Frugality, Homemaking, Interview

How to Make an Income Stretch with Six Kids {An Interview With My Mom!}

Mom and five of us kids, circa 1993 (my younger brother wasn’t born yet)

I’ve been wanting to try something a little different on the blog for awhile and see how you lovely readers liked interview-style posts. (So if you like this, let me know in the comments and I’ll do more of them!) And in honor of Mother’s Day this weekend (and in honor of the best mom in the world!), I figured who better to stick in the hot seat than the woman who basically taught me 99% of what I know? (And the one I still call whenever I have a question about basically anything?)

For a little bit of background on my mom (Billie)–she graduated from Brigham Young University with her degree in Accounting, and she worked for many, many years for a magazine that was all about saving money and clipping coupons and what-have-you. When I say that my mom is The Frugal Queen of the World, trust me—I mean it.

Related Post: My Personal History With Money

Additionally, my mom and dad had six kids together before they divorced when I was 15, and because of our large family and my dad being a freelance lettering artist and graphic designer for a good portion of their marriage, my mom had to get really good at managing a variable income and making dollars stretch whenever possible. Because of her frugal ways, we never went without, even when things were tighter—we could expect homemade dinner every single night, we still got to do a ton of extracurricular activities (all six of us participated in sports and music lessons), and we also were taught to value art and culture and attended shows, concerts, historical sites, etc.

Today, I’m letting you peek behind the curtain to see how my mom was able to do it!

Torrie: So, to start off with, what is your personal money philosophy? (In other words, how do you approach handling your money in general?)

Billie: My philosophy is that you just live within your means. It doesn’t matter if you make a little bit of money or if you make a lot of money, if you don’t know how to budget what you have, you’ll never have enough. I know a family that over the course of many years, there have been years where they’ve hardly made any money and there have been years when they’ve made a LOT of money, and they are always still short of money. No matter what they make, they never have any money because they never live within their means. So that’s my [money philosophy]–you’ve GOT to learn to budget within what you have to use.

I also find that if people will pay their tithing [Note: In our faith, members pay 10% of their incomes to the church], I find that makes a huge difference too. Even families that don’t make very much—if they pay their tithing, they somehow make it all work out.

[Also], I buy things on sale, but if you buy things too cheap, it’s not worth the money because you’ll end up just replacing it. It’s worth buying things of quality and buying less often than it is buying a lot of cheap stuff.

Torrie: What were some key ways you made your dollars stretch during lean times?

Billie: Well, we always had food storage. And my philosophy about food storage is that you buy food storage to use it. You don’t just buy food storage, stick it in your basement, and then it just sits there for 20 years and you throw it in the garbage. So you need to buy what you’re using, but I’ve always tried to buy more than we needed at the time because there’s times in our lives where we’ve had to EAT our food storage, and times when we’ve been able to BUILD UP our food storage. You can’t usually do both at the same time.

And it was just buying an extra thing here and there; it was buying two things of ketchup instead of one when it was on sale. It’s just building up a little bit at a time–it’s not going and spending $500 on food storage because we did not have that.

I buy things in quantity when it’s on sale. I buy big things of meat and package it up [in smaller, meal-size portions]. We don’t eat out very much. You know we hardly ate out at all when you kids were growing up–we only went as a special treat. I think people spend way, way, way too much money on eating out for the most part in America.

I also was really careful about spending my money on [wholesome] food, and not on things that were not good [for you], like pop, or chips. We didn’t have a lot of things like that because we had to spend the money on [real] food to feed that many kids. We could make one [pound] of hamburger stretch to feed 8 people!

There was this lady, a former neighbor of ours, whose husband was in and out of work a lot. They had like, 3 or 4 kids. And when I went over to see their new house, I saw they had the most wonderful thing [of food storage] in the basement. And I asked her, “How did you do this? With your husband being out of work?” And she said, “Because THIS is our priority. Being prepared is our priority. This is more important to us than furniture…We’ve been out of work so much in our life that the most important thing to us is being prepared.”

