How to Transition to Becoming a Frugal Family

When your family has to make big financial changes, it helps to keep your children informed.
When your family has to make big financial changes, it helps to keep your children informed.
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Each family develops its own method for handling finances. Some don't talk about it much, while others fight about it often. What's certain is that money problems shouldn't be ignored. A healthy approach to money is fundamental to a family's physical and emotional well-being. It has the power to break up families. Even though research on the causes of divorce is controversial, you'll almost always hear money problems cited as among the leading causes of divorce. And no doubt disputes between parents and children often center around purchases.

Experts agree that the best method for managing money as a family is open, positive communication. This is especially important when money is tight. If your family is accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle where money is no object or seldom discussed, it will be difficult to transition to life on a budget. And if your family already squabbles about money, a tighter budget might only increase tensions.


However, there are ways of changing your family's approach to money without hurting your relationships with each other. In fact, learning frugal money management in a communal struggle might actually bring your family closer together. In addition, the need for a strict budget is a great opportunity to teach your children financial discipline -- something they should be learning whether or not the family is on a budget. Showing how to appreciate and maintain financial security is essential to raising a child who doesn't take money for granted and who knows how to be happy in life apart from what money buys. So, financial discipline is a skill they'll benefit from for the rest of their lives.

But this isn't to say that it's easy to become a frugal family, especially if it involves significant changes in your lifestyle. The transition in particular will involve some painful self-discipline on everyone's part. Learn more about explaining that transition to your children on the next page.

Involving your children in the budget conversation will help them enormously in the future.
Involving your children in the budget conversation will help them enormously in the future.
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Open and positive communication is the key to beginning the transition to a frugal family lifestyle. Kids should even be told of events that affect the budget, like the loss of a job or a sickness in the family.

One of the most taxing challenges parents face is how to respond when their children ask for things that don't fit into the budget. First, you shouldn't feel guilty for refusing to buy an unnecessary indulgence. All parents want to make their children happy, but you must keep in mind that the budget comes first and that it's better for them to learn the long-term lessons about financial discipline and delayed gratification.

On the other hand, constantly responding with a flat-out "no" gets old quickly for parent and child alike, and at the same time it promotes a negative environment. Instead, when a child asks for something, tell them to start a list of all the things they want and that you'll discuss it with them. Then, ask him or her to prioritize the list and discuss prices. Find something that fits within the budget, and make it a goal for the child to reach as a reward for chores and good behavior.

The earlier you start instilling financial discipline, the better. Still, it's never too late to start. Teens will appreciate the openness and honesty if you talk about your own struggles to stay within the budget. They should understand that this isn't a restriction placed only on them, but on the whole family. They'll also benefit from hearing about the techniques and tricks you use for staying within budget. Encourage them to contribute ideas and promote a team atmosphere for them to feel part of the communal efforts.

Although verbal communication is extremely important, setting a good example is arguably just as essential. The old adage that "actions speak louder than words" is very true when it comes to parenting. Children pick up a lot more than you think from what they see you doing. You could begin the budgeting process by talking to them about the importance of being frugal. But in the end, if the kids see you breaking your own rules, they'll learn that they can, too, and they'll promptly disregard everything you say. So, without speaking a word, displaying good financial habits is arguably the strongest communication method at your disposal.

Take your children shopping with you, and let them help make decisions.
Take your children shopping with you, and let them help make decisions.
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As we mentioned, it's possible for frugal living to bring your family closer together. The selfless sacrifices a budget requires might help everyone refocus energies on each other rather than on him or herself. It also might force everyone to seek their entertainment from each other rather than in expensive individual gadgets like computers and cell phones.

In order to both spend less money and promote family bonding, consider some cheap family activities. If your family enjoys the outdoors, this should be easy. For instance, find an interesting trail near your home, and set aside a day to go on a bike ride or hike together. Camp sites might be expensive, but you can improvise by setting up a camping night right in your own back yard. For a longer-term project, start a garden together. Younger kids especially appreciate being able to help in the garden and anxiously anticipate seeing the things they plant finally grow.

Also consider some inexpensive destinations. You can go to overlooks or find parks and other interesting grounds to walk around in. If you have the discipline to not buy anything, you can window shop in antique and historic districts, which is a simple way to expose kids to history. Research the entrance fees for any local museums. Some only ask for a modest donation, while others may offer special family discount days. Your local town or city might offer free activities, especially during the summer, such as outdoor movie screenings that are perfect for a family picnic.

Staying in for family bonding nights can be just as fun as going out. Many families have game nights, where they play their favorite board games or cards. If your family loves movies, pop in an old favorite for an occasional movie night. Another idea is to set aside time for teaching handy skills, from knitting and sewing to hammering a nail. Many kids grow up nowadays without having learned some of these simple (but extremely practical) skills that also save money. If you yourself never learned, the family can find instructions, and you can all teach yourselves together.

Even though it can be difficult to start a budget, the important thing is to stay positive and see it as an opportunity. In addition to the sense of personal accomplishment you can get by sticking to a budget, you might be able to improve your family relationship, which is invaluable.

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  • Ginsberg, Kenneth R., et al. "Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century." Penguin. 2011. (Nov. 14, 2011)
  • Gray, Kelly, Kelly Merritt. "The Everything Family Guide to Budget Travel." Everything Books. 2011. (Nov. 14, 2011)
  • Hallman, Deborah. "Big Fun Without Big Spending." (Nov. 14, 2011)
  • Miller, David E. "Christian Parenting in Today's World." Xulon Press. 2006. (Nov. 14, 2011)
  • "Family Budget: Teaching Children Money Skills." June 6, 2007. (Nov. 14, 2011)
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