Expert Interview with Jen Roberts on Frugality for Mint

Jen Roberts knows frugality: In addition to her day job as a freelance graphic designer, writer and full-time mom, she runs Jen Spends, a blog about living frugally and getting the most out of the money you make. She spoke with us about frugal living and some of the surprises it can have in store.

What were some of the surprises you came across when you began living more frugally?

I was happily surprised to learn that nice things and interesting experiences weren't automatically out of reach just because I had a lot less money to spend. I educated myself about quality brands and how to find bargains. I learned to meal plan to stretch my food budget while still providing nice meals for my family. I've discovered the wealth of free and inexpensive resources and entertainment in our local area. Frugality has helped me discover that I'm capable of more than I thought possible because I need to think and be creative instead of just throwing money at a problem.

Overall, I feel that my family has a better quality of life now that we're more purposeful about our spending, have improved our financial security and have been able to slow down and appreciate the important things in life. I had thought the lifestyle change would feel like a major sacrifice, but instead it has felt like a step up.

What are some good criteria for sorting necessary costs from less necessary expenses?

It seems like society's definition of "need" has changed rapidly in a short amount of time. One thing that helped me cut back was reflecting on what life was like when I was growing up. Yes, there was a time not very long ago when people survived just fine without smartphones and digital cable with DVR. I knew my family could do it, too.

Another strategy that helps me prioritize is taking my time. I use Pinterest to keep track of items that I want to buy instead of making a purchase on a whim. Many times I forget all about the item and have changed my mind by the time I look at it again.

Sometimes it's difficult knowing whether I'm really okay with cutting a budget item or not. I remind myself that I can always add it back in later if it ends up that I've made a mistake. So far I have never regretted any of my budget cuts, even the ones that were difficult initially.

How did growing your family affect your frugality?

Growing my family has been the driving force behind my frugality. It was important to my husband and me that we would have a parent at home full time to raise our kids. That meant giving up more than half of our income, and we could only do that by cutting back drastically.

But having kids tempers my frugality a bit as well. I don't want to be so extreme that they miss out on happy childhood experiences. They're only kids for a brief time, and no amount of future wealth can buy that time back. I want to ensure that we strike a good balance between securing our future and enjoying the here and now.

It's kind of accepted that having children means costs go up. What's necessary there, and what's overpriced?

Yes, adding another human being or several to a family is definitely going to impact the bottom line. The amount of added cost depends on many factors, some of which aren't in a family's immediate control. But a lot of it does come down to the choices we make.

I don't think kids need to have all of their free time scheduled with expensive extracurricular activities. For the most part, we limit new toys to Christmas and birthdays. I buy almost all of my kids' clothes on clearance, like I do for myself. Once they're past the baby stage, they eat the same things the rest of the family eats, and I don't waste money on packaged snacks and drinks geared toward kids.

The key to frugal living with children is to ignore what everyone else is doing and what society says we should do, to some extent maybe even our own preconceived notions of the perfect childhood, and focus in on our individual kids and their interests and needs. They want our time and attention more than anything else.

What's a balance between being a smart saver and perhaps cutting into your budget too much? What are some signs you need to loosen up?

It's so important to find the right balance, because if you try to do too much, you will burn out and probably give up. It's better to splurge a bit here and there than to go from one extreme to the other. If your lifestyle is making you or your family miserable, you're trying too hard.

My family likes to eat out once in a while. Sure, it's not a frugal choice, but it gives us a break from cooking and doing dishes, and gets us out of the house. In the grand scheme of things, it's a small price to pay for a little break from the usual grind. As long as you have budgeted for the expenditure and can spare the money, treat yourself a little bit.

Don't be so extreme that you are negatively impacting your mental or physical health. I think a good budget includes money for one or two little indulgences that just make you feel happy.

If you could go back and remove one expense from your financial history, what would it be?

Hindsight is 20/20, and I cringe when I think of the money I wasted before I embraced frugality. The expensive cable TV package we used to have stands out as something that we absolutely did not need at all. I could have spent that money paying off my student loans more quickly, and we would have been in much better shape financially.

What tools do you recommend for tracking spending and costs?

I have been using Mint for years, and I think it's a great tool for busy parents. It's convenient having all of my information in one place instead of hopping between different websites and trying to remember all of my passwords. Being able to look back at past spending has been very helpful in establishing a realistic budget. I have also recently started using You Need a Budget along with Mint to add a little bit more accountability and to increase my awareness of my spending.

There are many different programs and apps out there, and some people still swear by a good old pencil and paper. Whatever you use, I've learned that it's very important to track spending as it happens; it's so easy to lose track during the time it takes for a check to clear or a purchase to post to a credit card account.

For the latest from Jen, follow her on FacebookTwitterPinterest and Google+.