until they’re tall enough to reach the pedals on their parents’ luxury vehicles in order to recklessly mow down pedestrians or paparazzi. Just drop 32k on this miniature gas guzzler, and Junior will be cruising down the Affluenza highway in no time. 

 

 

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Doesn’t matter how fancy it is. My kid would still piss in it.

3. Gilded Fantasy Bedroom Coach, $33,000

My kid wakes up in a $179 particle board Ikea bed and has enough of a chip on her shoulder. You want to feel like Cinderella? Go find a mop and a bucket. And how the hell are you supposed to clean vomit out of all the crevices of this gilded nightmare? Two months later I’m still finding evidence of a norovirus horror show. Shudder.   

 

 

 

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The kid on the right is pooping RIGHT NOW.

4. Charmeuse Silk Baby Blanket, $445

There’s luxury, and then there’s flat out foolishness. Spoiler alert! Babies leak more fluids than a demolition derby. I’ve caught, wiped, cleaned and actually ingested (a diaper changing fiasco I’d rather not recount) more substances from the two messy creatures I grew in my own body than seems biologically necessary. For months, I basically sat around with a baby under one arm and a balled up, 9 cent piece of cotton on the other, just waiting to catch regurgitated milk.

The baby Jesus shot shit straight up his back and into his hairline and I’m sure even that guy wasn’t wrapped in a rectangle of silk. IS YOUR BABY BETTER THAN JESUS? I’m looking at you, Kimye.

 

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Full disclosure: I’d buy this just to scare the shit out of my sleeping husband.

5. Lucy Life-Sized Giraffe, $1,299

Maybe it’s because I already have an ax to grind about stuffed animals, but if I were tall enough, I’d punch this thing in the face. How the hell are you supposed to smuggle this 8 foot dust bag to Goodwill when the kids aren’t looking? Strap it to the hood of your Range Rover like some suburban dentist returning from an African safari? Included in the $1199 price tag on this heap of stuffing is a “teaching tag describes the animal’s habitat, lifestyle, care of young and eating habits.” Listen, I’ll google that shit for you in exchange for a six-pack.

 

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This costs three times as much as the most expensive dress I’ve ever owned and I STILL know my kid would find it “icky and scratchy.”

6. Destiny Gown, $575

Peasant that I am, I don’t know the properties of dupioni silk. Does it magically repel the legions of filth that a kid can find ways to slather themselves in? Is it actually a fancy way of saying “unicorn skin?” Does it prevent cancer? Unless this thing was actually hand sewn by a gaggle of singing woodland creatures, there’s nothing here I can abide by.

 

 

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GET THAT SPOILED KID A HELMET.

 

7. Snow White Princess Wagon, $3,200

Imagine how beautiful your little princess could look flying ass over tasty cakes out the top of this regally obnoxious and impractically designed artisan wagon. Handcrafted for the child who’s far too sophisticated for a Radio Flyer or your run of the mill concussion.

 

 

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Not approved by PETA or people who aren’t Mariah Carey.

8. Genuine Fur Beaver Bunting Bag, $2,070

I’m trying to write a joke that makes me laugh harder than the phrase “fur beaver bunting bag,” but sometimes you have to yield the floor to the jokes that write themselves.

 

 

Ultimate Back-to-School Supply Checklists

Super convenient checklists of school supplies for elementary, middle school, and high school students, with links to our best value picks on Amazon.com.

As kids get older, outfitting them with everything they need to learn becomes increasingly expensive – over an average $100 per student. It also becomes increasingly complicated.

Checklists To Make School Supply Shopping Easy

We created four school supply checklists: kindergarten, grades 1 -3, grades 4 – 6, middle school, and high school.

Each checklist item links to a recommended product on Amazon.com. We picked the best items for the best price, based on ratings, experience, and value.

For example, at $10 per 3-pack, the top-rated everyday pens aren’t a great value for kids who will likely lose them. Instead get the 32-pack of BIC Soft Feel pens for $8.99; besides being cheap, they’re also highly-rated.

At the bottom of each list is a link to a printable PDF of the checklist, along with a  link to an Amazon Wishlist with all the items on that list. (We don’t collect affiliate fees from Amazon or any of the manufacturers.)

Click here to view our picks for  back-to-school gear like water bottles, alarm clocks, and backpacks.

