Budgeting Tricks for Parents

Photo: Tisha Tolar

It's not always easy as a parent to have to reject the wants of a child, but it is not only a lesson in learning for mom and dad, it is also an invaluable lesson for kids to learn early the difference between needs and wants from parents who are clear about the difference as well. It is also important for a parent to instill the importance of gratitude. A child who is grateful for what they have, will likely not lament (much) what they have not. While it may be difficult to resist an adorable puppy dog look during a trip to Walmart or the subtle begging to “just look” in the toy store, your budget may dictate the need to say no. Parents might feel guilty about the budget restrictions, but the reality is budgeting is a necessary evil in order for kids to prosper themselves.

Here are some tips for balancing the budget as a parent:

Keep the kids out of the aisles.
If at all possible, leave the kids at home with the other parent when grocery shopping. Not only will you get out faster, you will also not have a ton of extra goodies being thrown in the cart because you are too frustrated to argue the lack of nutrients in fruit snacks and find it easier to say “just get it.” Freedom to shop alone also allows you time to do price comparisons and use coupons.

Do the fake out.
Marketing professionals are geniuses at getting kids' immediate attention on the most expensive goods. Learn to be a little creative and buy items in bulk. Then recycle the “expensive” packaging over and over again. For instance, forget the expensive cereal with the high profile character the kids insist you buy. Instead, save the old box and replace the cereal inside with the store brand. Little kids especially will likely not have a clue about any differences in taste and their only concern is who is on the box and what toy is inside. Visit the local dollar store and stash some fun stuff in a high cabinet. You can save money by buying in bulk and repackage it to smaller sizes for easy to grab snacks.

Compromise on clothing.
There are just too many trends for anyone to keep up with but if you are a parent trying to keep up with a teenager's taste in clothes, you might feel you are fighting a losing battle. But there are ways to help quell the arguments. For smaller kids, shop at thrift stores and yard sales to get the best deals. While it may take time to rummage for the right size and good quality items, it can save you a tremendous amount of money since kids tend to outgrow sizes quickly. Ebay can also be a great resource for getting a good deal on major label clothing that many older kids want. When it comes to shopping retail, be agreeable about buying a few trendy items but insist your kids put up the extra cash for the additional items they want that cost so much more or do without them. Also, don't forget to connect with other moms who are likely also in the same predicament as you. Round up used clothes your kids can no longer wear and host a swap party each month to trade items amongst friends.

Entertain creatively.
Little kids can be easy to entertain on the cheap. Free museums and parks or even a walk with mom and dad can be all they need to have fun. As kids get older, activities inside and outside the home can get very costly. This includes extracurricular activities. Let the kids pick their favorites and stick with it. Let kids pick the family entertainment once each month, such as a movie or amusement park. Have everyone save up fun money during the month and focus on creating family fun at home inexpensively. Since kids will have that monthly activity to look forward to, they may be more inclined to wait it out. Don't spend a fortune on video games and other electronics. Rent videos and games so when boredom sets in you can change up the games and the movies. To be even more budget-conscious, turn off the games and the television and turn kids on to other activities that cost nothing but do wonders for the family ties. Eat at home and save the restaurant experience for a once a month fun time.

While kids may still grump about your decisions regarding money, it is also a perfect time for kids to learn about money and if they are old enough, gain a little financial independence that is garnered by doing chores and odd jobs to earn their own cash. It may be a constant practice of tough love, but when you make it through the teenage years and are staring down the barrel of college tuition, you'll be glad you spent less and saved more for the future of your kids.

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Guest's picture

I have been doing something for the past few years that REALLY ended the 'gimmes' at our house:

We call it 'wishes' - you can call it whatever you like :)

Each month during the school year, and each week during the summer, the kids get a turn in rotation to have it be their wish week or month. We set a spending limit [which can be whatever you like] and they decide what to spend it on - *I* decide WHEN [so I'm not running around unnecessarily and also I can plan our time so it gets the most bang for our buck] The wish is for al of us, not just the wish child of course. I post a list on the fridge of common things they enjoy and ask for with approximate costs - they can raise new things as they like.

For example, things I used to get nagged about in summer included the ice cream truck, going out to eat, visiting various museums and play places etc. After instituting wishes I would just say 'well, if you want to use your wish on it'

They quickly learned - and now they say 'oh! there's the ice cream truck! I'm definitely using my wish money for that when it's my turn!" They NEVER ask/beg/whine anymore!

