KERRI-ANNE Manly knows what it's like to have nothing. After her first marriage ended, she and her four girls were forced to live in a single room in her sister's home, unable to afford anything more.
Now remarried with three stepchildren and two grandchildren, the Toowoomba grandmother has achieved the almost impossible - slashing her large family's spending by more than $2200 in a single month without sacrificing a single necessity.
With a few weeks of careful pre-planning, the part-time neonatal nurse reduced her $250 weekly spend on food to just $75 for everything the family would need each week. It transformed her usual end of the month bank balance from less than $200 to an impressive $2524.
Only essential bills such as rent, electricity and insurances were paid, and all ATM and credit cards were off limits.
TAKING CONTROL WITH A FEW EASY STEPS
Kerri-Anne took on the challenge after realising she and her husband had lost control of their finances.
"Once I looked at our spending, there were so many things we could easily cut," she told Kidspot. "I had no idea I was spending so much money on buying the kids a drink in the afternoons at the shops. All of a sudden five drinks added up to over $20, it all added up. We only had takeaway once a week and our monthly food spend was $1000, it was ridiculous.
"Things like Apple Music, Cloud storage and other automatic deductions we weren't really using had to go. It showed me how out of touch our financial situation had gotten because we weren't noticing all these little charges before."
THE MEAL-PLANNING SAVIOUR
Her biggest money saver, however, was planning meals a fortnight in advance.
"I have lists everywhere. One inside the pantry so I know what's there, one on the fridge with the meal plan so everyone knows what to expect," said Kerri-Anne, who details her tips in her Facebook page, Chaotically Organized.
"It was an exercise to use up all our pantry and freezer stockpiles. We did a stocktake of what we had already and meal planned from that. We didn't do a big shop before it started as that would defeat the purpose. The kids got to see when they had steak once a week, it was a big deal."
Rather than deprive themselves, the family found Kerri-Anne's simple meals a comforting return to traditional home cooking, and didn't miss all the takeaways and packaged foods, she said.
"We brought it right back to basics. I used to make a lot of things from scratch and I didn't realise how far I'd gotten away from being a homemade mum with life being so busy and relying on convenience foods, which are so expensive. Convenience costs money."
THE GO-TO 'MASTER SAUCE'
The busy mum, who often takes time out to care for her grandchildren and volunteer, said her go-to recipe was a 'master sauce', a bolognese sauce packed with vegetables.
"We turn it into so many things: lasagne, chilli con carne, pasta dishes, sloppy joes and burritos. I make one huge batch and it saves me time and money. It's healthy and the kids love it. I add some textured vegetable protein and that extends any mince dish I'm making and nobody knows the difference.
"The other favourite was what we call 'oml-izza' - an omelet base with whatever pizza toppings we have. Popped under the grill and it's delicious. The kids tailor it to their tastes so it's an easy option."
Entertainment costs were drastically cut but it meant the family tried many new, free things together.
"We pretended to be tourists in our own town and found a beautiful creek, it didn't take much effort at all," Kerri-Anne said. "We took drink bottles and homemade snacks. Instead of our usual date-night takeaway and buying a pay TV movie, hubby and I had a barbecue, played music and did some funny couples quizzes. We've kept this going now by having TV-free date nights so it's changed us for the better."
A SIMPLE CHANGE = MASSIVE SAVINGS
While she admitted some spontaneous spending was a tough habit to break, Kerri-Anne said the family had achieved its goal.
"The first couple of weeks we had just over $20 left and one week we used the coin tray in the car to scrape together what we needed. The last week we had $16 left so it was a success!"
The resulting boost in her finances couldn't have come at a better time, since just weeks after the budgeting month, Kerri-Anne was forced to take long periods away from work due to illness.
"I was almost useless for three months with very little income but because of those savings, we were in such a good position financially that I didn't have the anxiety of worrying about money on top of getting better."
Now fighting fit again and planning to do another budget-busting exercise next month, Kerri-Anne now never takes anything for granted, especially a trip to the shops.
"I'm a much more conscious spender," she admitted. "Everything I now buy and spend equates to how many hours at work are needed to pay for it. My kids also realise what luxuries are and that they don't need them all.
"We're gearing up to do it again in February so we can fund our goal of taking the family down to Sydney to see relatives."