Tips for saving money (from a Mum of 6)

Recently I was featured in the Chinese language newspaper about ways a family can save money. For those who read it, here’s a disclaimer. This is not a direct translation because some of the things the journalist wrote were slightly miscommunicated, although the article was generally accurate (to be expected, with a potato speaking to a ‘bao’). So here’s sharing 6 tips on how we save.

1) Toys

They get 3 presents from us a year – Birthday, Christmas and Children’s day. I don’t give them extra pocket money to save for toys. I find that method doesn’t teach them very much. I have come up with a better strategy to teach them financial literacy. Their pocket money is just enough to buy food in school (P1/2: $1, P3/4: $1.50, P5/6: $2). Besides that they are allowed to keep $200 per year from their hong bao money (the rest goes into their bank account) and if they finish it up they have to wait for the next Chinese New Year. I give them this lump sum to practice budgeting and hopefully inculcate good spending habits in them from young. (Rubbing my hands in glee awaiting the day I get some ROI… although I have been told “don’t bet on it!”)

Before I started this system, they were constantly whining for a small toy here, a small knick knack there, and those seemingly insignificant amounts added up to a lot. Now they get 3 gifts and that’s it. Oh, and ad hoc presents if either the hubs or I go on holiday without them. And of course, not forgetting the grandparents who spoil them silly (mostly #1).

Not only do I cap their toy expenditure to a fixed budget each year, my goal is to teach them to be responsible with their money. Initially they were overjoyed to get such a huge amount of money at their disposal and they will use it all up within a few months. However, the next year they will realise their folly and be more prudent with their spending. Paradoxically, when you hand over the reins to them, they end up saving most of it after the first year of learning that the cash is not limitless and no, unlike mummy’s wallet, the bills do not replenish themselves magically. I also teach them delayed gratification by getting them to note down the toys they want and to request it from their relatives for their birthdays. Sometimes, by the time their birthday comes around, they have already decided they don’t want the toy anymore. Very simple but effective way to halt the need to buy something every time they go out.

When they were young, I believed in buying good toys such as puzzles and blocks, and these sets can cost quite a fair bit. I would split the cost of the toys with the mummies in their playgroup and we would rotate them every month. Now that I’ve started blogging, we are so fortunate to receive lots of quality toys. A big thank you to our sponsors!

Dresses for CNY and Christmas

2) Clothes

Most of their clothes are hand-me downs from friends and relatives. They are so used to it that they don’t even question it. In fact, it’s loads of fun to get to choose from a whole pile of clothes. Besides, most friends these days have only 1 or 2 kids and their clothes are still very new. Now that the older girls are in their teens and have started to buy their own clothes, the younger ones are more than happy to receive their clothes once they outgrow them as their older siblings are more ‘fashionable’.

When we go on vacation and need winter clothes, we borrow from friends and relatives. They are quite happy to lend us as their kids have probably outgrown them. I find it not worth buying to be worn only once or twice, plus finding storage for bulky winter clothing is going to be a problem too.

If I need to buy new clothes for example for Chinese New Year, I shop on the internet and buy during the Black Friday sale which happens at the end of November. The discounts are massive, around 50-80% off. I got 2 of the above dresses from Carters during last year’s black friday sale, and they cost around $10 – $20 each. I usually share shipping with 1 or 2 friends to reach the cap of S$400 (no GST charged) as shipping gets cheaper the more you buy.

3) Activities

As the hubs works from home, and the kids hardly have any tuition or enrichment classes, we go for activities during the weekdays where admission charges are cheaper. Places such as science centre/sentosa, indoor playgrounds, cinemas, even buffets are all cheaper during the weekdays. Multiply that by 8 and it becomes substantial. Besides, I really dislike crowds so we like to stay home during the weekends. 

For holidays we like to travel during off-peak season as the air fares are lower, such as the one week break in October designated for PSLE marking, much to the chagrin of their teachers as the year-end exams begin on the Monday back in school. There was one year when #3’s teacher decided to hold extra classes during that week and #3 did not turn up. She called me on Sunday to enquire and I told her we just arrived back at the airport and she was dumbfounded. Before you balk at the idea, I have found out that their results doesn’t get affected much by a vacation before the exams. Besides, October is a great time to travel weather-wise.

