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10 Tips for Living on a Small Budget in an Expensive City

Vancouver vies with Toronto for the title of Canada’s most expensive city to live in. Everything seems expensive here—housing, gas, groceries. It’s even harder to be a big family living in an expensive city. While we save in some ways (it costs the same to drive one person around as seven people), we pay more in other ways (like when we have to order four kids’ meals to keep everyone happy at a restaurant). I’ve learned a few ways of living on a small budget, even when the cost of living keeps increasing.

10 Tips for Living on a Small Budget in an Expensive City

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1. Look at Your Spending Habits

For a long time, my husband and I talked about our budget, but we didn’t have one. We each had a foggy idea about how much we spent in various areas, but we were often surprised by our credit card statements. Last fall, I sat down with all our bills from the year and plugged them into an Excel spreadsheet. I organized our expenses by categories like groceries, transportation, mortgage, restaurants, utilities, homeschooling, etc.

Once I had all the numbers in the spreadsheet, we were able to take a good hard look at where we spent our money. That helped us set a budget for future spending and living on a small budget. For example, I looked at our grocery expenses for those months. That ranged from $800 to $1200. I decided I’d work to keep our grocery budget around $800 per month, or $200 per week. With that number in my head, I’ve been able to stick to it, even when I shop at two different stores or my husband picks up groceries on his way home from work.

If you don’t have a budget or aren’t sure where most of your money goes each month, I’d highly recommend starting here. You can use an Excel spreadsheet like I did, or printable budget sheets with a pen if you prefer, or find online apps to make a budget. Pick a system that you think will work best for you and use it. (If it doesn’t work, try something else!)

2. Shop Online for Groceries

I’ve used online grocery shopping on and off since Pearl’s birth. After a new baby, it’s handy to have groceries delivered, rather than take a newborn out in the vehicle. As our family has grown, I’ve also found it easier just to pick up groceries instead of going grocery shopping with the children. Since setting our budget, shopping online has helped me stick to the budget.

Each week, I login with my grocery list and begin shopping. I usually check the flyer first for this week’s deals, but I also price compare to make sure I’m really getting a good deal. I can also watch the total price as I add groceries to my cart. Once I hit $200, I check the items in my cart and may adjust it a little bit. Then I checkout. If I’ve gotten groceries anywhere else that week (or plan to), then I adjust my shopping total accordingly. For example, I may spend $50 at our local discount grocery store and $150 at my usual grocery store.

3. Meal Plan

Meal planning is kinda like setting a budget. It can be daunting to think about before you do it, but once you get started, you’ll find it’s easy—and it makes a big difference. When I meal plan, we’re less likely to resort to processed foods like frozen pizzas. We’re also less likely to stop by a restaurant on an impulse. For example, I can leave a meal in the crock pot before we head up to the ski hill so I know it’s waiting for us when we get home, instead of wanting to swing through McDonald’s for a quick meal.

Meal planning and online shopping go together because I can look at what meat or produce is on sale this week, then look up recipes to use those ingredients. It’s hard to save money if my meal plan for the week includes roast beef, but roasts aren’t on sale and I don’t have one in the freezer.

Meal planning also helps reduce food waste (which is like throwing money in the garbage!) because we’re more likely to eat what I buy if I know what recipe I bought it for. (Anyone else buy a cabbage because it’s on sale and then never get around to actually serving it?)

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4. Take Transit to Work

Taking transit as a big family doesn’t save us money, but my husband rides the Skytrain to work every day. This lets us be a one-car family in Vancouver and saves us money on gas, vehicle insurance, vehicle maintenance, and more. We’ve chosen many of our homes, from our first apartment together when we were newlyweds to living in family housing at UVic to buying our condo in Vancouver, based on the accessibility to transit.

5. Walk or Bike

If you can’t take transit, another option for saving money on transportation is to walk or bike. We are glad that our area is very pedestrian friendly. We can walk to church, several parks, the library and recreation centre, grocery stores, restaurants, and more. This is something we also considered when we were buying our condo.

In fact, when our minivan got rear-ended while my husband was working out of town, I was able to get a babysitter to watch the kids while I walked to a used car dealership, took a minivan for a test drive, then walked to the insurance broker to insure my “new” vehicle and drive it home again.

