Something that happens rather quickly when one is on an extremely tight budget, is you start viewing all potential purchases through what I like to call a spending filter.
A spending filter is when you look at what you’re considering buying, and then compare it with all the other items you could be buying instead for the same amount of money, or a portion thereof, and weigh which items have the highest priority. If you can think of another item that is needed more, has a higher priority, or is more practical, for that same amount (or less) than you don’t make the purchase.
This is a self-imposed habit, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it does make shopping, even for basic necessities rather a chore. It’s also a valuable lesson in priorities, and for a mother, it’s often simple equates to a “the kids come first” mentality, whereby items I need are almost always postponed or foregone altogether in favor of buying something my children need. In fact, their wants often precede my needs as well, as trying to maintain the happiness of a child when in a difficult situation often seems like a top priority in and of itself. I tell myself, “My kids deserve this.” And they do. It’s just a matter of finding a way to fit it in, which usually means cutting something else out.
So my priorities basically look like this:
1) Family necessities: Things we all need, general household expenses (rent, utilities, food, toilet paper, etc).
2) Children necessities: Things the twins or my daughter absolutely cannot go without (diapers, wipes, feminine products, etc).
3) Children high-priority non-necessities*: Things the kids need, but will usually not cause an emergency if it has to wait a few days (clothing, shoes).
4) Children regular-priority non-necessities: Things the kids could use, or items that are needed but with more notice, a longer lead time, or are less urgent or have more flexible timings for purchase (i.e. “I need Item Z for school by next week” or “I’m running low on Item Y and need more before X date” in the case of my teenage daughter – or – baby gear items, like: highchairs, a crib, the next stage car seats, etc. in the case of the boys – items I know they need, but usually can plan for in advance, or make due some other way in the meantime).
5) Children’s wants/non-necessities: Any and all other items that my kids want, or I want to get for them, that they can live without and don’t absolutely need but as a parent I would like for them to have, because it will make them happy or enriches them in some way (toys, books, entertainment, etc).
6) My needs: Only if absolutely necessary (i.e. over the counter medicines like Ibuprofen, replacing an item – like if my nursing bra breaks, or my shoes wear out – unplanned expenses, etc).
7) My wants: Not really on the list to be honest. By the time we reach this priority level the money is spent.
* The only reason the items listed in point three are not considered necessities and grouped with point two is due to the fact that they have these items already for the most part, but when we reach this point on the list it is either to get new items in place of things outgrown, add something that is missing but needed now (that may not have been needed before, due to weather or other circumstances), or get something that is otherwise worn out and/or unusable any longer and is in need of replacement.
So, I realize that all sounds rather complicated, so let me give you a real world example of my spending filters in action.
I go to the store to buy something we need and have to have, like diapers, and while shopping I see something I could use, like a pair of pants (since I only have two pairs that fit) that are relatively inexpensive. Immediately in my head I think of all the other things that I can buy for the same amount of money as that pair of pants.
“I could get another box of diapers for that price, or two value boxes of wipes, or that could pay for a third of the price for the second highchair they need. Alternatively, I could buy four new outfits for the boys, or a pair of toys, or three books for my daughter, or pay for her to go to the movies. It’s also a bottle of ibuprofen, some dish-soap, and a large pack of toilet paper…”
This can go on for quite some time. In the end, this means the pants go back on the shelf. Now, it does not always mean I seek out and purchase the other items I realized might be a better buy. Quite often the money isn’t even spent at all other than on the specific things I came to get in the first place. But this mental exercise helps me see the value of things, and avoid frivolous and non essential purchases.
I never just pick up coffee or a burger and fries, because I don’t see a quick snack, I see shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, or baby powder and wipes, or a ticket for my daughter to go to a school dance.
So in the end, all that money that might have been nickeled-and-dimed away gets set aside for necessities, or saved up to purchase the larger items I need for my kids that I can’t usually afford out of what is left from any one check by itself.
When I went to the fair a couple of weeks ago, it was only because my mother and her boyfriend decided they wanted to take me and the kids as a treat, because in my head I couldn’t justify the expense. I didn’t see fair tickets, corn dogs, and carnival rides, I saw baby clothes, new shoes for my daughter, and/or (possibly) money set aside for Halloween costumes for the kids.
Just because we’re on a very limited income, does not mean I don’t believe my kids shouldn’t still get to celebrate holidays like any other child would be able to – and my teenage daughter, especially, is very excited about dressing up for Halloween. A desire that trumps her whim to go to the fair, though – thanks to my mom – we did not have to choose between the two this time. I’m happy to announce that we did, in fact, buy her costume, and it was the one she wanted. I would not have been able to do this if I didn’t have this filters in my head that prioritize my spending, and limit me from using money on other items.
We may not have a lot of extra things these days, but we have the basics; and my kids are cared for. I’m even able to get them the items they want a lot of the time as well, it just requires a little planning and budgeting, but when your children don’t ask for much, or often, you find a way to make it happen – even if that means you’ll continue to only own two pairs of pants (that fit) for the foreseeable future. It’s well worth it.