4) Buy in bulk

The journalist was asking me to share some marketing tips, and the best times to spend on daily necessities in a cost-saving manner. (Maybe people think a mummy with 6 kids should have all these worked out. Well I don’t, so if you do know, please share with me.)

What we do is to buy our fish and meats directly from the wholesaler as you can imagine the amount of food our household consumes in a week. Not counting all the additional ‘random kids’ as my friends like to call the other children who turn up at our house regularly. There was this really cute boy (our neighbour) who declared to me yesterday, “I can stay in your house the whole day. What’s for lunch?”

5) Tuition

One of the big on-going expenses of Singapore parents with school-going children is tuition. Some parents start kids off with tuition from as early as Primary 1, and some go to the ridiculous extent of having several tutors for every subject when they are in P6 (group, individual, local tutor, native Chinese tutor).

For us, I only give them tuition as a last resort, mainly in the P6 year to plug the gaps. Sometimes, in P4 or P5 they request for tuition but I tell them having tuition is a luxury as it costs a lot of money. I tell them to put more effort to figure it out themselves or to ask their teachers for extra help. Most teachers are willing to give them extra help after school, and #1’s teacher even opened her home to give them extra lessons before the ‘O’ levels. I encourage them to ask their friends for help on subjects they are weak at, and to return the favour in subjects they are strong in. When I finally give them tuition in P6 or in Sec 4 they will cherish the extra help from the tutor.

There was once when #1’s tutor texted us 5 minutes before tuition to cancel and #1 was already seated at the table with her books open. She exclaimed, “Huh! How come?” Her godma was so amused and said that this was the first time she saw a child disappointed in not having tuition instead of jumping for joy. I choose my tutors very carefully and get them to teach in a way which the child learns best. I will not waste my money and my child’s time on tutors who do not produce results. I will also communicate with their tutors regularly to see how we can best address the needs of the child. That was how we managed to get #3 from failing her subjects to 2nd position in class.

#1 asked for Math tuition in Sec 2 but I refused to give her, simply because I wanted her to learn resourcefulness and not take the easy way out and rely on someone to spoon feed her. In the end, by Sec 4, she managed to work her way up to an A grade. So proud of her. In most primary schools, if they fall below a certain grade for their exams, the school provides remedial lessons. Some parents dread to see that white piece of paper which they have to acknowledge, but I’m more than happy to allow them to attend. Free tuition! Why not?

After having 3 kids go through the PSLE, I realise that for #1 and #2, it was fine for them to start tuition in P6 and still manage straight As, but for #3 who was much weaker and who had several inexperienced teachers over the years, I should have started her in P5. For the next 3 kids, I will monitor them more closely to see if they need to start tuition in P5. However, I refuse to make tuition a part of their lives because I have seen how many of their friends dread tuition and feign illness to skip it. Some of their other friends have the mentality that they don’t need to concentrate in class because they can always rely on their tutors. Ends up, their parents are paying unnecessarily for tuition instead of utilising tuition judiciously to plug the gaps.

6) Part-time jobs

I get them to work from the time they turn 14. Nope, contrary to popular believe, it’s not child labour. It is perfectly legal to work part-time from 13 years old (I told them I will kindly give them 12 months of grace period). People ask me where can 14-year olds work? I am careful about where they work as they are still young, so it is either in friends/relative’s companies doing things like waitressing or simple clerical work, or to give tuition to friends’ children.

Similarly, when they are in secondary school, I give them enough money to buy food in school (Sec 1/2: $2.50 a day, Sec 3/4: $3 a day) and they are still allowed to keep the $200 a year from their hong bao money. By the time they are in Secondary school, $200 is not enough to last them a year. Thus, the money that they earn during the June and December holidays will go towards their expenses on their outings with their friends and to pay for their shopping.

