When faced with a large obstacle—like an expensive adoption bill—taking the first step is the hardest. But where do you start?
The best place is with the money you already have.
The word budget can be a scary and depressing word. But as my husband, Mark, and I learned from experience, if you don’t have a budget, you are “leaking” money that can go toward your adoption.
Grab a notepad, your checkbook, your computer, and your spouse. Sit down and list all your fixed monthly expenses. Next, estimate how much you spend for things like groceries, clothing, entertainment, eating out, gifts, and miscellaneous expenditures. Add it up. Compare it to your monthly income. Income minus expenses should equal $0. If you’re in the positive (and have leftover money), congratulations. Take that dollar figure and assign it to “adoption savings.”
Once you’ve developed a budget, the key is to stick to it. Over the years, we found the best way for us to stick to our budget is to use cash. After I pay the regular bills (utilities, cell phone, insurance, mortgage, and so on), I determine our budgeted amounts for items like groceries, entertainment, eating out, clothes, and medicine. I withdraw that amount of cash on payday and put it in envelopes clearly labeled for each category.
Studies show that people spend 12 to 18 percent less when they use cash instead of plastic (even debit cards). So we try really hard to use the debit card only for fuel. We’re certainly not perfect, but I can tell you that on the months when we “fall off the wagon,” we blow our budget every time.
Besides monthly reviews of our budget, each time our family income changes (up or down), we reassess and adjust accordingly. On the one hand, living on a pretty lean budget was nice. On the other hand, this meant we couldn’t squeeze out a lot of extra money for our adoption when Mark left his job.
Once you’ve established your household budget, take a long hard look to see where you an cut expenses and find more money for your adoption.
From our personal experience and from working with dozens of couples while teaching Financial Peace University through our church, the following areas seem to be the top categories to trim and reap the most reward.
The average American household spends nearly $220 a month eating away from home. Brown bagging your lunch might not be as much fun as eating out with your coworkers, but the saving add up quickly. Pack leftovers from last night’s dinner or take a frozen entree instead.
Look at how often your family eats out and when. If your family is like mine, eating out was occasionally planned, but, more often than not, it was a last resort. As in “I can’t think what to make for dinner” or “I’m too tired to make something” or “everyone is starving and when we get home I have no idea what I’ll fix.”
Now I make sure we always have a couple of frozen pizzas in the freezer, as well as some of those easy family skillet meals. I don’t suggest making those the majority of your grocery list because that’s expensive too. But if a $7 pasta meal will save you from a $45 restaurant bill, it’s worth it. My kids also love when I make breakfast for dinner—eggs and pancakes are a hit and I always have the ingredients on hand
Now as a busy mom of four, the crockpot is my favorite appliance. I’ve also been known to declare “fend for yourself” night and everyone just eats whatever they want—leftovers, cereal, or PB&J.
Before we started the adoption process, we had already cut down on our eating out. We usually took the kids to the local pizza and game place about once a month and then maybe two or three fast-food stops each month. That still added up to about $100 a month.
We cut our pizza nights to once every other month and had more family movie nights at home with a rented DVD and frozen “make your own pizza” night. The kids loved it just as much. Our budget loved it more.
Possible Monthly Savings: $100-$200.
Now that we have four kids at home, I spend about $100 to $125 a week on groceries. So how do I do it? It comes down to three things: planning, weekly sales, and coupons.
Planning. The key to sticking to a grocery budget is a menu plan. I include main dishes, side items, and a dessert if needed. I make my menu with my calendar open so I can see what nights we will be gone, what nights dad will be gone, and what days we have after-school activities and limited meal prep time.
Weekly Sales. As I’m menu planning, I look at what’s on sale, particularly in the meat department. If chicken is on sale, it’s very likely we’ll eat lots of chicken-based dishes. I also watch the fruit and produce deals. Over time, I have come up with my “maximum spend” list. For example, I will not pay more than $1 per pound for apples. If I can’t buy them for that or less, then I don’t buy any.
Now if you’re like me, when someone mentions shopping multiple stores to take advantage of all the sales, your eyes glaze over. Because, you know, I have all that spare time—not. But did you know that Walmart will match competitors’ prices? Take the competitor’s ads with you and when the cashier gets to the sale item just say, “That is price matched at $1.40.” Sometimes they ask to see the ad, but most cashiers familiarize themselves with the weekly ads.
Coupons. There are tons of websites, blogs, and subscription services that will show you how to save hundreds of dollars on groceries every month. Before our adoption, I would clip coupons sometimes, and save a few bucks here and there. But for the most part, I didn’t bother. But after the kids came home and I was now feeding six mouths, I became motivated to learn how to become a better coupon user. I discovered that by combining coupons, weekly sales, and store coupon policies it was possible to get $175 in groceries for $30.
