In her comment on a recent post, KT wrote, “I was wondering if you would consider doing a post advising on, or asking for advice for families that operate on a low income due to a husband in grad/law/med school. We are about to embark on this journey and I would love some input on how families with kids make it work on such a small budget. Any tips, advice or encouragement would be greatly appreciated. I work part time now with a 2.5 y/o with the possibility of adding another baby in the summer, how do people do it? Thank you!”
Many of you are at least as qualified to discuss this as I am, so please share your own thoughts! I went straight from college to law school, and then my husband began his history PhD program immediately after I finished law school. My husband and I will have chalked up at least 9 consecutive years of graduate school when all is said and done. We’ve been a student family since we were married 6 years ago, and we have maintained a typical orthodox Catholic family growth rate throughout these years. We have relished the adventure. The simplicity, creativity and togetherness fostered by student family life have defined the earliest years of our family.
(1) Themes: simplicity and creativity
Simplicity means we live in small spaces, which, practically-speaking, means we live with very few possessions. More possessions means more time and money spent maintaining them. I like the old saying “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” We aren’t poorly clothed or unhygienic, and we don’t deprive ourselves of normal enjoyable experiences. But we do delay gratification. We don’t buy many “wants” (Starbucks, stand-up mixer, name brands, cool baby gear). We often wait on “needs” as well (new printer, winter jackets), praying, waiting, watching Craig’s List, listening and asking around to see if something comes along. Our needs are always met.
Creativity means we live super-well but in low-cost ways. We repurpose and multitask the things that we already have. Unused nice wedding gift towels are layered into moderately attractive room-darkening curtains. The few household objects that we already have spend their days as learning toys. None of these solutions work just right, but they’ll do for now. We don’t pay much for amusements ever. Instead, we look for local Italian street festivals, cheap choral or symphony performances at the university or historic churches, fruit orchards and pumpkin patches, outdoor movie screenings, picnics, bike rides to Dairy Queen (with coupons in hand), family movie nights at home, and many, many Sunday afternoon family parties with friends with plenty of good food and drink. For our annual family vacations, we wait and watch travel emails for specials until the perfect thing falls in our lap. We go somewhere within driving distance, where entertainment is exciting and also free (for example, Washington, DC’s free sights and museums; Virginia Beach on the boardwalk during beach festival season); we always squeeze into 1 bedroom suites (we’re pros at this); we make our own meals on vacation rather than eating out. We can’t do everything, but by exploring creative options, we end up trying better things that we may never have gotten around to if we could afford more expensive entertainment. And, of course, our favorite way to add new sparkle to our family life is by adding a baby! Graduate school in general is no reason to postpone children; student family living is all about making the most of the life right within our home.
(2) Non-negotiable financial priorities: tithing and help
Ten percent of our sub-poverty-level income is set aside for tithe. This creates a perspective of “everything is God’s, and our money is His business, not ours.” I am super-frugal, borderline miserly, so I need this. Otherwise, I stew over every penny. Tithing for me means financial freedom. And, as so many others will attest, God FAR exceeds our generosity and blesses our faithfulness. For example, one year our massive tax refund covered an unexpected expense almost to the penny.
We set aside a second, variable chunk of money for hiring help. (For my philosophical reasons behind this decision, see our discussions here and here.) Sometimes this takes the form of daytime babysitting so I can bill hours for my part-time legal work. Often it is for a break for me, to go to Mass alone, pray, and run. And always, it is for my husband’s and my date nights. We go out together at least once a month, usually more, depending on our friends’ social calendars, our own occasions to celebrate, and local events. We always get young teenagers, because they are so cheap and diligent. We put our toddler to bed before the sitter arrives, get the older kids all bathed and fed (so that I don’t worry about drowning or choking), set up a new activity for them to do with the sitter, and they love it. When we’re eating out, with or without friends, we almost always use Restaurant.com (buy several online when they offer $25 gift certificates for $2) to get heavily-discounted meals at amazing restaurants, usually BYOBs.
- WIC—Federal Women, Infants, and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program; all pregnant and nursing mothers as well as children under 5 will qualify when their income is below a certain level (and all student families on a stipend will qualify!); we receive vouchers to use at the grocery store just like cash to buy vast amounts of free milk, cheese, eggs, tuna, natural peanut butter, beans, fresh fruit, whole grain bread, nutritious cereal, juice
- Shop only from sales, coupons, and discount brands: I sit down every Sunday night for 2-3 hours with my running grocery list, a notebook, the weekly grocery store circulars, and coupons; I make a note of all the excellent prices on the things that I buy and how I can use coupons; I do not buy disgusting, poorly-made food—that is not necessary; from my notes, I plan meals for the next seven days, including breakfast, lunch and dinner; then, I make a grocery list for each store
- Planning a week ahead facilitates buying in bulk, and it avoids waste and last-minute inefficient use of ingredients; it also avoids multiple trips to the store which waste time and lead to overbuying; it also avoids ordering take-out
- Two personal planning tips: we always do some kind of home-made pizza for Friday dinner and a simple dinner like burgers and brats for Sunday so I can enjoy the Sabbath too
- I buy produce in bulk from a produce-only wholesaler; grocery store produce is too expensive and not fresh enough to last a week
- I shop from a list only, unless once I’m in the store I notice that things that I buy regularly are on clearance
- I shop alone on Monday nights between 8pm and 10:30pm when my husband is home and the kids are sleeping—shopping with kids is a recipe for disaster on every level
- I do not spend money on packaged junk food (like snack packs of Keebler cookies) or bottled water or those types of convenience items, even if they’re on sale, except for on long trips and for family movie nights
- Children: I almost never buy clothes for the children; most families have children’s clothes that they are not using, and they often are looking to clear out drawer space, especially when they know there is a grateful recipient. We make it known that we happily accept any and all hand-me-downs, and we get excellent quality clothes this way. My kids love the variety. Several of the other Builders have even generously passed along lovely clothing that their children were not using. Also, our families give the children some new items for gifts that we can’t get handed down.
- My clothing: I am more liberal in this category, because I think it’s important for mothers to look good for their own self-esteem, for their marriages, and for their children. I wait until I identify an item I need rather than just “going shopping”. Then, I usually shop for deeply-discounted fashionable clothes at TJ Maxx and for good quality staples at The Gap after combining sales and coupons.
- My husband’s professional clothing: we have found that this is an excellent gift request category; men’s clothing sizes are fairly predictable, and our moms and sisters have great taste, so my husband comes back from Christmas and birthday celebrations suited up for another year as a suave academic.
- My children qualify for state-funded insurance because of our income level; we have no co-pays and no medical expenses for them whatsoever; I also qualify when I am pregnant.
- For when mom is not pregnant, most states have a highly-subsidized state program for low income adults; ours is through Blue Cross.
- My husband’s medical insurance is free from his university.
(4) Support your Superstar: it is crucial to support your husband in his academic work. He should leave early in the morning and return for dinner, no earlier. There is a temptation with graduate student families for the husband to stick around the house helping because of the flexible deadlines and ambiguous schedule. This is the costliest lifestyle of all, because suddenly grad school has lasted a decade, the dissertation is incomplete, and funding has run out. Families of student-dads must treat graduate school as professionally as any other job and frequently express that they believe in what dad is doing.
I hope this post is helpful and not just a lot of boring details about my home management practices. God bless you current and soon-to-be student families, as well as all you other heroic families who serve us with your friendship and generosity!