Managing finances as a single parent is no joke. You’re responsible for making money, budgeting, paying bills, and saving for the future with no other adults in the household to help you.
Pew Research Center found that divorced, separated or widowed single mothers earn a median annual income of $26,000 and single fathers $40,000, compared to a median of $57,100 in all households with children and $70,000 in two-parent households.
Thankfully, we’ve talked to 14 experts: single parents and financial advisors who specialize in advising single parents. We asked them this question:
What are the challenges single parents face with finances, and how can they overcome these challenges?
Learn from the best, and empower yourself as a single parent to make your money go further.
Eat in instead of out – this is an obvious saver. Keep in mind that just one meal out for a family of four can often equal half a weekly grocery budget. If you do want to go out, buy gift cards from your fave local spots when they are having promotions. During the holidays, many major chains will give you as much as $20 in free gift cards when you buy a $50 gift card.
Also, try sharing a meal. My son doesn’t always eat all his food when we are out, so I often order something that we both like, along with an appetizer, and we share. It is fun and it saves money!
Know you need to earn more? Why not put together a plan to improve your marketable skills? Write down your goals — whether you want to learn code, get an online certificate or even become head of your department — think big! What do you hope to accomplish in the next 5, 10 or 15 years? Capitalize on your talents, your skills and more to maximize your true earning potential. And again, write it down — there’s huge power in doing that.
Single moms face financial challenges that come with having a single-income family. This is especially challenging if child support is an issue. Overcoming obstacles in paying for rent or mortgage, childcare, and more comes with a careful balance of the budget and being very frugal. There are a lot of extras that we spend money on – nice-to-haves like cable TV – but they are not needs and can be cut out.
Another wonderful way to help with a tight budget on a single income is to start a side hustle. My blog is a side hustle, and it helps me earn additional income that I can use to fund some splurges outside our family budget.
One of the issues that single parents can face is that, financially, there isn’t room for a disaster. Not having an emergency fund or plan means that when something goes wrong, it can be more expensive to address, through higher interest credit or late fees for other bills that are delayed to accommodate it. Planning to build an emergency fund, selecting warranties where it makes sense for critical things that are expensive to replace, and not skimping on things like content insurance for your home are really important.
The other piece is that there can be a temptation, when you are a single parent, to pay for things done by others, because as the person that is always taking care of everyone, it’s nice to be nurtured every once in a while. That might show up in coffees or meals outside the home, or other things that might not be in the budget but feel psychologically necessary. Look for ways to feel nurtured through the people in your circle that don’t have to involve spending money. Be aware of the need you’re trying to fill. Do you want a fancy coffee, or do you want the experience of someone caring enough to make you one?
There’s a lot of mindset stuff around money when you are overdrawn emotionally – when you’re asked for too much, feeling entitled to indulgences seems really true, and it is, but it might be healthier to frame it as being worthy of indulgences. You can be worth those things and not act on that. Know you’re worthy of it but make a choice that works best for you in the longer term. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get the fancy coffee, but if regular indulgences are keeping you further and further from your financial goals, it might be worth evaluating where that is coming from emotionally.
I think one of the most damaging things a single mom can do is compare herself to others. Money is tight, but you’ve established a budget and you stick to it, always asking yourself – do I truly need this, or do I just want it? You celebrate the little things and get excited when you score a brand-new shirt with tags at Goodwill for $1.29! You have fun Friday night playing board games with your kids and taking a trip to McDonalds to splurge on ice cream cones.
And then you scroll through Facebook. You see pictures of friends on vacations, out to dinner, buying new furniture, new cars, new houses. Suddenly those ice cream cones you treated your kids to become less special in comparison to the lobster dinner your friend is having in Barbados at this very minute. Comparison breeds discontent and can easily sabotage that long-standing budget as you try to squelch the feeling of inferiority by attempting to keep up with the Joneses.
Cultivate an attitude of thankfulness for the blessings you have. Step back from social media if you find it difficult to be happy for your friends without envy creeping in. Remember, as a single mom you may be on a tighter budget than your friends, but that doesn’t diminish your worth in any way.
- One income
One large financial challenge that single parents face would be that there is typically one income at their disposal to raise a child.
A way to overcome this challenge is to take advantage of government assistance programs related to food that are available such as SNAP (food stamps) and WIC (supplemental food grants for women, infants, and children).
The aid from the government can be enough to help a single parent along until they are able to get to a better paying job and provide more through the help of governmental programs.
- Inability to improve one’s position in life
When you are a single parent, improving your position in life can be extremely difficult, as you may not have the time our resources to pursue the education or workforce training that you need to help take care of your family.
Luckily, a program called TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) helps families and specifically, single parents in financial need to achieve self-sufficiency.
