Unsung heroes

Moms are notorious for comparing notes—and price tags—when it comes to big kid expenses (strollers, cribs, even breast pumps). But they’re quieter when it comes to everyday lifesavers, those cheap but dependable items that help quash tantrums, clean up spills, and save sanity. Maybe it’s because the stuff is so totally ordinary it seems silly to praise it. Now it’s time for the workhorses to have their day in the spotlight. Here are a few I’ve found cheap and helpful throughout the course of raising three kids.

A time-consuming snack.
Goldfish crackers and other salty snacks anchor many moms’ snack arsenals. But they can be eaten quickly, and one overturned bag can create an embarrassing, dusty mess. Why not grab more healthful and cheaper foods such as apples or carrot sticks instead? Both are examples of non-messy, time-consuming treats that can divert young ones’ attention when mom is showering at the pool, filling out forms, or trying on clothes at the mall. 

Baby wipes.
Many think there will come a time when they will cross baby wipes off of the shopping list, but I suggest keeping a handy supply long past the diaper stage. From wiping sticky hands to cleaning a dirty bench, with a small box of wipes you’ll avoid the frantic hunt for something, anything that can absorb liquid or clean up a sticky mess in a hurry, and you won’t have to shudder when your kid goes from playground to popcicles. When the wipes are gone, the box comes in handy for all sorts of storage—whether it’s making sure that the parts of a toy set stay together to a sanity-saving place to stick collections of Silly Bandz or Pokemon cards. Plus the boxes are durable, easy to stack, and fun to decorate. 

Cheap, kid activities.
Whether it’s a magazine or coloring book you don’t mind leaving behind, or an easy-to-pack super ball or miniature toy, having a trick or two in your pocket or purse can be a lifesaver, especially when waiting in line or sitting at a restaurant. Loading the iPhone with free or cheap kid-focused apps is another tried and true time-killer, so long as you don’t mind sticky fingerprints on your screen. 

Matching socks.
For moms with two kids who are close in age—even of different genders—think about sharable items that make life easier. Instead of frilly pink socks for one and sports socks for another, buy white crew socks that both can use. No hunting for the right match. Same with gloves and mittens—buy several pairs of identical black mittens. There’s nothing more stressful for a mom late to a meeting than hunting for a missing match. For items that can’t be shared, buy Rubbermaid containers for each kid to store coats, hats, and backpacks near the door so they can grab what they need on the way to the school bus. 

Indulgences for mom.
Most moms spend precious little time taking care of themselves. When the kids are born, both available time and available money shrink, and mom’s weekly tennis date with friends often morphs into taking Junior to tennis lessons. Moms in the know say to set aside a little money for a cheap, spirit-lifting treat or two, whether it’s a bottle of brightly colored nail polish in a trendy hue, a favorite kind of chocolate, or a subscription to a favorite magazine. In order for mom to take care of her family, she also must take care of herself.

Kara McGuire is a personal finance writer and a St. Paul mother 
of three. Send comments, questions and story ideas to