Multiple kids in preschool, a new house with rooms to fill, friends all getting married or turning 50—there are whole life stages when your expenses feel insurmountable. Don’t charge them. Instead, follow these money-stretching strategies so you can enjoy what you’ve got going on.
1. When You Have Kids in Preschool
Remember that some costs are optional. “The idea of what we should spend money on is often inherited from parents or determined by social norms, and we opt in without realizing we have a choice,” says Amanda Steinberg, founder and CEO of Daily Worth and author of Worth It. Case in point: kids’ activities. Does everyone go to the dance school in town? Look into a less obvious option that might be half the cost. If you break convention early, young kids won’t know the difference, and you’ve started yourself down a smart path rather than following the pack toward pricey camps and classes. Also, check into deals. Don’t be shy. “Inquire about sibling discounts or partial scholarships—and find out if there’s a price reduction if you pay in cash, register early, or pay in full. It doesn’t hurt to ask,” says Steinberg.
2. When You’re Buying a Home
Don’t invest in more house than you can afford, but do choose one you can see yourself staying in for at least 10 years, says Steinberg. Upsizing is pricey—moving expenses, broker fees, and closing costs can total thousands of dollars, which may negate any profit if you sell within five years, even if the market spikes. Also, be reasonable about trade-offs: Can your kids share a room? And when you’re ready to buy, don’t assume you won’t qualify for help. There are programs that offer down payment assistance if you’re a first-time buyer or a veteran. There might even be incentives to purchase in a town that’s looking to boost property sales. Check out downpaymentresource.com for info. You can also save a lot if you adopt a fix-it-yourself mentality—call experts for the serious stuff, but caulk the tub yourself.
3. When Your Kids Are College-Bound
If you’re one of the almost 83 percent of Americans who get a tax refund, adjust your withholdings to fatten your paycheck, says Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, author of College Secrets. Then set up an automatic transfer so that newly freed cash goes straight into a college-savings account. Beyond putting money aside, do everything you can to lower the cost of college. In addition to applying for financial aid, use a scholarship search app like Scholly. It’s not simply based on GPA—you might also find awards geared toward athletes or kids who pursue certain majors. (There are other surprising scholarship niches, including ones for students affected by divorce, ADHD, and so on.) Be wise, and don’t get stuck on a brand-name school. Talk to your kids early and often about state options. Also, some public universities offer merit-based scholarships or out-of-state tuition waivers for students from neighboring regions, which can save you a bundle (generally, nonresidents pay two or three times what locals do). Once your kid has made it to campus, there are great discounts on textbooks to be had at abebooks.com, says Khalfani-Cox. The site sells black-and-white paperback versions of textbooks (so-called international editions) discounted 80 percent and upward. Since college students spend as much as $1,200 on books and supplies annually, these discounts can make a big dent.
4. When You and Your Friends Are Celebrating Milestones
Don’t feel obligated to spend a certain amount on gifts for graduations, weddings, or epic birthdays. There’s no rule that the cost of your present should correlate with the expense of the event. Instead, simplify things and have a signature gift. Keep an eye out for sales on nice silver picture frames, buy a few, and frame a knockout photo of the happy couple/grad/birthday pal. You might also need to decline invitations to expensive events that don’t line up with your current priorities. If you want to go to your friend’s Bahamas wedding and you’re invited to a pricey birthday dinner, think, I’m not saying no to dinner; I’m saying yes to the Bahamas.
Bonus: A Radical Idea to Help You Manage Money at Any Stage
Rather than trying to tally every lunch and gas fill-up in a spreadsheet, have multiple bank accounts—and let them do the budgeting for you. “You have to separate your money to really see what you’re doing,” says Tiffany Aliche, author of The One Week Budget. Think of it as a modern cash-in-the-envelope plan: one account for bills, one for spending money, one for travel, an emergency fund, and an account for your current financial life stage. With a separate account, the money you need for summer camp is safe and sound. Having multiple accounts (Aliche has eight!) won’t hurt your credit score. Just watch out for hidden fees and ask your bank how you can avoid them.