I firmly believe in the value of paid work, especially with this generation of entitled kids. This is to teach them the value of money and that it is easy to spend $50 on a pair of jeans but not easy to earn that $50. And the best part for mummy is that henceforth, they are responsible for earning their own keep. 2 down, 4 to go!

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

How to use your children’s hong bao money to teach them financial literacy

When the kids were younger and we took them out, they would invariable ask to buy something. I would have 5 incessant pleas of “Mom, can I buy this… please?” If I said no, they would take another item and say “What about this? Please?” It drove me nuts. And I would have to make a decision to allow the purchase or not. Sometimes just to get them out of my hair so I could shop properly, I would allow them to buy the toys if they were not too expensive. Or if some days they kept badgering me until I lost my patience, it was “All cannot buy!”

So I started thinking about this issue seriously. What did I want them to learn about money? I wanted to teach them to make the decisions themselves, to decide if the item was necessary and if it was value for money. I also wanted to teach them to spend within their means, and to learn values like thrift and charity. And I definitely wanted them to know that money didn’t grow on trees, which I concluded when I was young, as my parents bought me everything I asked for.

I was a financial consultant for a decade, and I saw too many adults not having the proper financial skills needed in life. It did not matter if they were earning $2,000 or $20,000. They could be making the same mistakes and I realised that it was not only how much you earned but what you did with your money that mattered.

I formulated a plan. I realised that giving them a little extra in pocket money and teaching them to save to buy something did teach them delayed gratification, but not much else. So I didn’t use their pocket money as a teaching tool. I gave them $1 per day for recess starting from Primary 1, with an increment of $0.50 every 2 years. That was to cover their food in school. For all other purchases, I allowed them to keep a small portion of the money collected during Chinese new year, which they were free to use as they pleased for the rest of the year. 

$200 to last them a year

This program commences the year they enter Primary 1. For me, I need to standardise everything so that it’s fair and easy for me to remember. However, based on your own family’s needs, you can start the child at an earlier or later age as you deem appropriate. Generally, kids from 0-4 are contented with hand-me-downs and creating fun out of simple or recycled objects. It is around the age of 4 onwards where they start to ask for particular toys as seen on TV or something their friends have. So at that age, I started to discuss and teach them simple concepts such as what are needs and wants and how much toys cost in relation to something else. For example, I told #5 that a box of Lego ninjago can buy us 20 packets of chicken rice, and his eyes widened in surprise. When they reached 6, that’s when I started to give them a lump sum from their hong bao money to allow them the opportunity to learn the financial lessons themselves.

This is how I derived the figure – I roughly estimated what I was currently spending on each child in 1 year on non-necessities like toys, watches, fancy stationary etc. I rounded it down, and was comfortable with a figure of $200 per child per year to spend as they like. The rest of the money went into their bank account, which is earmarked for their tertiary education. (Another option is to start them off on a smaller amount for the first couple of years, say $100, before increasing it as they get older).

The first time #3 had her money, she was overjoyed and spent it freely. She bought all sorts of cute stationary from her school bookshop, toys when we went to the malls, and even knick-knacks for her friends. I didn’t chastise her as I wanted her to learn the lessons on her own. Within a few short months, she was shocked to find that her wallet was empty. She came to me and told me tearfully that she was ‘wallet-krupt’. I didn’t quite understand, until the older girls told me that it’s not her bank account that was depleted, but her wallet. She watched in misery for the rest of the year as the others had money to spend. It also taught them generosity as there were occasions when the others had money to buy something and she didn’t, and they bought it for her, knowing that she had fallen on ‘tough times’. The favour would be repaid the following year when her finances were better. All these situations mimic real life, and they are teaching moments which can be used to reinforce the things they are doing right and to teach them other options if they are not quite on the right track. I figured that it was better for them to make the mistakes when they are young, than to learn the hard way when they are older and the amounts are more substantial.

So for #3, I instructed her to gather all the things she bought that year, and she was puzzled as to where the money went as there was not much to show for it. She realised that $2 here and $5 there amounted to a lot of money, and she regretted buying some of the items which she didn’t even want anymore. The next year, she was much more prudent with her buys and by the end of the year, she still had a good portion of the money left.