I know a lot of people who talk about saving money on groceries and household items mention buying in bulk at warehouse stores. But if you’re not careful, you can walk out having spent your weekly grocery money and not be able to make a single meal out of what’s in your grocery cart. We have a few grocery items that I regularly buy at warehouse stores but everything else I buy at regular stores on sale or with coupons. I feel like it is easier for me to stick to my monthly budget this way.
If you’re not careful, you can walk out having spent your weekly grocery money and not be able to make a single meal out of what’s in your grocery cart.
Possible Monthly Savings: $200.
Entertainment and Media Services
When we started our adoption, we downgraded our satellite TV package and saved about $30 a month. Our family also learned to wait for movies to come out on video. Or we look for theaters that offer “first matinee showing” tickets at $5. Check your library for free videos or find a Redbox near you and rent them for $1.50 a night.
Four years ago our cell phone contract expired and we purposefully refrained from extending it. I admit, the allure of a free new phone is tempting. But instead, we’ve purchased new-to-us phones on eBaby and maintained our flexibility.
A lot of families have already eliminated their home phone and just use their cell phones. I never wanted to do that when our kids were younger in case they needed to call 9-1-1. We talked about it again but didn’t want their friends calling our cell phones, which are also our primary work phones.
With a little research, my husband, Mark, found the perfect solution. Ooma is a voice over IP service, similar to Vonage, but without the monthly fee. We bough a refurbished Ooma Hub Box for $99. It plugs into our wireless internet router and then into our existing phone handset base. We still have caller ID, call waiting, and voice mail, but we only pay taxes and government fees each month. Instead of $25 a month, we’re spending $4. The box pays for itself in five months and then we get to enjoy the savings.
Possible Monthly Savings: $300 or more.
Gift-giving can grow ridiculously expensive between family, friends, and kids. Years ago, we decided, jointly with our families, to adjust the system. We also scaled back on how we celebrate our children’s birthdays. It’s easy to get caught up in all the event birthday parties, but you can easily spend $300 to $400 on a birthday celebration. Instead, on their birthday, they can invite two friends for a sleepover. Sometimes we’ll go to Peter Piper Pizza, but most of the time we just make them a special birthday dinner, rent a movie, and let them hang out, play video games, and have fun with their friends. It’s a lot less stress on me, and the kids enjoy it just as much. Yes, it means I have a mess to clean up at home afterward but everyone pitches in and make short work of it. We’ll do something special for the major milestones, like 13 and 16. As they get older I imagine the number of invited friends will increase in proportion with their maturity level.
Possible Monthly Savings: $25-$100.
The Impulse Buy
I found that I saved a lot of money during our adoption process by just resisting the small impulse purchases—the cute $10 shirt, the newest Disney movie on DVD, the Starbucks drink, and so on.
Honestly, we buy so much unnecessary stuff. For me it was mostly clothes. It doesn’t seem that big a deal to pick up a $10 shirt or a cute pair of shoes for $15. But it adds up.
My husband, Mark, challenged me to go 12 months without shopping for myself—clothes, shoes, purses, accessories, and so on. For the most part, abstaining from shopping wasn’t as hard as I expected. It did make me realize how often I would pick up something little here and there. During those 12 months I stayed away from the mall and avoided the unnecessary sections of Walmart and Target that only tempted me and made me dissatisfied with what I had. I also found it helpful to avoid the fashion magazines, catalogs, and online stores.
So, if you shop for recreation, try to find something else to replace the hobby . . . that doesn’t cost money. You might be surprised by how much you can add to your adoption fund.
Possible Monthly Savings: Depends. How impulsive are you?
Take a close look at your car payments. Could you sell one of those vehicles and buy a good quality used vehicle for $4,000 to $10,000 for lower payments? I promise they exist. In the 12 years since we started paying off our debts, we’ve bought great vehicles with 60,000 to 70,000 miles for $3,000 to $7,500. And aside from the car I inherited when my grandmother died, they’ve all been modern-looking cars. My minivan doesn’t look or drive like it’s 15 years old.
So, how much can you save per month? Multiply that number by 12 or even 24 to see the impact it will make over the course of your adoption process. Those with a longer process can save even more. Even on our already tight budget, I would estimate we saved at least $2,500 to $3,000 during the year by cutting back on expenses. That was enough for both kids’ plane tickets home!
Find more tips on saving for and funding adoptions from Julie Gumm’s book You Can Adopt Without Debt: Creative Ways to Cover the Cost of Adoption. This article was excerpted with permission by Abingdon Press.
Julie Gumm, author of You Can Adopt Without Debt, teaches debt-free strategies for adoption in workshops she offers to adoption agencies, church ministries, and non-profit organizations. She has a B.S. in journalism from John Brown University. She has been married to her high school sweetheart, Mark, for 21 years. They have four children—two biological children, ages 15 and 13, and two siblings, ages 15 and 13, adopted from Ethiopia in 2008. Visit her online at JulieGumm.com.