Much of today’s parenting advice addresses parents who are well-off or at least reasonably comfortable with their family’s financial situation. But what if your family isn’t in a good financial place? How can you be the best parent you can be when you don’t have enough money? Here are some tips. (For related reading, see: How to Protect Family Finances When a Child Makes a Mistake.)
Keep a Record of Your Financial Status
It’s hard for most of us to keep records of how much we earn and how much we spend. The more trouble we have financially, the less likely we are to want to spend time making budgets and tracking cash flow—why punish ourselves when we know there’s not enough money coming in? But when you are on the edge, tracking your financials is even more important than when your cash situation is good.
Although fewer than 30% of Americans use a budget, it will help you to do so. You can do it on paper, on your home computer if you are able to afford one, or on the computer at the public library. All budgets basically employ four steps: record daily/weekly/monthly spending, record income, subtract spending from income, and then figure out ways to reduce spending or increase income. Even if there’s more going out than coming in, you’ll be more in control if you know how much you’re short. Ignorance is not bliss; you need to know where your family stands financially.
Take Advantage of Free Activities
Just because you are short on cash doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. Most towns and cities offer free activities for individuals and families. If you can’t afford internet and a computer device at home to search for them, become a regular at your public library or local college library. Look in the newspaper there on the rack. Use the computer to search for fun things to do. Ask the reference librarian for help. If the first librarian you ask is cold and unhelpful, don’t give up—it’s not you; it’s them. For every negative person there’s a positive, kind one who wants to help. Try not to be afraid to ask.
Tap Government Assistance
It’s OK to ask for help when you need it. Many federal, state and local programs exist to help you. A good place to start is at this government website. Your local department of health and welfare is a place to check as well. Your children’s school may have programs in addition to free and reduced lunch that can help. Also, as discussed above, your local reference librarian may be able to point in the right direction.
Many families earn too much to qualify for food stamps or welfare but don’t earn enough to support themselves well. If you fall into that category, try to search out assistance programs for which you do qualify, like electricity bill help in the winter. There’s so much information out there that it can be overwhelming, but it’s worth your time to find out how you can get even small amounts of help. (For related reading, see: Considering Technical School and Lifetime Earnings.)
Look for Additional Jobs to Do With the Kids
You might already juggle two jobs, so additional work may not be possible. However, if you can spare some time for more work, be creative in the tasks you might be able to do. Many of them are jobs you can do with the kids in tow. Dog-sitting, baby-sitting, plant-sitting, house-sitting, house cleaning and other tasks can be a family affair that give you something fun to do together while bringing in extra cash. Once the kids get older, consider having them get part-time jobs, but be aware of the potential negative aspects of kids and formal paid work.
My concerns about kids working include worries that their grades will drop because of the time spent on the job. An $8-an-hour-job at 20 hours per week could contribute to lower grades that result in a reduction in college scholarship money to which the paid work didn’t even come close. For example, if your child works and earns, say $5,000 that year, but loses out on $10,000 of college money for the next four years because his or her grades dropped too low to nail a particular scholarship, that’s not a wise financial decision. Nor does it make financial sense to spend $10 in gas for a five-hour shift at Bed Bath and Beyond where your child makes $35 ... and then bombs an important math exam.
If you have family and friends hovering around who seem to want to help, let them. Will you maybe give up a little control and privacy? Probably, but if letting a kind-of-bossy grandma spend more time with you means that she pays for the kids go to a safer, more academically rigorous school, that could be a worthwhile sacrifice to make. Older neighbors and friends longing for the lost days of having their own kids at home may like to cook meals, have you swim in their pool, and give you their old stuff because you and your kids bring them so much pleasure. Extended family members who you didn’t see when you are young may be thrilled to have you and the kids back in their lives.
When you’re in the exhausting phase of parenting young ones, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could possibly miss the experience, but as a 55-year-old mom who loved those years, I can assure you that many of us older folks do. My husband and I feel honored and joyful to have families and young adults who come to our house, eat with us, and delight us with their youth and charm. (For related reading, see: 8 Ways to Help Family Members in Financial Trouble.)
Use VITA for Tax Help
When tax time comes around, use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program in your town to get your taxes done. You may have to wait, but you’ll save in fees. The volunteers there are smart, well-trained tax pros who will help you maximize your refund and apply for the credits you qualify for. The folks at VITA will also make suggestions for how you can better arrange your finances to minimize taxes for the next year including suggestions about credits for health insurance premiums.
Consider Joining a Church
If you are a believer, find a church home at a religious institution that welcomes and tries to help members with lower incomes. If you aren’t religious, look for a Unitarian church or other organization with more flexible belief systems where you could feel spiritually comfortable. My sister and other women in her church provide free day care for young parents who are struggling. Wealthier church members like to help struggling families who are trying hard. If you find the right church for you, you can count on their emotional and financial support as you raise your kids.
Keep Your Spirits Up
It’s hard to be a good parent no matter how much money you have. Being financially strapped makes things even harder and can let you in for hurtful comments from others. Psychologist Richard Weissbourd, in a recent New York Times article on parenting, talks about the negative stereotypes that come with being a low-income parent. He goes on to affirm that most parents are doing their very best and that no income group has cornered the star-parent market: “There is, of course, something reassuring in the conceit that one’s own group of parents is superior to another group of parents. Robert Kennedy once called this the ‘vanity of our false distinctions among men.’ But is it really true that low-income parents are the only ones with room to improve? Does more money lead to better parenting?”
I don’t know that it does... certainly many wealthy families struggle with wayward children and unhappy family lives. Studies like the one by the NIH show that wealth can increase family difficulties. Try to surround yourself with positive people, encouraging teachers, and helpful connections to keep your attitude as happy as possible.
The Bottom Line
It’s harder to be a chill, easy-going parent who says “no worries!” when a child drops a $3.35 gallon of milk or shorts out the old family computer with a juice spill. That parent doesn’t have the money for more milk or a new computer, and the transgression is likely to result in an angry reprimand even if the child had been careful. Wealthier parents have the financial ability to say “That’s ok; it was an accident,” and buy more milk or a new laptop. It’s tough to be a cheerful parent when there’s no money for a paint set, play date, soccer camp, or video game. It might help to keep in mind that children want be connected with, and want to like their parents. Regardless of family income, you and your offspring can have rich relationships that span a lifetime. With planning and commitment, you can give your kids a great childhood even when you earn less money than you would like to. (For related reading, see: Want to Retire Early? Think Again.)