As for the rest, #1 is very meticulous and she notes down every little purchase and carefully budgets her money to ensure it lasts her the year. #2 never liked shopping and saved almost all of her money. #4 was very careful with her buys from the get-go as she saw what happened to #3. Last year was the first time #5 had his money and he readily spent it all on Lego and didn’t mind that the rest of the year he had no money left as he spent the year happily playing with what he had bought. Let’s see if his spending pattern changes over the years. It was also really interesting to see how their characters were reflected in their spending habits.

When they reached Primary 5, I gave each of them a little notebook to record their purchases. They will write down the item, how much they have to begin with, how much the item costs, and their balance. This allows them to look back after a year to see if the purchases were worth it or not. If they were still using the items and it was serving them well, that’s good as they got a lot of mileage out of it. They will put a tick under the ‘Note’ if it was a wise buy and a cross if it was not a good buy. It can then be seen at a glance if a majority of their purchases were good or not, and they can try to improve on that the next year. They also naturally realised that a lot of stuff they bought were useless or bought on the spur of the moment. This leads them to consider more carefully in future before they bought something.

Cashbook to record their purchases

The only times they get presents are during their birthdays and Christmas. During the year, if they want something which would take up a sizeable chunk of their money, they will note it down, and if some months later they still want that item, they will request it for Christmas, either from us, their grandparents, or their aunts and uncles. That teaches them delayed gratification and also helped cut down a lot of unnecessary spur of the moment “I really want” type of purchase, only to regret it later.

Sane tip: The best part of my program? No more “Mom, pleassse, just this 1 thing?” I can now shop in peace while they are busy figuring if they should buy an item, or comparing prices, or sharing info with each other about where to get cheaper and nicer items which they were looking for. And instead of thinking that “Mom is mean” when I refuse to buy them something, they are empowered to make a wise decision. They have also learnt the very important skill of budgeting and spending within their means. Giving to charity has also taken on more significance to them, as it is given out of their own pocket.

Save tip: I have saved quite a lot of money, because now, everything comes out of their $200, even concert tickets! They used to bug me to take them to Hi 5Disney on ice, and High School Musical when they were younger. A concert outing could easily set me back $500, not only for tickets for everyone, but they also wanted those silly wand sticks or ice balls which cost more than $10 each! After they turned 6 and had to spend their own money, they bought it once, forking out $68 each. After the show, I asked them if it was worth their money. They replied that it was not bad, but that I had taken them to enough concerts over the years and that they wouldn’t go the next year (that was what I had been trying to tell them all along!) And of course, they did not part with their money to buy any of the overpriced memorabilia after the concert. The good thing is that you can still take them to any concerts or events which you feel you want them to be exposed to, and believe me, the kids will be so grateful to you for paying for it 🙂

Here are more tips on how to keep their birthday parties within $100 while equipping them with financial skills like planning and budgeting.

~ – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

Family Command Centre

Obviously with 6 kids, there are a lot of logistics to handle on a daily basis. I have to be organized or it gets really stressful when things are left to the last minute. There were countless times when a child did not have the materials ready for the next day’s show and tell, they forget they had an excursion and we didn’t have the right ‘healthy’ snack for the lunchbox, or worse, they forgot they had a Math exam and forgot to tell me that their calculator had run out of batteries. Even when I had only 3 kids and had no proper system, I was going crazy. Now I’ve got the whole process down to a pat.

My Command Centre

I rely on these to keep things running smoothly:

Family Wall calendar
Weekly meal planner
Daily To-do list
Yearly pocket calendar
Some notebooks

I love kikki.k over at ion. They have lots of organisational tools to help us busy moms stay on top of things. Colour really brightens my day and all these pretty stationery helps to keep me motivated to get the boring paperwork and administrative work for the family under control.