And the thing I learned from her is that she said, “We store what we eat. We buy nothing that our kids will not eat.” It was the first time I’d really [heard that]. When we were young, we were told to buy the thing of wheat that nobody every really ate, and get all these beans, but if you hate beans, why are you storing them? But she had Jello, and she had pudding, and she said, “This is what our kids like. So this is what I store. And we just constantly rotate it, and we are constantly eating our food storage. Our food storage is exactly how we eat.” And it was this whole big lightbulb moment—“Oh, I guess you need to actually store what you eat, instead of storing what [the food storage books say you should].”

Torrie: Describe how meal planning factored in to living within your means. (And if you remember what you used to spend on groceries per month when we all lived at home, even better!)

Billie: Well, you know when you kids were growing up that I had those monthly meal plans. We ate the same meals every month, but we had four weeks’ worth of meals. So for 28 days, we had 28 different meals, and then I started over. And people sometimes asked, “You eat the same thing every month?” But I would ask, “Do YOU eat 28 different meals in a month?” And they would say, “Oh, well I guess we had spaghetti twice, and pizza three times…” And it’s not like it was always the exact same. One night was a soup night, and it was ANY soup. Or one night it might be pasta night, so it could be ANY kind of pasta. So it was still a variety.

[To make it], the kids sat down and wrote down all the main dishes they liked, and all the salads they liked…We only did breakfast and dinner; we didn’t write down the lunches. But I had this rotating chart–week one, week two, week three, week four–and I hung it up on the board, so they could see, “Oh, this is Thursday’s meal. They knew exactly what we were eating on Thursday.”

After I had all of you kids’ suggestions, and I was putting them together into the four weeks, I really looked at what the menu called for so nothing went to waste. For example, if one menu was going to only use half a head of lettuce for that week, I made sure a second meal later on in the week used the other half of the head of lettuce.

So then, I took that, and I multiplied it by 12, so I knew exactly how many cans of cream of chicken soup I would need for a year. So we would multiply it, and buy [things] by the case. But I knew whenever there was a case lot sale, I could go down and I would know when [looking at a case] to buy–I will use this is in the year, because I have that in my menu. And it made it so that our waste was so little.

That’s the other thing—if you don’t have a meal plan, you tend to go to the store and buy things, and then you don’t make them in your meals. I find I waste more food that I buy now, because I don’t do a meal plan [anymore], and so I’ll just buy something and then in two weeks I’ll go, “Oh, that’s right–I bought that spaghetti squash that’s rotten now.”

But [with you kids growing up], we hardly wasted anything because we used everything as part of one of our meals. So I had a staples list, and I made a particular grocery list that was tied to each week’s exact menu, and I typed them up on the computer, and I would run them off for a whole year. So, 52 weeks in a year, and I would make 13 copies of each of the four menus’ grocery/staples lists. And so if it was week one, I would just grab my week one list, and it had everything I needed for that menu plus the list of the general food staples and non-food items, and then I just circled [items on] that whenever we ran low on something and brought it with me to the grocery store on Friday when I went.

Scan of the actual shopping list for Week 1 Menu

The other good thing about having meals by the week was, you know your life gets crazy with all those kids and everything, so I would always have a really super easy meal on Saturdays, like grilled cheese, and so we’d get these nights where you had to get two kids to a ball game and someone had a school thing, and I’m thinking, “How in the world am I going to make dinner?” So I would switch around in the week if I had to, and since Saturday’s meal was always super easy, we would just throw that in to that busy night and switch the meals. Because I always had all the ingredients for those 7 meals. So it didn’t matter if we switched the order of them; it was all within that week.

We did it for the breakfasts too, which I think saved a lot of money. We only had cold cereal once during the school week, and the other mornings we had eggs, or we had Cream of Wheat, or we had oatmeal, or pancakes. So we didn’t have to buy a lot of cold cereal. If I remember, I think I spent around $300 a month on groceries [and households goods] for the 8 of us. Maybe it was a little more some months if I had to stock up.

Scan of the actual weekly menu for Week 1

Torrie: If someone was looking to drastically cut down their grocery budget quickly, what advice would you give?

