Posted by: Sara S. | March 20, 2009

Q&A: Get in touch with your inner Mommy on a Shoestring

If you consider yourself a creative mother who manages creativity on the cheap, you’re not the only one.

Beth Engelman, who lives in Glenview and comes up with all sorts of inexpensive crafts for her kids, has dubbed herself an official “Mommy on a Shoestring.” Her column of the same title is filled with activities and games that budget-conscious parents can do with their kids. The author of several children’s books and a former teacher, Ms. Engelman has no shortage of experience on the subject of wee ones. Below, she answers questions on being a savvy mother and, after the jump, lists a slew of ideas for how to entertain kids during Spring Break!

1. If I want to keep 5 cheap items in my home for a rainy day with the kids, what should they be?

Precious Junk: keep your recyclables (cereal boxes, paper towel rolls, orange juice containers, etc.) in a bin to be used for invention making, art projects and the like. We just used an old latte cup, water bottle and 2 cardboard boxes to make an airport that would rival

Powdered tempera paint: I like powdered paint as it keeps longer and doesn’t run the risk of drying out.

Construction paper: for painting, making paper chains, grass skirts, etc.

Chocolate pudding: when in a pinch, nothing is more fun than finger painting with pudding.

Pantry staples such as cream of tartar, flour, salt, sugar, cornstarch, baking soda and flour: these items can be used to make everything from goop to play dough to bubble bath balls.

*My favorite activity is finger-painting with chocolate pudding (on wax paper), which is always a crowd pleaser in my home. Making inventions, robots, remote controls, and airports out of “precious junk,” paint, glue and construction paper is a close second.

2. I’m newly unemployed and now spending more time at home. Do you have recommendations for how to juggle my job search and applications without making my kids feel neglected?

Buddy Up: If possible, try to find a neighbor, friend or relative who can swap childcare duties with you. In these tough times, we are all in the same boat and hopefully you have a friend who can watch your children while you do a little work and you can watch her children next time she needs a little time for herself.

Wake up early: It might not sound fun, but you can get a lot done in the wee hours of the morning. I am a big fan of sleep, but if you go to bed early enough, waking up with the roosters won’t be as hard and will afford you some time to get your job search in order.

Give your kids work to do alongside of you: In my studio, I have an area that is reserved for my son. He has his own markers, paper, stickers and Legos. On those days when I need to work and don’t have childcare options, I find activities that will engage him as he works by my side. Sometimes, having you in the same room is all that your child may need to feel comfortable enough to play independently.

Find a mommy’s helper: If you have toddlers at home, you might be able to get extra work done if you hire a mommy’s helper. A mommy’s helper is usually someone who is old enough to follow the rules and watch your toddlers, but not old enough to baby-sit or be alone with your toddler. I use my Mommy’s helper on weekday afternoons, when I am writing and need an extra pair of hands and eyes. She and my son will play in the family room while I type on the computer nearby. That way I am right there if needed, but for the most part my son is happily engaged with his “friend.”

3. The summer is coming and I’m debating whether to send my kids to camp (but it’s expensive!). What are some cheaper ideas for how my kids can spend the summer?

Cut down on costs this summer by creating your own camp-like experience. Most local libraries, community centers and public pools have wonderful summertime activities on the cheap. Most communities in the Chicagoland area also have tennis courts that are free and available to the public as well as public golf courses that charge relatively small green fees. Having Lake Michigan nearby opens up a slew of beach activities such as Frisbee, beach volleyball and swimming.

4. How did you get into this line of work?

I got divorced around the time my son was born, so I quickly learned how to manage on a limited budget. I started to make small changes that didn’t affect my lifestyle but meant big savings at home. Professionally, I have always been creative with my work, first as a kindergarten teacher and then developing books and games for Leap Frog Toys and Piggy Toes Press. As the economy turned sour, I started finding new ways to cut corners: making my own gifts and coming up with inexpensive projects to do with my son. Hence the idea for Mommy on a Shoestring was born.

5. What inspired you to share your activities and money-saving advice with others?

Last fall, when my son turned 3, I hosted a birthday party on the cheap. I made 20-cent birthday invitations by writing all the information on an easel and taking a picture of my son standing next to it. He and I made play dough to give out as party favors, and we made the birthday cupcakes as well. I noticed the other moms really liked my “birthday-party-on-the-cheap” model and started following a similar suit for their own kids’ parties. I feel that by scaling back on the bells and whistles, we are giving our children a chance to learn how to make their own fun.