It's been great - as well as a great budgeting tool - I point out things that are cheaper or more fun - such as having lunch out at the zoo [where we have a membership] rather than just a fast food joint]and I don't hold back on side costs [they need to know that parking in NYC usually costs me $40 - I'm not subsidizing LOL.

We still do things as a family that aren't wishes - but Mom and Dad pick them, thinking as always of the kids enjoyment - and no one ever gives us grief about doing what THEY want to do.

Guest's picture

When I was a teenager, my parents instituted a clothing shopping allowance at back-to-school time. I would get a couple hundred dollars to spend on the clothes I wanted/needed, and Mom wouldn't argue if it was expensive, name-brand clothes - only if they weren't modest enough for her tastes.

The end result is that either you get a few, expensive pieces, and have to make do with whatever else you have left over from last year, or you budget your money and get plenty of new things to last the entire year. I very quickly realized it made more sense to go to places like Ross rather than the department stores.

Mom and Dad also gave me a weekly allowance, but it was just enough money to pay for school lunches. If I wanted to keep that money for my own uses, they said, I'd have to pack my own lunch. It was the first budget I'd ever been on, and was very helpful. I ate lots of peanut butter sandwiches when something fun and expensive with my friends was on the horizon.

Guest's picture


You provide some great ideas that parents should consider. However, with all due respect I have to disagree on the idea of the "Fake Out". What kind of message are you sending your kids if you play these games? It's only a matter of time before they find out.

Wouldn't it be better to just teach your children at a young age the value of frugality?

Guest's picture

We get a big bag of hand me down clothes every year from a friend with a son 2 years older than mine. I'm honest w/ my 4 year old and I act excited that, "These are the clothes that used to be Josh's, and now you can wear them! Wasn't that nice of him to give us these cool clothes?" :)

Tisha Tolar's picture

I love the wishes idea and the other commenter's remarks! Thanks for the added input. Greg - I don't feel that replacing $6 box of cereal with $2 bargain brand is a terrible idea with little kids who likely have no idea anything tastes different. As parents, we often have to be deceptive to some degree. Saving money so that parents can afford college and other life necessities is what is important. Teaching younger kids frugality is certainly important but there is a limit to what the youngest ones can comprehend and oftentimes the branding geniuses win out. I don't see it so much as a game as I do a tactic to saving money at the store w/o getting grief from the little ones....

Guest's picture

this is a nice post on how to ooutsmart those little kids. the cereal box thing is priceless. it was never used on me but it is true that the only thing that i remember about the expensive ones was the packaging and the toys(and i am in my twenties!!). those marketers really know what they are doing dont they. sometimes kids can be a bother and its better to leave them home to get your peace and sanity, particularly if they are little "piglets"

Guest's picture

These are great and useful tips. I love the wishes idea too.

Guest's picture

I have to agree with Greg - refilling cereal boxes and putting trinkets inside re-inforces the idea that brand names are better and that every meal should come with a present.

What's wrong with the truth?

When I was barely making it for a few years, my 5 year old son was told straight out that there would be no happy meals, no special cereals or new toys for quite a while. He was a little miffed, but got over it.

Instead of leaving him home, he went (and still goes) shopping with me. So he learned about unit prices and how the same kind of cereal comes in expensive and not so expensive boxes. He learned how to get more for his money when he sees a pre-cooked chicken from the grocery store costs as much as a happy meal, but fed us a couple of dinners and a lunch.

Fooling the kids at breakfast and keeping them out of the store seem to be tactics used by parents who lost contol. There are valuable budgeting lessons to be learned while grocery shopping, and the sooner the kids learn them, the wiser they'll spend their own money someday.

Tisha Tolar's picture

I agree with Kathy in that honesty is good too - the tips I posted were random thoughts for alternative options as some kids are not as patient or understanding as others. My own daughter, who is 7, is an awesome kid who does understand when No means No and I do explain why we can't afford certain things. I don't always trick her but rather I try to make her think about how she can save money to get that expensive toy or new doll. She has something to look forward to, work towards, and I don't have to break my budget.

Like I said though, not all kids are that way and sometimes moms and dads need a little creative way out, especially the parents who have trouble overcoming guilt from not having enough money to splurge on their kids.