Biking just extends the places we can reach without a vehicle. We’re looking forward to doing more biking this summer, as Joey is now old enough to ride on my cargo bike. We enjoy riding the local trails for fun, but we also frequently ride to the pool and the library. The cargo bike lets us take more kids, more gear, or more groceries on the bike with us.

6. Look for Free or Low-Cost Recreational Activities

We love staying active as a family, but unfortunately, many activities and classes are expensive, especially for large families. The “cheap” drop-in rate of $3 per person at one of our local pools still costs our family $21. Instead, we’ve found other free or low-cost recreational activities that let us have fun while living on a small budget. For example, tennis courts are free to use, once you have a few balls and tennis rackets. Many pools offer toonie or loonie swims at certain times.

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7. Do-It-Yourself

My husband recently fixed our dishwasher after it stopped draining. It took him several hours over two separate nights, but it saved us hundreds of dollars in either hiring a repairman or buying a new dishwasher. We’ve fixed many things around our home ourselves (you just need a good toolkit and a few how-to Youtube videos!). He also does most of the repairs on our vehicles.

We’ve done many other DIY projects, from sewing new curtains for one home to reupholstering a glide rocking chair and stool that we got secondhand. I’ve repainted bedrooms and bookshelves. Doing-it-yourself not only helps with living on a small budget, it can also create family memories and some pride in what you’ve accomplished!

8. Use Your Library

We are at our library once or twice a week. Over the years, we’ve taken advantage of various programs at the library for kids, from baby time (when Sunshine and Lily were small!) to computer coding classes. We borrow our favourite movies and TV shows from the library (instead of paying for Netflix or cable). I frequently use the library for homeschooling resources, from reference books to early readers to educational movies and more.

I’ve even heard that many libraries have other items available for loan, including cameras and telescopes. Explore your library website or ask your librarian about what resources they have available beyond books and DVDs.

A library can also offer a quiet working space. I frequently used it as a study space when I was in university. Now, if I can get a babysitter or my husband can watch the kids for a few hours, I’ll go to the library to get some work on my blog done. Many libraries have small meeting spaces available too.

9. Shop Thrift Stores and Secondhand Websites

Buying secondhand housewares, clothing, vehicles, and more can save you tons of money! We frequently shop our local thrift stores for new clothes and shoes for the kids. Last year, we bought all their ski gear secondhand at a sporting goods store downtown. Right now, we’re replacing some of the furniture in our house by watching craigslist for what we want.

Shopping secondhand can take a bit more time, as the exact item you want may not be available right when you want it. Be prepared to swing past your favourite thrift store several times to see what’s available, or shop more than one thrift store. If you’re shopping secondhand websites such as craigslist or kijiji, you’ll want to check regularly as good deals disappear quickly.

And if there’s something you don’t need in your home, consider whether you can sell it (to buy what you do need!) or donate it to your thrift store. I love both shopping at and donating to thrift stores because it reduces waste (less items in the landfill!) and makes me feel good knowing I’m helping another family who may need this item and can now buy it for less.

10. Watch Your Utilities

With four kids who can reach light switches, I’m constantly walking around the house turning out lights. I also try to be aware of what appliances and utilities I have left on that could be turned off. I frequently unplug kitchen appliances that have lights or displays on them that stay on when they aren’t in use. I also try to turn off our computer power bar when I’m not using the computer.

This year, I turned on the furnace in early December and turned it off in mid-March. In Vancouver, our heating bill is fairly small and I can get away with turning on the furnace for only a few months in the year. My mom keeps her house in Alberta at 18*C during the day and 16*C at night. She wears a hoodie around the house (and doesn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to check on babies). Things like this can help keep your utility bills small.

You can also shop around for the best deals on your phone and internet. My husband and I change internet companies every two or three years, when a different company offers us a new deal–or one company’s “starter” deal runs out. Currently we bundle our phone plan so that his plan (no data) only costs us $10 a month. It’s worth price comparing your utilities to see if you can get a better deal by switching. If not, call your current utility company and see if they can offer you any discounts or deals.

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What tips would you share for living on a small budget in an expensive city or as a big family?

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