For Dave and Pam Blair, it doesn't just pay to be frugal, it's a necessity.
The Brainerd couple - he's a Brainerd Post Office letter carrier and owns BBB Tree Service while she is a stay-at-home mom - are the parents of 11 children, ages 1-21, and are expecting their 12th child in early June.
Through the years, the family has discovered ways to trim its budget and live comfortably within their means. They offered to share tips and advice to smaller families who in these tough economic times may be having a difficult time finding ways to make ends meet.
Their children include Matthew, 21, a senior at the University of Minnesota in Crookston; Christina, 20, a sophomore at the U of M in Crookston; Kayla, 18, a high school senior; Miranda, 15, a 10th-grader; Jennifer, 14, an eighth-grader; Nickolas, 12, a sixth-grader; Megan, 10, a fifth-grader; Nathan, 9, a third-grader; Catherine, 6, a first-grader; Jonathan, 4; and Abigail, 1.
With the exception of the two eldest children who are in college, the rest are home-schooled by their mom.
Life is busy at the Blair home, particularly around meal times. It isn't cheap to feed a family of 13, but the Blairs have found the following ways to lessen the burden of high grocery bills:
Buy groceries at the grocery store and drugs at the drug store. Sounds simple enough, but those items you pick up for convenience often cost more. An exception would be milk. The Blairs buy four gallons of milk at a time since they go through 2-1/2 to three gallons per day, and often purchase milk at a gas station since it can often be less expensive there. Shop around. Pam Blair knows the Brainerd area grocery stores well and knows a good deal when she spots one.
Make a list and stick to it. Pam Blair never shops on an empty stomach and tries to leave the children at home on the larger grocery trips since they usually add items to her cart. She makes a weekly meal plan, keeping in mind all the items kept in the freezers or pantry, and uses coupons and shops for sale items. Sometimes when she's in town she'll check out the meats marked for temporary reduction and has found great deals on meats she'll either freeze for later or serve that day. December and January are good times to look for specials on hams and roasts while before Thanksgiving and Christmas is a great time to buy extra turkeys or other meats to freeze for later.
Make a food budget. Generally, she tries to limit the cost for dinners for her large family to under $20, usually less for breakfast and lunch. Each day, a child or two is responsible for planning and preparing breakfast, which could involve pancakes, toast, eggs and fruit, but mom gets final approval to make sure the food groups are covered. Blair said they usually don't buy cereal since the family would go through many boxes in one sitting. Instead, everything is homemade, which provides a considerable cost savings. Sometimes she'll bring a couple of kids shopping, along with a calculator, so they can figure out what foods are more cost effective and to add up how much a meal would cost, a helpful life skill for the children.
Grow your own food. The Blairs have a garden at their home and also maintain a half-acre garden on land they own. All the children work in the garden, which provides them with canned food throughout the winter. They also have developed relationships with many farmers in the area and visit the local farmer's markets often, purchasing bulk items like blueberries, grapes, cucumbers and other foods that they put up for winter. She'll buy 100 pounds of potatoes at a time for $15-$20, a considerable savings than buying smaller bags throughout the year. She keeps a journal where she tracks the amount of canned items they'll need to last the winter. She knows if she wants to serve green beans twice a week for dinner, then she needs to can at least four quarts of green beans for each week since the family goes through two quarts per meal. They alsåo buy locally-raised grass-fed beef from local farmers and stockpile the meat in their four deep freezers. The Blairs said this not only saves them money but provides them with healthy locally grown and raised food throughout the winter months.
Hunt your own food. Nearly every Blair child hunts, or at least the younger ones help their dad scare up pheasants while he's hunting. They hunt turkeys, waterfowl, deer, and more. The family usually shoots about six to seven deer a year, providing them with venison throughout the year. The experience also provides the younger ones a lesson on gun safety well before they're able to hunt.
Barter your services. If possible, this can save you money. The Blairs provide a winter's worth of firewood for one of their neighbors, a butcher, who in turn processes their deer for them. Offer to babysit for a neighbor who can, in turn, babysit for you.
Get out and fish. This is a big family outing for the Blairs. They often spend the day out at their fishhouse and even have lunch out there. Not only does it provide food on the table but Pam Blair said by teaching their children to fish and hunt, they are providing a life skill for them. It's fun, too.
Bake, don't buy. The family doesn't buy packaged cookies or other treats because it's too expensive for such a large family. Instead, they bake their own cookies and Blair often bakes four loaves of bread at a time, which last about two days. She'll buy bread at a local bread outlet store if she doesn't have time to bake. Just before Christmas the grocery stores often run sales on baking items, like chocolate chips, so that's when she'll buy up as much as she can to last the year and freezes them for use later.
Heat your oven once. If Blair plans to bake bread or rolls, she'll plan ahead to throw a casserole or dinner in the oven afterwards to take advantage of the hot oven. It takes a lot of energy to heat up an oven, she said.
A food vacuum sealer is your friend. The Blairs buy in bulk and will break down packages into smaller portions, vacuum seal them and freeze them. They also use their vacuum sealer to freeze venison and other meats they caught or shot.
A typical Blair meal includes at least 30-40 percent of foods they canned or hunted themselves. She makes her own baby food and nurses her babies, which is also a cost savings. She makes her own baby wet wipes, laundry soap and cleaning supplies, recipes that can be found online if you search frugal living websites, she said. Some people save money by using cloth diapers but she usually buys off-brand diapers.
The Blairs never buy anything on a credit card, unless they pay it off right away. In their lean family household budget they always put a little aside for things that can't be predicted, like the washing machine breaking down or if the car needs to be fixed.
"We've found if we can live below our means, we're better off," said Pam Blair.
Dave Blair said it pays to shop around for the best rates. They recently saved $500 a year on their car insurance.
Other Blair family tips:
Buy used or on clearance. The Blairs never buy anything like clothing for full price. They buy items on clearance or gently used items at thrift shops or garage sales. Often friends give them clothing for the children and Blair never turns it down. She picks out what the children can wear and passes the rest on to other families in need.
Sew or knit it yourself. Blair has knitted hats and mittens for her children, which was a cost savings, and has sewn her daughters' prom dresses.
Save heating costs. The family turns down their heat at night and keeps the temperatures at 80-82 degrees in the summer to just take the humidity out of the air. They also primarily heat with wood that they cut themselves.
The Blairs said they're open to having more children - she's 43 and he's 49 - and have faith in God that he will always provide for them.
"God always provides for us and I don't know how," said Pam Blair. "Maybe the beans will start producing (in the garden) or I'll discover a ham in the freezer - things happen. You really learn to trust in God."
They say there are many benefits of having a large family. The children always have someone to play with and have learned to think not just of themselves but of others, too. When Dave Blair blew his knee out while tilling their garden last April, their eldest son Matthew drove home often from college to finish up his tree removal jobs to help them out financially. All of the children lend a hand when one is needed.
"Anywhere we go there's a lot of pride with walking in with this group of kids," said Pam Blair. "My children have no qualms about helping others. If someone needs help, they help out. It's a great source of pride."
"I'm not raising kids, I'm raising young adults," added Dave Blair. "And they step up to the plate."
"Some will look at us as poor but the riches we have you can't put a price on," said Pam Blair. "The riches we have are family, health and love and you can't put a price on it.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.