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15 Money-Saving Tips for Parents. How to replace your expensive habits with cheap ones.

As every paper and website you’ve read this morning has no doubt reminded you, times are tough. We wish we had a get-rich-quick scheme that would pay off your entire mortgage – but failing that, here’s a list of easy substitutions that will help your family save a buck here and there. There’s even a silver lining: many of these money-saving substitutions are better for your health and the environment. Here’s to better and cheaper habits.

Instead of buying new winter clothes . . . buy new winter clothes, six weeks later.

Maybe your family can’t make it to December without a new sweater or two, but if you can hold out on the bulk of your shopping, you can catch the best sales of the year: right after Christmas. If you’re okay with used duds, thrift shops and eBay (add the word “lot” to your search to find bulk wardrobe auctions) are your friends.

Instead of paper towels . . . use actual towels.

Once we get accustomed to using disposable products, it’s easy to take them for granted. Look around the house and figure out what you can swap out for reusables: paper cups, napkins, lunch bags . . .

Instead of regular light bulbs, use compact fluorescent light bulbs.

You already do this, right? Moving on.

Instead of subscribing to premium cable channels or Tivo, watch your favorite programs on your computer.

Even the bargain $9-a-month Netflix plan now allows unlimited viewings of hundreds of movies and television shows on your PC, thanks to the “Watch it Instantly” feature. This feature doesn’t yet work on Macs, but Apple owners can watch movies and TV on Hulu.com instead – which has a smaller selection and commercial interruption, but is totally free.

Instead of beef, cook with beans.

Vegetarian ingredients cost less, so meat-eaters should try swapping proteins at least once a week: pinto or black beans instead of beef in Mexican dishes, cannellini beans in Italian dishes, chickpeas instead of chicken in curries. Canned beans require no prep besides rinsing, while dried beans require cooking (but are so cheap, you can eat for pennies a serving). Hit Epicurious for new recipe ideas.

Instead of your local discount store, try Freecycle.

:or Zwaggle, or Freepeats. All of these services are set up to facilitate bartering between users: you post when you’ve got an Exersaucer to give away, and you respond when someone else in your geographic area is letting go of a toddler bed. Craigslist, Handmedowns.com and your local parents’ listserv are other online options for getting gently used swag.

Instead of buying new books, try inter-library loan.

We know, the library is great, but they never have everything you’re looking for. Or do they? If your local library’s budget hasn’t been slashed too terribly by the powers-that-be, talk to the librarians about getting missing books from one of the nation’s many other libraries through a fantastic little system called ILL. You may have to wait a couple weeks and/or pay a marginal shipping fee, but you’ll still save the cost of a brand-new hardcover. If you’d rather own your reading material, check out Abe Books for used book deals.

Instead of drinking bottled water, get a water bottle.

Any beverage in the corner-store cooler is significantly cheaper if you make it at home. Filtered water? Cleaner than bottle water anyhow, if those new studies are to be believed. Iced tea or coffee? Brew it strong with hot water, let it cool to room temperature, transfer to the fridge. Vitamin Water? The vitamins are negligible, so test the theory that it tastes exactly like watered-down juice. Soda? Ah. That one’s trickier, but if your family doesn’t pledge strict allegiance to Coke or Pepsi, those seltzer machines from Soda Club may just do the trick.

Instead of buying premium cereal, mix it up.

If you’re a sucker for overpriced cereals with names like Natural Blueberry Walnut Morning Harvest, consider assembling the same thing yourself: chop up your favorite dried fruits and nuts, then mix with generic wheat cereal. If your favorite cereal can’t be duplicated, try mixing it half-and-half with a cheaper brand, or swap it out twice a week for old-fashioned oatmeal.

Instead of holiday clothes, buy holiday accessories.

It’s tempting to splurge on snowman sweaters and velvet dresses, but kids will be just as happy with Santa hats and glittery scarves.

This only works for the super-self-motivated, but if you’re serious about saving money, try swapping out your Pilates classes for a Pilates DVD (test-drive your picks on Netflix to weed out insufferably perky instructors). Crunch and Ten-Minute Solutions offer some solid workout routines. Get-off-your-butt videogames like Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution cost a few more bucks initially, but may be more fun, and therefore easier to stick with, in the long term.

Instead of taking your family to a movie, have a movie night at home.

Make some popcorn, get out a stack of blankets, and introduce your kids to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Laurel and Hardy, or Preston Sturges – or, you know, watch Ratatouille again. You’ll save so much, in no time you’ll be able to afford a sitter to go see Quantum of Solace.

Instead of take-out, buy prepared or frozen meals.

Prepared food costs more than making meals from scratch, but less than ordering it in from the local Thai place. Fight the temptation to dial in dinner by stocking up on one or two no-prep meals a week. If you’re lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe’s, they’re great for this sort of thing. As for lunch – we don’t have to tell you it’s cheaper to pack your own. Bribe yourself by getting a fun lunchbox that will make your leftovers seem fresh, like the bento box from Laptop Lunches.

Instead of the supermarket, visit the farmer’s market.

Embrace the paradox: farmer’s markets and CSAs have infinitely better produce than your local superstore yet it’s usually less expensive, since you’ve cut out the middleman and are purchasing directly from the grower. For a seasonable veggie subscription, go to Localharvest.org and find a Community-Shared Agriculture program near you.

Instead of getting gifts from the mall, get them from Etsy.

Most merchants at this online craft marketplace take requests for custom goods, in addition to the mind-boggling array of vintage and handmade gifts that are ready for the buying. One thing: popular Etsy sellers tend to be swamped this time of year, so if you’re planning on asking for a custom order, shop early.

Do you have tips of your own? Share them in feedback or in this Babble Playground forum!

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