After the jump: How to keep your kids entertained this Spring Break without breaking the bank!

Be the Mommy for the Morning!

This idea came to me from a dear friend, Amy Hamill, who is one of four children. Amy’s very smart mother would allow each of her daughters to be the mommy for the morning. That meant the child got to make all the morning decisions including making breakfast, getting everyone dressed, choosing a morning activity, you name it! Giving your children this type of ownership strengthens their self-esteem and self-reliance as well as provides a lot of fun and memories for your family.

“YOJNE” Backwards Day

Another fun idea is the timed-honored Backwards Day. Basically you and your kids spend you day in reverse! For example, when you wake up in the morning, watch a movie with popcorn. After the movie, cook up a little pizza for “dinner”. In the afternoon, make a big bubble bath for your children using handmade “paints” (shampoo mixed with food coloring). Kids can stay in the bath till the water gets cold, painting on the walls and tub with their handmade “paints.” After their bath, everyone gets into their jammies for a delicious pancake breakfast.

Capture the Moment with Pictures

A wonderful activity for when the weather warms up is creating a photo gallery with your children. The first step is to get a disposable camera and then take your children out for a walk. I recommend a disposable camera because they are inexpensive and more importantly, they are fairly indestructible (which is always a plus when dealing with children). Take a walk around your neighborhood with your budding photographers and watch their imaginations run wild as they snap away at all the “cool” things they see. You might even consider taking your children into the city and letting them photograph the busy streetscapes and skyscrapers. Once the roll is finished, get the pictures developed and sort through them with your children, picking out the photos they like best. Together you and your children can create an art gallery by mounting their favorite pictures on colored paper and hanging them on an empty wall. Encourage your children to name each image just as a professional photographer would. To make the gallery theme even more special have a “gallery opening” where you invite family and friend over for a viewing. Be sure to serve refreshments. I recommend following the stained glass cookie recipe (listed below) for a delightful and colorful treat!

Think Spring with Stained Glass Window Cookies

These cookies make great window decorations or are a tasty treat when served with cold milk!


One bag of hard candies (Jolly Ranchers work well)

1 roll of Pre-made sugar cookie dough or make your own sugar cookie dough.

Step 1: Pre-heat over to 350 degrees.

Step 2: Crush the hard candies into small pieces by placing them in a plastic bag and pounding them with a mallet (Let your kids do this – they’ll love being “allowed” to pound something).

Step 3: Slice cold cookie dough into circles and roll out into 1/4-inch thick circles. Using a sharp knife cut a hole in the middle of each cookie and fill it with bits of broken candy.

Step 4: Place cookies on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet (you do not want to ruin your cookie sheet!) Bake for 17-20 minutes or until cookies are brown and candy is melted. Allow to cool and enjoy! To hang your cookies in the window, punch a hole at the top of each cookie prior to baking and then thread ribbon or string through the hole once the cookies have cooled.

Open a restaurant in your home

Spring Break is the perfect time to get your kids interested in cooking and nutrition. Talk to your children about their favorite kinds of food, restaurants and store bought items. Encourage your children to look through cookbooks and recipe boxes for new ideas and twists on old favorites. To make the meal planning more memorable, let your children turn your kitchen into a restaurant for the night. Your chefs can shop with you for the needed groceries, design the menus, decorate the tables, pick the mood music and wait on their customers. Who knows, you might find your child is the next Wolfgang Puck.

Can’t go to the beach? Watch the waves with an ocean in a bottle

This is a great project that is easy to make, requires a few ingredients and teaches your a little science in the process.


1 clear plastic bottle with top (a liter soda bottle works well)

½ – 1 cup vegetable oil


Blue food coloring

Glitter (optional)

Fill 2/3 of the bottle with water.

Add oil until the bottle is almost full.

Add a few drops of blue food coloring.

Place cap on bottle and make sure it is screwed on tight.

Now, move the bottle around and watch the glittery waves roll.

And for something really different…try Letterboxing

Check out to learn about this fascinating and fun activity. Letterboxing is a community-organized treasure hunt where unconnected people place letterboxes throughout the United States. It is best to do with children over 5 and requires some planning and preparation. Be sure to check out the website or the book, The Letterboxer’s Companion by Randy Hall.


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