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Suburban moms learn new ways to be thrifty in difficult times
By Jamie Sotonoff | Daily Herald Staff

A Metra train approaches the Elburn train depot.


Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer

Downtown Des Plaines with Metra making a stop for patrons heading to the suburbs and Chicago.



You could let young girls dress up and serve them tea in mismatched cups from thrift stores.


There are bargain bowling deals to be found across the suburbs. Here, children bowl at the Brunswick Zone in Waukegan.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Palatine resident Marsha Cotner and sons Payton,1, and Toby,4, wait at the Palatine Metra station to see the early morning train.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Lots of restaurants offer meal deals these days, if you know where to look.


Mark Black | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/17/2009 12:04 AM

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When they're grocery shopping, Carla Cruit's husband isn't always concerned about price.

"He'll say, 'Oh, it's only 25 cents more.' So I'll say, 'Well, then, reach in your pocket and throw 25 cents out the window.' Would you do that? No. But that's basically what you're doing when you think that way," said Cruit, a mother of two from Vernon Hills.

Cruit is among thousands of suburban moms who are tightening the purse strings in an effort to reduce the family budget. Industry experts estimate that women make roughly 80 percent of all household spending decisions, so they're the ones learning new ways to be thrifty during these difficult times.

"Some moms - and dads - say, 'I'm not very good at this. I've never budgeted before,'" said Kelli Underwood, director of child and family programs at the Center for Contextual Change in Skokie. "People are learning that they have some choices, and some power, on how to get through (the recession)."

Cost-cutting is fun for some parents and stressful for others. Being forced to adopt a new lifestyle, mindset or habit is always tough.

"When you're in that situation, you feel so alone and ashamed and embarrassed," Cruit said. "But you know what? Take all that away. It is what it is. It's not anybody's fault. We think we should be able to do and have it all, but maybe that's not realistic. Good things happen, bad things happen. But good things will happen again."

We surveyed suburban moms (and a few dads) for some of their best money-saving tips. Here are some of the highlights:

• "Kids Eat Free" promotions. Restaurant meals are a luxury for money-strapped families. But it can be more affordable at restaurants with "kids eat free" promotions. and lists chain restaurants with kids eat free promotions, organized by day. Coupondivas has printable coupons for free kids meals at places like Uno's Chicago Pizza.

Since their list is incomplete, be sure to inquire at your favorite restaurants, where they might have kids eat free nights they don't widely publicize.

Another idea? Dinner at IKEA. A family of four can dine for less than $15 on organic pasta, Swedish meatballs or 50-cent hot dogs.

• Cook more. During the Depression, women cooked hearty family meals with just a few cheap ingredients, like pasta and potatoes. For recipes, watch 93-year-old great grandmother Clara Cannucciari, a Melrose Park native, on her wildly popular YouTube cooking show, "Great Depression Cooking," While sharing her memories of the Depression, she makes dishes like "Peas and Pasta" and "Egg Drop Soup." Her cooking lessons are now on DVD, at, and her first book, "Clara's Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories and Recipes from the Great Depression" is due out in November.

• Deals on kid activities. For many kids, a train ride is entertainment. Since kids ride Metra free on weekends, Naperville dad John Cuccinotto buys a $5 weekend pass, packs some snacks, and takes his kids on a train ride. They go to different nearby towns, explore what's around, maybe stop at a park, and then hop back on the train and return home.

"Super bonus for dads: it offers moms some quality hours of peace," he said.

Cristin Newton, a mother of two from Gurnee, saves money by visiting the downtown museums on their free admission day. She also likes the monthly deal at Rink Side in Gurnee, where for the $2 cost of the skate rental, you get free skating, food packages and crafts.

Mount Prospect mom Wendy Gatewood takes her kids bowling at Brunswick Zone for $1.29 per line, and gets a receipt for three free games after 1 p.m. on Sundays. She bought the kids bowling shoes - a little big, so they'll last longer - to save on the $4 per pair rental cost.

And, to repeat the obvious: get videos, games and books free from your local library. Most libraries also have museum discount cards you can check out.

• Buy things used. It's eco- and wallet-friendly - not to mention trendy - to reuse things, especially clothes. Can you get an Eileen Fisher sweater for $16? A business suit for $25? It requires time to sort through the racks and a careful eye for stains or tears, but Cruit says you can. She's found amazing deals on like-new, designer-name items at local thrift shops, including the Salvation Army store in Mundelein.

Buying used books, furniture and sports equipment also will save money. Hunt or stores like Play It Again Sports, which has several suburban locations.

• Do things your mom used to do. Remember how your mom and her friends sat around the kitchen table drinking coffee, rather than meeting out at a local coffee shop? Or how you'd be forced to bring your lunch to the ballgame or museums? That's probably why your parents have money in the bank now. One mom suggested buying a bag of Starbucks coffee for $8 and then brewing enough for everyone.

• Have birthday parties at home. Another old-school option: rather than cough up nearly $500 for water park or restaurant parties, simplify. Borrow a karaoke machine and order pizza. Invite girls to show up in their fanciest clothes and have a tea party using mismatched china tea cups from thrift stores. An outdoor cookout at the local forest preserve is another cheap option, where kids have room for games like soccer, red rover or tag (heads up: a permit may be required).

• Share resources with your friends. Swap a few games or videos for a week with another family. Offer to trade services with friends who are mechanics or hair stylists.

• Base your meals on what's on sale. The grocery store is a big money drain for many families, so a little planning and coupon cutting can go a long way. For example, buy a whole chicken rather than just chicken breasts and use the leftovers for a second meal. Stay out of the prepared, pre-cut and frozen food sections, where you pay extra for convenience. A good Web site for free samples of grocery items is

• Bargain. Summer camp is expensive. But if you offer to volunteer, some camps will offer free or reduced fees. Want to keep your gym membership but can't afford to? See if there's a class you can teach or a part-time job you can work in exchange for a discounted membership.

• Conserve energy. Lower utility bills by turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth, lowering the thermostat a degree or two, and turning off the computer and unplugging appliance when they're not in use.

To save money during the Depression, Cannucciari said her family used only one light at night. "The light we used was over a big table in the main room The whole family would end up gathering around the light to do homework or read a book. It was nice to be all together as a family each night," she said.

• Think outside the box for a vacation. You know how so many friends say, "You should come visit sometime?" Well, this is the year to do it. To help make a summer family vacation more affordable, think about going somewhere where you can stay with friends or relatives.

Or, consider a home swap. Either swap with friends, or find one through Web sites like or