Billie: Stop eating out, and stop spending your money on things that aren’t food.

Torrie: And by food, you mean like, stop spending your money on junk food, yeah?

Billie: Yes. I mean, if you want some cookies, make some cookies. But don’t take your grocery money and spend it on things that are not nourishing for your family. That needs to come out of your recreation money, almost. We did eat some treats when you guys were growing up, but they were almost always planned—we had desserts or treats on Sundays and Mondays, and then for other special occasions like birthdays or holidays.

And you need to have a plan. I would say, Go to the grocery store with a list. If you don’t go to the store with a list, you’re going to spend tons more money just walking up and down aisles. There were many years I was in there with a calculator, adding it all up to make sure we stayed on budget.

We also would hardly EVER buy drinks–not in restaurants, not pop or anything sugary to drink at home. We drank water, and we sometimes drank milk, or juice if it was on the menu.

Torrie: What are your best tips for managing a household budget on a variable monthly income?

Billie: Don’t do it! [Laughs]. But it was kind of the same thing–on the months that were really lean, we used the food storage and savings; on the months where things were better, we built it back up. That’s why if you only have exactly what you need on hand for that week and you don’t have money to buy more, it’s very hard because you don’t have a “store” to draw from. But if you always have a storage, then you can draw from that on the lean months and when things get a little better, instead of going out and saying, “Hey, let’s splurge on a big dinner,” you pick up some food [for your storage] to make up for that since it’s now depleted.

Torrie: And what about paying bills and such on a variable income?

Billie: You just have to be really careful not to spend your money for your bills on other things. That’s why my mother did the envelope thing. She had the cash in envelopes, and if she was out of money in the grocery envelope, she wouldn’t take it from the clothing envelope even though there would be money in there, because that was for when school started. So she had to have the discipline.

You’ve got to make sure there’s enough in your checkbook for your bills, and then just cut down on your variable [expenses], like your entertainment. You have to have some kind of budgeting plan. If you don’t have it written down, or now you can use apps or whatever, but we had no idea when our income was coming in. So we had a plan, and the bills had to get paid first.

Torrie: What are some of your tips for sticking to a budget without feeling deprived?

Billie: Look for ways to have fun that don’t cost money. Hikes, picnics, free events. You also may want to actually budget in a night of eating out once a week or twice a month. You could go ahead and put that into your menu plan and then you’re not buying food you’re not going to use that week.

Torrie: I remember you would also take advantage of certain specials, like when McDonald’s used to do their 29-cent hamburgers on Tuesdays, I would sometimes get a whole bunch of those and supplement it with stuff we had on hand. Or buying pizzas when they were on sale at Little Caesar’s [before they went to $5 all the time] and storing them in the fridge to reheat later.

Billie: Mainly we did stuff with our neighbors, or with family. We just didn’t spend a lot of money going out and doing things. We would go to the dollar movie, but we would never get popcorn at the movies. I would put the little treats in my purse, since the treats often cost more than the movie.

We would also let the kids do birthday parties with friends for certain birthdays, like your first sleepover when you turned 8. Most of those were at home and were inexpensive to put on, but everyone still had a great time. I remember your friends liked to come over plenty!

It takes a little bit of creativity, but sometimes the most fun things that you do are the things that don’t cost money, or that don’t cost a lot. We used to buy one kite for Easter, and we would all go out and fly the one kite together. And the Easter Bunny would bring jelly beans because jelly beans were cheap. (Although the Easter Bunny also brought some chocolate and a little toy or something—just nothing huge or extravagant.) But we still had fun, and we still had special memories. I just don’t believe in going into debt to do special things or special vacations. We still did do vacations, and we still think they’re important. But if you want to do something like that, plan it out ahead, and save for it ahead. And that way it’s something that’s really special, but it’s also something you’re not paying for 5 years later.

Thanks for the interview, Mom! And for, you know, everything else! 🙂

If you have any questions or comment for my mom, make sure to drop them below! She loves discussing this kind of thing, and she’s very, VERY good with it.

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