School Supply Checklist for Kindergarten

[stag_icon icon=”file-pdf-o” url=”” size=”18px” new_window=”no”] [media-downloader media_id=”282801″ texts=”Download the School Supply Checklist for Kindergarten”]

[stag_icon icon=”check-square-o” url=”” size=”18px” new_window=”no”] View the complete wishlist on Amazon


School Supply Checklist for Elementary Grades 1-3

[stag_icon icon=”file-pdf-o” url=”” size=”18px” new_window=”no”]  [media-downloader media_id=”282798″ texts=”Download the Grade 1 – 3 School Supply Checklist”]

[stag_icon icon=”check-square-o” url=”” size=”18px” new_window=”no”]  View the complete wishlist on Amazon.com 


School Supply Checklist for Elementary Grades 4-6

[stag_icon icon=”file-pdf-o” url=”” size=”20px” new_window=”no”] [media-downloader media_id=”282797″ texts=”School Supply Checklist for Grades 4 – 6″]

[stag_icon icon=”check-square-o” url=”” size=”18px” new_window=”no”]  View the complete wishlist on Amazon.com 


School Supply Checklist for Middle School

[stag_icon icon=”file-pdf-o” url=”” size=”18px” new_window=”no”]  [media-downloader media_id=”282796″ texts=”Middle School Checklist”]

[stag_icon icon=”check-square-o” url=”” size=”18px” new_window=”no”] View the complete wishlist on Amazon


School Supply Checklist for High School

[stag_icon icon=”file-pdf-o” url=”” size=”18px” new_window=”no”]  [media-downloader media_id=”282799″ texts=”Download the School Supply Checklist for High School”]

[stag_icon icon=”check-square-o” url=”” size=”18px” new_window=”no”] View the complete wishlist on Amazon


More Resources

An all-in-one School Tool Box or a Crayola  supply pack are alternatives to a la carte school supply shopping.

The Sweethome has some smart product picks.

If you have a little money left over from shopping, we recommend donating to Kids In Need. They provide free school supplies nationally to students most in need, and have a top score from Charity Navigator.

 

Food Shopping With Kids – Fantasy Versus Reality

It starts with thinking “
I just need a few things. I’ll take the kids to the local market. It’ll be fun.” This is magical thinking, really. You see…

It starts with thinking that goes something like this: 
I just need a few things. I’ll take the kids to the local market and we’ll grab dinner at the cafe there. It’ll be fun. Efficient. I’ll have two helpers and bribe them with a treat. Plus, I have a list.

On the list: avocados, snap peas, clementines, tomatoes, strawberries, ground turkey, milk, cheese, almond milk, almonds, coffee, mac ‘n cheese, canned peaches, granola bars.

This is magical thinking, really. You see…

On the receipt: Smart Puffs, fifteen bucks’ worth of granola bars (three boxes), Sea Salt Caramel gelato, frozen broccoli, cheese, almond milk, a frozen pizza, a green Camelbak water bottle, a magazine purchased for $5.95 (because its coverline promised less stress), a discount for remembering shopping bags, a $2 donation to the Humane Society.

And here’s how it all might have gone down:

5:58 pm: Arrive at store.

5:58 – 6:02 pm: Children scuffle over who gets to push the cute, kid-sized cart; a decision is made to simply take two. (Everybody wins!)

6:02 – 6:04 pm: Like drunken mad men, two kids steer two mini carts in two different directions—one toward racks of wine; the other into shelves lined with spice-filled glass jars.

6:04 pm: One cart is “returned”— as close as possible to the Do Not Enter [from this way] automatic doors. (Apologies!)

6:05 – 6:09 pm: You run into a friend and make small talk; the kids conspire to collect random items into the cart.

6:10 pm: You allow tantruming Kid #2 to go ahead and carry the green water bottle he is coveting through the store (with no intention of actually purchasing it).

6:11 – 6:15 pm: Bathroom break #1 (chronologically and otherwise).

6:15 – 6:20 pm: Kids select dinner, then precariously balance cafe trays stacked with veggies, rice, sloshing soup and chocolate cupcakes.

6:20 – 6:35 pm: You and Kid #1 eat dinner.

6:35 – 6:50 pm: You and Kid #1 play word games while Kid #2 “finishes his dinner”—more slowly than anyone has ever eaten seven grains of rice before.

6:50 – 6:55 pm: You allow the children to consume treats before any real shopping happens.

6:55 pm – 7:15 pm: Kid #1 consumes his cupcake in less than five minutes. Kid #2 continues to lick, smash and smear chocolate all over his face, the table and the chair for another 15.

7:15 – 7:20 pm: Clean up! While discussing what goes into the compost, the recycling, and the dish bin, you twice fish a metal fork from the trash.

7:20 – 7:30 pm: Bathroom break, #2 (chronologically and otherwise).

7:30 – 7:42 pm: Haphazard hurried shopping. You concede to purchase approximately 40% of items proposed, 99% of which are entirely unnecessary.

7:42 – 7:45 pm: You pay for all items, including the green water bottle you intended to return and two extra boxes of granola bars that mysteriously appeared. A $2 donation is made to the Humane Society after Kid #1 shuffles a bunch of cards with cute cats on them.

In the car: You realize you forgot to buy wine.

Shopping for the best home goods at the right price is easier with Sweethome

I recommend visiting the Sweethome before you make your next household purchase. It’s a product review site focused on household goods that removes guesswork and comparison shopping so you can get the best thing for the right price.

It’s kind of like a simpler, nerdier version of Consumer Reports or Good Housekeeping.