TANF will provide single parents with job training, counseling, education, and emergency funding, to help them push through difficult financial times, and begin to succeed and thrive as a single parent with their finances.
- Costly daycare
A single parent does not have the luxury of being able to rely on the other parent to watch their children while they are at work, and vice-versa, and childcare can definitely be very expensive.
There are several government grants that assist single parents with childcare, so the single parent can work, but not have to worry about the cost of taking care of their children or cutting back on hours so they can watch their children.
An example of this is CCAP (Child Care Assistance Program), which is available to low-income working families; the grant typically covers the cost of childcare.
This gives the single parent the peace of mind to continue to work and save up money, while not having to worry about having to pay the very expensive bill that childcare services adds up to.
Another example of this is the CCDF (Child Care Development Fund) which helps individual parents who are lower income and in need of more affordable childcare.
Single parents often face high childcare costs and other child-related expenses like food, clothing, and healthcare. They can find a legitimate work-from-home job to help pay for child-related expenses while taking care of their children at home to reduce childcare costs.
- One income: Of course, the most common financial problem faced by single parents is raising children on a single income. In some cases, the parent may be receiving some additional income in the form of child support, but this often doesn’t work out the same as having a second full income in the household, and can often be unreliable. This can also be the most difficult financial problem single parents face, because it’s not easy to just come up with more money. And not having enough money can cause a lot of problems beyond just financial problems.
For single parents struggling with one income, looking for ways to bring in more money, such as taking on a side hustle or getting a part-time job, can be helpful in supplementing and covering living expenses. It can be very frustrating if you’re relying on an ex for money or if you’re still embroiled in the legal process which can drain you financially.
Consider trying to get the best job possible to be independent, and don’t be afraid to ask for family for help if you can during your most challenging times. Remember that you’ll get through it, and while you and the kids may not have everything you want, it’s important you have everything you need. It is also a good idea to consider having the kids pitch in to lower costs. As they get older, they can get part-time jobs so that they have their own money and the pressure is off you to some extent.
- Debt: Struggling with one income can often lead to debt, particularly credit card debt. Having too much credit card debt can then make other financial tasks difficult, such as buying a home or getting a car loan. If you’re a single parent struggling with debt, once again looking for ways to bring in some extra cash can be helpful in paying down your debt.
Additionally, you may want to re-examine your budget and find places where you can cut back to put some extra money towards your debt payments. Having children is very expensive, and at different times of the year the costs increase, like when they go back to school or during the holidays, so plan early and be realistic about what you can afford.
- Child care: Child care is expensive even for two-income households, let alone a single parent. I had to have babysitters for my three children while I worked. It is very expensive, and often you feel crippled by the child-care costs. This includes nursery school programs, babysitters for kids of all ages since children need to be watched until their mid-teens depending on the child, tutors, and summer programs, which can be difficult. If your employer offers a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account, you might want to consider contributing to one, or looking for child care share opportunities. This can help you save, because it allows you to pay for child care with pre-tax dollars. Additionally, taking advantage of child tax breaks can help with the cost of child care.
- Taxes: Speaking of taxes, they can be tricky as a single parent as well. If the child’s other parent is living, you’ll need to communicate about who is going to claim the child as a dependent on their taxes. Parents are not able to split the credit, but they can alternate years in which they claim the child as the dependent. As a single parent, additionally, you are likely the head of the household, which increases your standard deduction if you were not filing that way in the past.
- Food: Putting food on the table is always important as a parent, but single parents often may struggle to find the time, energy and money to put together a good meal. Unhealthy food is generally cheaper, but that can lead to other negative consequences for you and your family. Instead of hitting the drive-thru, pick one day a week to cook a large quantity of food, and then freeze it to get three or four more meals out of it during the week.
When you are a single parent, you have all the bills and only one income. This can make it difficult to make ends meet, much less pay off debt and build wealth. So many single parents have to work two jobs, which means they miss time with their kids. And the guilt from that leads to the second challenge – the ability to say no. A lot of single parents give their kids everything they want, due to the guilt of their situation. They don’t want to ever say no. What parents don’t realize is that this hurts the kids and hurts the parents – emotionally and financially.
The best way to overcome these challenges is to identify them and own them, and in the process release the guilt. You are awesome and doing what you can do to provide for the needs of your family. There is nothing wrong with that. Also, make sure you are honest with your kids about things. Explain to them why you are working. As appropriate, let them in on the finances – enough for them to see the challenge. And finally, think outside the box for ways to save and earn money that gives you time with your kids because, in the end, that is all they really need. They need you – not the stuff.
One challenge that single parents face is not having a co-parent to discuss financial decisions with.
