How to reboot family life: from phone bans to a rainy-day fund

Woman on top of house

‘It’s much better to tackle family life a month, or even a week, at a time.’ Illustration: Giulia Neri/The Guardian

Don’t plan too far ahead

There’s a tendency to focus on the big things coming in the year ahead (a child starting school, a teenager heading to university, a son or daughter getting married) and start worrying. “Make a list of what’s going to happen, then put it in a drawer and forget about it,” says Samantha Abraham, a life coach with 20 years’ experience working with families. “It’s much better to tackle family life a month, or even a week, at a time. Change is going to happen, and it’s often easier to cope with in the moment. You won’t make it easier by worrying.”

Clear clutter

Getting rid of things you no longer need frees up space for fresh energy and ideas. “Make space-clearing a ritual,” Sue Holmes, feng shui and space clearing consultant at firehorse.uk.com. “This is the ideal time for it. Put a bin bag out and ask everyone to contribute before taking it to the charity shop: things you never wear, old toys that aren’t played with, books that will never be read. If it’s difficult for people to part with something, try putting it in a bag and keeping it in a cupboard for a month. If no one has missed it after that, it can go.”

Make mealtimes sacred

In my family, we have only one rule: no phones at shared mealtimes. That includes adults, even visiting ones. Mealtimes are a chance to share across the generations, and for everyone to have a voice and space. They work if everyone pitches in, and respects the value of the occasion.

Take time for yourself

Having said that, it’s worth carving out some space for yourself, to see the big picture. What do you want from life – for yourself, for your family? “Often we’re so busy we don’t focus on our bigger goals,” Abraham says. “Make time to do that: it might be going for a coffee once a week by yourself, or meeting up with someone to talk things through. Try to find someone who’s at a different stage from you to bounce thoughts off. That way, you get a different perspective.”

Start talking about money

This doesn’t happen enough. Look at what the issues are and make a plan. You should be saving, says Brian Brown, consumer finance expert at Defaqto, because every family needs a rainy-day fund. “Think small: regular amounts put away grow, so look at saving even £30 or £50 a month, forget about it, and after a while you’ll have a few thousand. Look at how you can cut back: how about one less takeaway a month? Or look at switching to a cheaper gas supplier.”

A big issue in families right now, says Brown, is intergenerational transfer. Younger people haven’t got enough money for a house deposit, but their parents and grandparents are sitting on valuable properties. “Can you free up some of that capital?” he asks. “Could parents or grandparents sell and move somewhere smaller – or consider equity release, which has some very competitive rates at the moment, or intergenerational mortgages.”

Switch jobs

It’s easy to get into a rut about who does what chores, so why not shake things up a bit? Instead of one person always doing the washing-up and the other putting out the rubbish, swap chores. Or let the person who never does the gardening try some planting, while the gardener cooks.

Get fit together

Fitting in fitness is a big issue for families: everyone knows it matters, for mental as well as physical health, but it’s easy to prioritise other things. Lucinda Newman-Jones, a personal trainer who works with her husband at fitnessrunsinthefamily.com, recommends getting fit together. “That way it’s a bonding exercise – and it’s a lot more fun,” she says. “Try parkruns; or if you go for a jog or cycle ride, take along younger kids on their scooters. Think of the wider benefits, rather than focusing too much on weight loss – it’s about feeling better and having fun with your family rather than fitting into a smaller size of clothes.” Or try an online workout: ring-fence a bit of time you’d otherwise have squandered, and using it for a family keep-fit session. “How about that 20 minutes when the food is in the oven for supper, instead of scrolling through your phone?” says Newman-Jones. “If other people don’t want to join you, just carry right on. Fitness is infectious: if you do it, chances are that eventually everyone else will join in.”

Shop more mindfully

Why are we all hoarding food as though there’s going to be a mass shortage? It’s far better for the planet, and our pockets, to use what we’ve got in our cupboards and freezers, then to buy what we need in smaller quantities. “That’s definitely the way to develop more thoughtful shopping,” says Jenny Chandler, who runs courses for Seasoned cookery school. Every Monday, she whizzes up all the vegetables in her fridge into a minestrone soup, vegetable curry or with chick peas for a flavoured hummus (“don’t worry about a recipe”), forming the basis for lunch or dinner for the week.

Rethink your home

Family space is all about relationships, so you want your home to help you interact. “Reappraise your home with that view in mind: do you have a welcoming place where you can sit with your children?” asks Holmes. “Think about sociability: the focal point is often the TV, but could you move it and make the seating circular, so people are facing one another to encourage conversation?”

Welcome others in

Being generous and welcoming to others outside your immediate family will enhance relationships in every direction. Having friends, relatives or neighbours around your table dramatically reduces the risk of fallouts and changes the dynamic in interesting, and often fruitful, new directions. Invite cousins you’ve not been in touch with for ages over for a meal, or friends you don’t spend enough time with.

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