Reading the news today, it’s apparent that Americans are “tightening their belts,” “making do” and “scraping by,” or any of the other euphemisms used to describe these hard times. Worse than the Great Depression? Well, the landscape isn’t littered with millions of people migrating from their dust covered homes to tent cities in California...but money is getting tighter, especially for single parents or parents going through a divorce.
As a divorced father, the good news for you is belt tightening doesn’t have to compromise your quality of life. In fact, it might increase it.
The bad news is, it takes a few new skills to learn how to make the most life out of a little money and still feel like you’re stepping up to life’s challenges in a positive and constructive way.
There are a ton of different things you can do, but many of them fall into three categories (the 3 Ds): Debt, Diet, and Do It Yourself. Learning to live better in these three categories will not only help you take control of difficult parts of your life, but you will save money, live better, learn interesting skills, and have a chance at more fun with your kids while doing things that really count.
The first and most important of the 3 Ds is also the least fun and the most challenging. If you have credit card debt, you need to take care of it; if you don’t, great job! But don’t start.
According to the Federal Reserve’s 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, 46% of Americans carry a credit card balance, averaging around $7,300. Forbes Magazine’s great article on credit card debt emphasizes the importance of knowing what you owe, and how much interest you’re paying.
If you’re regularly rotating through credit cards and maxing them out, you need to make a few changes. The first thing to do is stop using credit cards. But the most important change is to establish a household budget that highlights the essentials: mortgage or rent, food, health insurance, and the like.
With that budget established, if you have an overwhelming amount of credit card debt, it’s time to seek help from agencies or nonprofits. The Federal Trade Commission has some great articles about where to find help.
But now that you have a budget, there’s probably one item that could have the fat trimmed: diet. In particular, eating out.
Here’s the thing: we all need to eat to live. What we eat and where we eat it? That’s where the choices come in.
Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “,” gave perhaps the most concise advice possible on food. “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
That’s it. Can you eat as Pollan suggests when eating out? Given the portion sizes and types of restaurants in America, not so much. Can you afford it? Well, only you know that from the previous section on debt, but eating out is decidedly more expensive than eating at home.
According to the USDA, over the last thirty years Americans have nearly doubled how many of their calories come from eating out (from 18% to 32%+). And those calories in restaurants—not just fast food restaurants—come in the form of fats that are bad for your health. Also according to the study, while full-service restaurants may be lower in saturated fats, they’re higher in overall fats, cholesterol, and sodium.
So for your kids’ health, your health, and your wallet’s health, maybe it’s time to overcome your resistance to people like the ever-chipper Rachel Ray and look into quick, nutritious meals that you can prepare with your kids at home. It’s just as fun as you want to make it, and there are great web sites and books out there that can help you get started (for example: check out the free recipes at http://www.homeandfamilynetwork.com/food/kids.html ).
Do It Yourself
Learning more about cooking at home can only lead to one thing: do it yourself. Sure, if you’re reading this you’re probably an American dad, and have bought into the idea you need to take care of home stuff yourself. You can set a post, find a stud, and reseat a toilet.
But what else can you do yourself? In particular, entertainment. Although you probably didn’t include it in your budgeting process, fun time with the kids is a crucial activity to budget for—but maybe budgeting for time more than money.
Some great ideas for family time with dad:
Cooking: but we already talked about that.
The Library: until recently, I’d forgotten how many great resources are available at the public library. DVDs, books, magazines, book readings, and librarians. Who doesn’t have a thing for librarians? And the free DVD rentals are fantastic.
Play dates: offering to host play dates, no matter how difficult it may sound, is a sure route to happier kids, helping out other parents you know, and getting the kids to sleep faster without costing anything but snacks for the visiting kids.
Local theater: believe it or not, local theater is often free, cool, and targeted at kids.
Going for a walk: one of the best free things to do with the kids. Take time for puddles, worms, and anything else you might see.