You know how the grown-ups in Charlie Brown sound? Well, at the risk of sounding like a boring old grown-up, I feel like I need to remind myself how to live frugally. Pack your lunch! Shop used! Turn out the lights! Make do and mend! Sigh.

Make a Budget Before You Do Anything

For real. It’s invaluable. I don’t know how to manage money without a plan. Unless you have a lot of it, maybe? I need to track my spending so I know where my money is actually going and then make a plan for where I want it, and need it, to go. There are many, many apps out there to help with this, but I literally just keep my receipts long enough to tally them in a spreadsheet under my broad spending categories: food, car, entertainment, kids, and miscellaneous. (Of course, mortgage, insurance, heat and electricity, and phone and internet absorb most of my paycheques.) Here are the five categories I have some control over to help manage life in an economic depression.

1. Food

Not counting my bills, this is the largest portion of my budget. If I include going out to eat (my favourite!), it’s even bigger. A family’s food needs can vary wildly, but managing a frugal food budget usually starts with cooking at home and cooking at least some things from scratch. Stay away from pre-packaged food when possible, drink water, and plan your meals around cheaper meats or beans. Most people will advise you to make a meal plan; I hear it works! Do as I say, not as I do, because I’d rather eat beans on toast for supper every night than make a meal plan.

You can also save money with apps like Flash Food, which sells food that’s nearing its expiry date at a discount. The Good Food Box under the Community Kitchen of Calgary is a wonderful option for fresh fruits and veggies. It comes out once a month and is quite a bit cheaper than the stores, as long as you’re flexible with the fruits and veggies you eat! I’ve also heard that stores like H&W Produce and Freestone Produce have good prices on produce.

2. Vehicles

Oh, vehicles are tricky. And expensive. Some would say they are not a need, but I would like to argue that point. The only way I’m willing to save money on this right now is to limit my driving where possible (easy to do when there are fewer places to go!). Thankfully, we don’t have a car loan, which could be debilitating when finances go south. If you have a car loan, can you downgrade or make do without that car? Many used vehicles are pretty reliable. Talking to your insurance may help you negotiate a lower insurance rate – just make sure you still have peace of mind. If you are car-savvy or can trade services with someone who is, you might be able to save on minor repairs and maintenance, too.

3. Entertainment

Ouch. Entertainment has taken the hit in our frugal life. We don’t go out to eat much unless we have coupons and it’s a special treat and we rarely attend regular release movies. Mostly, we try to take advantage of community events that are free or inexpensive, and depending on the season, we might go biking or skating, pack a picnic or take hot chocolate to the sledding hill. You can save money by trimming monthly subscriptions, although I maintain that Disney + is a need right now. The library is a great resource for some free entertainment, too, and they have curbside pickup, even while they’re closed. Overall, I’ve definitely been saving money with pandemic closures!

4. Kids

This category has covered everything in our house from diapers to dance lessons. We often limit paid extracurricular activities to swimming lessons and staying active as a family. When possible, we have allowed each child to pursue a personal interest on a recreational level, but only one class at a time. The experts say kids shouldn’t be over-scheduled anyway. We have also chosen to give our kids a small allowance (small being the operative word) to allow them to make some budgeting decisions of their own and to slowly save for the things they want, but don’t need. They need clothing, but it doesn’t have to be brand-new or brand-name. It’s helpful to know people with kids just a bit older for hand-me-downs and we also frequent stores like Once Upon A Child and Plato’s Closet. Getting a babysitter for a night out can make date night quite pricey, but some people have success by trading babysitting with family friends. The kids usually loved it when we were organized enough to make it happen.

5. Miscellaneous

Yup, miscellaneous is a cheater category that catches everything I don’t want to plan for, like household items and random trips to the dollar store that add up in a shocking fashion. There are lots of great tips in this category because it’s as varied as each family.

  • Make your own cleaners to cut down on costs and be kind to the environment. It’s amazing what you can do with vinegar and baking soda.
  • Refillable foam soap dispensers help soap go a long way when you have kids who love to pump.
  • Try to wait until you have a full load for the washer or dishwasher and hang clothes to dry where possible.
  • Look closely at your banking fees to see how to get them down to zero and double-check credit card bills for error or fraud.
  • Use cash when possible – it really does help you spend less.
  • Make the most of credit card points, but only if you can pay your card off every month.
  • Stay off social media if it makes you compare your life to your neighbours!

Naturally, the frugal living tips are as varied as the people spending money. I recently read the book Talk Money to Me by Kelley Keehn and appreciated her balanced, Canadian approach. The simple advice to spend less than you make may be true but doesn’t make it easy, especially during tough times. That three-month emergency savings I was supposed to build would sure come in handy right now! Whoops. Life got in the way. I sometimes wonder how I ended up being the grown-up, but one mortgage, two cars, and three kids are pretty convincing. Now it’s time to pull out all my frugal living skills!

Looking for more tips on how to keep your kids occupied during the COVID-19 crisis? Find our best ideas, activities, and inspiration here!