I consider myself to be pretty financially literate, for example, but there have still been several times during my marriage when my wife has “talked me off the ledge” before making a bad choice. In hindsight, she has been right and I have been wrong several times. Just having a second person involved to balance out any impulsive or biased decisions can be a huge help.
Single parents can overcome this challenge by seeking financial counsel or input from someone else in their life who they respect. This can be a parent, a friend, an accountability partner, or even a professional financial advisor. Even if you are intelligent and informed, there will always be times when making a decision under pressure will be difficult. So, find someone who can be a sounding board for big decisions.
If you have other friends who are also parents, they could be a good option! Whether single parent or co-parent, meeting for coffee or lunch a few times a month and discussing financial matters can be a major benefit.
If you choose to work with a financial advisor, I strongly encourage interviewing a few before choosing. I also recommend confirming that they are a fiduciary (obligated to serve your best interests) and that they are fee-based. A commission-based advisor, in contrast, will be incentivized to sell you products that you might not need.
The biggest money challenges I’ve faced as a single mom have been paying off debt, saving money and improving my credit. Over the last five years, I’ve built a six-figure business, paid off all my debt except my mortgage (yay, debt freedom!), grown my credit score to the 780s range and saved nearly a half a million dollars. And it’s something I think a lot of single parents are capable of with the right resources and tools.
I think the biggest problem is that single parents have to support themselves and a child, while often not having enough resources to do both. Many single parents also don’t receive enough or any child support, either because the other parent is shirking their duties or because they don’t make enough money.
One way single parents can overcome these challenges is to make sure they’re applying for any and all government benefits they may be eligible for. This is no time to be prideful. If you need help, contact local and state government agencies to ask what you might be eligible for. Your local United Way may also have suggestions on what you can qualify for, both from government agencies and non-profits. They can connect you with a variety of services you didn’t know you were eligible for. Again, getting outside help is key.
Many single parents may not know about all the different programs they’re eligible for, or ways to save money on basic expenses. By connecting with social workers and agencies, they can find the tools and resources to help them and their children succeed.
Inconsistent or non-existent child support
The best course of action is to have the court handle the child support payments. This takes away the need to talk to the other parent about when you’ll get paid, and if you’ll get paid, and avoid questions as to what you’re doing with the money. Some states take an admin fee out of the payment each month if you set this up, but its worth removing this unpleasant conversation.
Even with automatic child support payments, it’s not uncommon to have missing payments, or go a long stretch without the payments, depending on the other parent’s job history. It’s for this reason, its advisable to not count on the child support coming in as part of your income. If it comes, great, but it’s not a reliable source of income.
Surviving on one income with children in daycare particularly if mother didn’t work before a divorce
Constantly assessing where there is help for watching the kids and for free or low-income assistance is key. Many churches offer assistance for single mothers, such as car maintenance services or clothes closets. Search in your local area and ask around at local churches; it’s normally fine if you don’t attend services there, as the idea is outreach. Don’t be afraid to take others’ help, remembering that one day in the future you will repay the kindness.
One of the biggest challenges single parents face is managing their household within their budget. In real-world terms, meeting a budget may seem insignificant compared with things like education, food, transportation, housing, and medical expenses. But not managing within a budget can quickly lead to cascading problems that can get magnified. Suddenly, it gets really easy to fund monthly expenses with a credit card and then those interest expenses can get out of control rapidly.
Because time can be in such short supply in single-parent households, I’m a fan of keeping things simple. So, I really like the 20/30/50 budgeting rule. The general idea with this type of budget is that you want to separate your after-tax income into three main buckets: the 50% bucket, the 30% bucket, and the 20% bucket.
Your largest bucket, the 50%, represents all your essential expenses. Things like rent / mortgage payments, car payments, groceries, and utilities. These are all items that you have to pay each month, no matter what.
Your next category is the 30% bucket, which represents all the things you would like to have. These are all your fun, discretionary needs like eating out, entertainment, vacations, and other fun things that you don’t need, but would like to have.
The final category is the 20% bucket, which is for saving. This bucket includes contributing to a 401(k), a Roth IRA or other retirement account, general emergency savings, and future expenses like a home down payment.
Pair your budget with a free financial management tool like Mint. Mint will automatically track all your expenses from your credit cards, bank, and investment accounts. You can easily sort all the data from your phone. It will save you an incredible amount of time by doing most of the budgeting work for you.
Another big issue is the challenge of saving for retirement vs meeting education expenses. It’s really important to try and save a small amount into a Roth IRA each month. This is very important for a few reasons. Retirement savings is typically not penalized against financial aid when applying for colleges.
The other thing is that a Roth IRA can be a very last resort emergency fund. Because the savings are contributed after tax, you can withdraw any contributions tax free (earnings can not be withdrawn without penalty, but contributions can). So, you still can access the funds if you really need them. But you should try to keep them as a very last resort.