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Can I afford to be a stay-at-home mom?

Q: I’m expecting our third child. I’ve been a working mom all the way through, but now I feel that I should be a stay-at-home parent, at least for a while. My husband earns a reasonable income, but we’re not rich by any means. Do you think we can afford it?

A: Truth is, unless your spouse is really bringing in big bucks, you probably wouldn’t be asking this question. In short, the likelihood is that you’ll need to cut back on your spending in order to make ends meet.

At base, it’s a matter of being disciplined. Here are the basic areas of your life you can look at in order to free up some cash:

Credit card debt. Cancel the cards you don't need — which means most of them. As a basic rule, you only need two. Then make an effort to transfer any debt you've already incurred to a card with a lower interest rate. (Or, even better, consolidate into a bank loan at a lower rate.)

Cars. Consider going for a used car instead of buying new. You can typically buy a late-model used car for 60 percent of its original value. Not only do pre-owned cars cost less up front, you can often get great financing deals and you'll spend less for insurance.

Everyday expenses. Head to the Web and you'll find loads of advice on how to be thrifty. You can start using coupons, buying things in bulk, or shopping at warehouse clubs like Costco. You can drive on your vacations instead of flying. You can change your idea of entertainment (heading to the aquarium or zoo with a picnic lunch rather than opting for a restaurant and the latest "Spy Kids" movie).

Jean Chatzky’s Bottom Line
This week: Saving on gas
When I leased my Dodge Durango, I knew it was a gas guzzler. It's big — seating seven — and mighty comfortable. I could handle the fact that it was only giving me (according to the onboard computer) 12 to 13 miles to the gallon when it was costing me only $25 to $27 to fill it up. But when it started costing me upwards of (gulp) $40, I needed strategies to make sure I was getting the most out of every last drop. Here's what you need to do, according to the Federal Trade Commission:

Fill 'er up. Not your tank, but your tires. Keeping them inflated to the proper levels (which you'll find in your owner's manual) will boost fuel efficiency.

Pay for maintenance. Changing the oil, spark plugs and filters as recommended in your owner's manual can also help your car run more efficiently.

Stop speeding. According to the FTC, driving at 65 miles per hour rather than 55 will increase fuel consumption by 20 percent; go 75 mph and fuel consumption jumps by another 25 percent. Avoid revving starts as well.

Don’t pay a premium. Finally, make sure you're buying the proper octane gas for your car. Putting premium gasoline in a car that calls for regular won't get you better mileage or significantly improved performance. It will, however, cost you significantly more money.

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for “Today,” editor-at-large at Money magazine and the author of “Talking Money: Everything You Need to Know About Your Finances and Your Future.” Her latest book, "Pay It Down: From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day," is now in bookstores. Copyright ©2004. For more information, go to her Web site, .

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