Sweethome spends weeks and even months researching, comparing, and testing home goods so you don’t have to. They also aggregate reviews from expert and user sites, including Amazon.com and Consumer Reports.

They cover a wide range of household categories, including  kitchen, pantry, bathroom, garage, bedroom, etc.

Most of their recommendations aren’t for the most expensive or the manufacturer’s top-of-the-line products. Value is a key part of their criteria. As they say, “great enough” is where needs and prices smash into each other.

Need a new waffle maker? Get  the $50 Proctor Silex Belgian Style Waffle Maker.

Best duct tape? Get Duck Max Strength.

Best scissors for all-around household use? Get the Kai 5210 8-inch Dressmaking Shears.

Best washing machine and dryer?  The LG WM3570HWA washer and LG DLEX3570W dryer.

Best sheets?  L.L.Bean’s 280-thread-count Pima Cotton Percale Sheets for about $150.

Best pregnancy test? It’s the First Response manual test (after “drinking too many cups of tea” and a total of 60 pregnancy tests!)

Need the best gear for picnics and grilling? Got it.

They also post deals, like a refurb Vitamax for $256 (usually $550).

There are hundreds more reviews on their site.

Sweethome doesn’t review every single product on the internet. You’re not going to find many boutique items there. Likewise, you’re certain to disagree with some of their reviews. (I prefer the less expensive razors from Harry’s vs their pick of the Gillette’s Mach3 Sensitive Power Razor for shaving, for example.)

But when need a new home appliance, gadget or tool, the Sweethome is a great place to begin your quest. You can also follow them on Twitter.

Parents Need to Know: Amazon Dash

You’re about to hear a lot about Amazon ‪‎Dash, the new button that lets you wear sweatpants always.

Amazon Dash is a physical button that you push to order big-brand staple products like Tide laundry detergent or Cottonelle toilet paper. It sticks to a wall near where the product is used. For example, over your toilet.

Eligible products for the Dash Button include things like toilet paper, cleaning products, juice, personal grooming products, dog food and much more. Here’s a list of all currently available products.

The Dash Button uses the Amazon mobile app and a WiFi network. It’s free with Prime.

You can only push the button once per order; the button ignores subsequent pushes until your first order is delivered. (Otherwise, your kids might order a metric ton of Spongebob Easy Mac.)

At first we thought it might be an April Fool’s Joke, but it’s legit. And as we’ve been conditioned to do in this age of the internet, we combed twitter for the best responses to this display of absurdity.

5 Ways to Make Car Shopping Not Suck for the Family

Getting a new car is exciting for everyone in the family, especially kids.  For guys like me (I’ve personally owned over 40 cars), some of my fondest memories from childhood centered around negotiating and picking up a new car.

Here are some tips for making car shopping something everyone in the family can enjoy.

1. Fill in the family on your plan
Let the kids know that buying a new car is something special.  It’s a big purchase for the family and something everyone can weigh in on.  Discuss why you’re getting a new car and talk about why kind it will be, minivan, SUV, truck etc.

Show them a picture of the car type and talk about what colors everyone likes as well. This way, the kids can be on the look out for cars that fit the bill and point them out as you’re out driving.

2. Make it a game
When the kids see a vehicle they think would fit the description you’ve laid out for them, make it a game to find out what make and model the car is.  This will be a little tough for kids who can’t read yet, but even if they can’t, they can still point out the cars that fit the description you talked about in your plan.

If one of the cars they spot indeed becomes the one the family buys, let them choose a movie or the dinner for the family after you bring the new car home.

3. Set the expectation for the dealership
Ideally, if your kids are really young, you won’t have to bring the kids with you to the dealership, but if you do set the expectation that you want their input when checking out the car, but then you’ll need some quiet time to work with the salesperson. It’s also important to make sure you set the expectation that you may not leave with a new car.

The deal might not be right or the car might not fit your needs.  Let them know that sometimes it’s important to shop around for such a big purchase for the family to be sure you get it right.

4. For older kids, make it research project
First, if your kids are old enough to use the internet and you’re trading your car in, have them find out what your current car is worth.  They can ask you the questions to be sure they’re picking the right options, but have them use KBB.com or some other site to get your car’s value.

You can also have them dig into the list of cars that they thought fit the bill a bit more deeply.  For example, if you’re looking for an SUV with a 3rd row, have them look on the manufacturer websites at the vehicles in question to determine if they fit the criteria.

5. For older kids, explain negotiation
Bring them with you to see a negotiation in action.  Before you go, set the expectation based on their research on what kind of deal you’re hoping to get to.  It could be an amount for your trade you’d be happy with, or a monthly payment on the new vehicle that fits your family budget.

Explain to them that this is an important family purchase and you want to be sure the deal is right. Let them know if it doesn’t work out, you may just have to get up and leave and that’s okay.

All in all, buying a new car can really be a fun experience for the family if you make it participatory for everyone.

Also, maybe it’ll give the kid enough pride of ownership that they won’t throw their open apple sauce containers all over the floor. Probably not, but it’s worth a try.