The world doesn't need another coupon book. That was part of the thinking behind author Kimberly Palmer's decision to write "Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family." Palmer, who also is the author of "Generation Earn" and "The Economy of You," couldn't help but notice that a lot of the personal finance books aimed at moms seemed to be mostly about couponing and shopping smarter at the grocery store.
"That's so minor," she says. "I wanted to write a book that would look at the bigger picture."
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Palmer, after all, spent nine years as an editor at U.S. News & World Report, editing and writing personal finance articles that examined the bigger picture. She is also a mom (her daughter, Kareena, is 6; her son, Neal, is 3). Palmer, who is now an editor at AARP, spoke with U.S. News about her book and how mothers – and, really, all parents and people – could be managing their money more efficiently. Her responses have been edited:
Obviously, the hope is that readers will learn a lot from the book. But what did you learn?
Soon after I started writing the book, I realized I was doing a bunch of things wrong. It's actually still really common in two-parent households, where the moms and dads are married, that the husband is the one who manages the money. It sounds so 1950s, but we as moms have to make sure we're actively co-managing the money. After all, at some point, you might get a divorce, and statistics show that women tend to outlive men, and so I realized it was really wrong that I was letting my husband manage all of our finance accounts. So I changed that and got organized, and I opened a 529 account, which I wish I had done when my kids were first born.
One message in the book is that you can make your money go a lot further if, as you did, you get involved with your finances and start acting like the CFO of your household budget. What is an example of a change you can make that can really add up?
The three main areas where we spend the most money in our budgets are generally food, housing and transportation, and I think the easiest place to trim your expenses is in food. And one small shift that helped us save $1,200 a year is that instead of our Friday-night tradition of ordering two large pizzas, we started making our own pizzas, which is much more fun anyway. It was costing us $30 for those Friday-night pizzas, but when you make your own pizza, it's $3 for the dough and a couple of dollars for the cheese. That was one little habit shift that made a big difference, and the broader concept is that cooking at home is almost always going to be less expensive than eating out.
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Where else might you look to save money?
Many of us leave money on the table by forgetting to sign up for workplace benefits or even worse, signing up but then failing to file the necessary paperwork. One example is flex spending. Many employers offer flex spending accounts for health care, child care and transportation costs, so you can set money aside on a pretax basis and use it to pay for those expenses. You just have to be sure to use up that money or you lose it – and file any required paperwork. Another example with health insurance is taking the time to follow up on erroneously rejected claims. Insurance companies make mistakes, too, and if you think you are owed money, it can pay to follow up ... and when you have kids, you're often going to the doctor, and so I've made it a point to follow up whenever my claims are rejected. One year, I saved $600 by doing that.
So pizza and following up on rejected claims could theoretically save you $1,800 a year. What advice would you give a mom who wants to invest?
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In addition to the often-talked-about strategy of signing up for a 401(k) through your workplace to gain any matching benefits, you also want to be sure to consider a 529 account for college savings. Again, it comes with tax advantages, so that can help you accrue wealth to pay for college. If you automate monthly deposits into the account, it also makes it easier to stick with a disciplined saving and investing strategy. As far as choosing investments, a simple approach often works best for busy parents: selecting a low-fee target-date fund for your retirement year for retirement investments and a target-date fund based on graduation year for your college savings. That way, money is put into funds that automatically become more conservative as you approach the date you need the funds, and they are kept in diverse investments with exposure to a wide swath of the market.
SEE ALSO: 9 Ways to Invest on a Small Budget.
Obviously, there are single dads juggling work, parenting and housework. But given that many moms are time-starved, doing the lion's share of cooking, cleaning and parenting while often holding down a job, do you have any tips for those who find it hard to make time to look for ways to save or invest?
What can help a lot is investing the time to get super organized before you start trying to save money or make any new financial decisions. I go with a paper-based approach. I have a binder and file folders and all of my paperwork, from insurance papers to the mortgage, and customer service numbers that you'll likely have to call – they're all in there. If you're organized, it's so much easier later when you're making those financial decisions ... and if you have a partner, and especially if some of these decisions require both of you, if you can both block off an hour or two a week where your kids can watch a movie or something, and you can have adult time to concentrate, that helps. We like doing that on Sunday afternoons. It's hard to multitask when managing money. And make sure you get your kids on board with some of these things. Children are so receptive for learning this stuff. I'll sit my daughter down and tell her we need to start saving water, and she'll get on board with that and make sure the faucets aren't being left on. It's a great way to teach them about money – and save money.