#3 drew the cute lil’ minion

I needed a huge magnet board so I recycled #2’s old board by turning it around and using the back. We got this magnetic board from Ikea many years ago. There were 2 holes at the back which were meant for hanging the board up. I tied some rope across the top so that I could peg photos of the kids and keep them rotated. It always cheers me up to see them smiling. I got the magnets from Daiso and added some stickers to personalise them.

This family calendar is just perfect for me – it has 6 columns. I got it from Tango Mango at Tanglin Mall, and you can also order it directly from Organised Mums which ships to Singapore. Whenever the kids come back with notices from school, I immediately pen it down on the calendar before tagging it on the board. This way, I will never forget to pick up any kid after ad hoc activities and we’re always prepared for events like wearing traditional costumes for Racial harmony day etc.

Menu planner from kikki.K
Having a weekly meal planner is really a life saver. Before I had it, I would just mentally plan some meals in my head. There were many a time when I was busy and before I knew it, lunch (or dinner) was upon us and I had nothing prepared for the starving kids. We usually ended up eating out (expensive), getting take-away (waste of time and not nutritious especially if it was fast food), or cooking instant noodles (definitely not nutritious). Once you get the discipline of setting aside a fixed time to decide what you’re going to cook and going to the supermarket, it will become a family routine.

On Sundays, I look at the week ahead and mark off on the family calendar which kid is back for lunch on which days so that I can see at one glance how many kids will be eating and which ones. If all or most are eating, I will prepare those meals that they are all ok with. If 1 or 2 are back on a particular day, I can then cook that child’s favourite food.

To-do list from kikki.K
I really like this To-do list as it’s got ‘Top 3’ things to do. When I used to have those normal To-do lists which just runs down, I will get really frustrated if half of the list is undone. Now, if I get my 3 most important tasks accomplished and a couple of the others, I’m a happy mom. Talk about a shift in perception! There’s even some cute icons to let us track how many cups of water we drink a day. Anything that helps to keep us healthy gets my two thumbs up 🙂

Lovely notebooks from Prints at ion

Whenever I saw something interesting in the newspapers or on the internet that I would like to take the kids to some day, I used to tear out the bits of newspaper or scribble the info down on post-its. However when the school holidays or long weekends came about I couldn’t locate the info I wanted. So I got some lovely bounded notebooks from Prints at ion (they have a shelf with past season items at 50% off) and started a resource book where I categorized the stuff I did with the kids and jotted down the info as they came, straight into the right pages. That way, I would just open up the book and scan the options and we’ll decide where we wanted to go or what we wanted to do that day.

Mail stand from Typo
I use these giant paper clips to sort my mail. I got them from smiggle (they have many outlets). I will handle the urgent ones, and when I have free time I will file the rest away properly.

The little yearly calendar is to keep track of things like when I paid their enrichment fees, when I paid my helper, or any other info where I can easily flip back to track. We have a Chinese tutor who comes over to tutor my primary 5 girl and to read to the 5 of them (Kate included). With the calendar I would know how many sessions she has already done and when to pay her. I also get the tutor to sign on the calendar so that there’s never any dispute.

Handmade birthday calendar

#2 made this lovely birthday calendar for mother’s day a couple of years ago. It is really handy as I can look ahead in that month and note down which birthdays are coming up. I will then shop for the necessary presents all at one go. This saves time and money as nowadays a trip to the mall is really not cheap if you include petrol, ERP and the exorbitant parking charges!

Gift cupboard

I also keep a cupboard stocked with presents suitable for a range of ages so that whenever the kids get invited to a birthday party I don’t have to make a trip to the shops just to get a present. I usually stock up my gift cupboard during the bi-annual private sales at Isetan or Robinsons as they have good discounts then. For the younger girls I get craft, playdoh or dress up/jewellery type gifts, for the older girls stuff like board games or DIY activity sets. For the younger boys, construction toys and for the older boys, science experiment sets.

Sane tip: With 6 kids, being organised is not an option, it’s mandatory!

Save tip: I realised that being organised helps to save a fair bit of money over the long run.

To know how we manage 6 kids, click here.

~ www.mummyweeblog – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~