The struggles of single parents are near and dear to my heart. Several years ago, when my daughter was born, I never imagined that I would have to parent by myself. Then, suddenly, I found myself left with all the bills, half the income, and none of the support.
Raising a child on your own is a tall order. It requires tremendous discipline and luck to emerge unscathed, even with a decent stream of income. If the other parent of your children has left the picture – whether through divorce, death, or some other hardship – you likely remember the day you trembled with uncertainty when you saw all that red accumulating on your budget. I know I did.
Thankfully, with the support of friends and mentors who had also survived the difficulty of an unexpected single parenthood, I learned that it is possible to safeguard yourself from financial hardship without the support of a spouse. It just takes a little savvy and a lot of gumption.
Techniques to Save Money as a Single Parent
When faced with a negative change in financial status, smart advisors generally tell you to immediately slash spending and boost revenue. The attention you pay to your bills and income following a divorce or the death of your spouse might just be the difference between going under and staying afloat.
If I could tell single parents one thing, it’s this: There’s no time for nostalgia when you’re protecting yourself and your children from financial difficulty. Grieve the loss later – now is the time to save and spend wisely so you won’t have to one day grieve the loss of your money too.
1. Make Numerous Backup Plans
Without a spouse to call on when your kids are sick at school or daycare, you may find yourself losing out on hundreds, even thousands, of dollars from missed work and lost opportunities. Of course, your children still need you to care for them in their times of need. What’s the solution?
Develop numerous backup plans so you don’t take a financial hit every time you’re pulled out of work to soothe a sick child. Create a list of people you can call when you’re unable to leave work or when you’re stuck in traffic on the way to pick up your child from daycare. Ask the people on your list if they’re comfortable helping out with occasional childcare responsibilities or daycare pickups, and cycle through the list as needed.
Even if you only end up asking a friend to retrieve your kid from daycare once a month, you could easily save $50 in late pickup charges. That’s $600 per year saved just by calling a friend and requesting 30 minutes of his or her time.
Unless you can easily afford your current home’s rent or mortgage – without relying on child support – look into downsizing as soon as possible. You might need to wait for your lease to come to a close, for a sale to be approved by the court if you’re still married, or for your house to reach its highest value in the marketplace, but there are several benefits to downsizing when you’re able:
- Liquefying an Asset. If you own a home with equity (meaning its value is greater than what you currently owe on it), you may be able to pull thousands – if not tens of thousands – of dollars out of it to help cover expenses while your life is leveling itself out. For instance, my ex and I sold our house immediately after we separated, a full 10 months before the divorce was finalized. It was a painful choice, but it allowed me to draw nearly $10,000 in cash. My ex and I split it down the middle and I used my half to cover a deposit on a new place and pay off a significant chunk of my legal fees. It helped prevent credit card debt and it also removed a major source of contention from our divorce proceedings – who would get the house? Fewer hours spent arguing with lawyers equated to thousands of dollars in savings.
- Reducing Monthly Housing Costs. Even if you choose to stay in your home until the divorce is final and you gain the asset, you can still reduce your monthly expenses by downsizing and liquefying. After you’re divorced – regardless of your proceeds on the sale of the home – you may be able to reduce your monthly payment, perhaps significantly.
- Making Your Family More Mobile. The future is seldom as uncertain as it is when you’re new to single parenthood. Selling your current home and renting another property on a short-term lease can make you more mobile if you need to move for a higher-paying job.
- Reducing Energy Costs. Even if your monthly rent or mortgage remains the same once you downsize, you’re likely to save on energy costs if you move to a smaller place. One friend of mine sold her 2,600 square-foot house and reduced her energy bills from $300 to $100 per month.
Losing your home in exchange for a smaller property is one of the most painful parts of becoming a single parent. However, it’s also one of the choices most likely to keep your family financially solvent. Remember, don’t let emotions and wishful thinking pave the way for financial mistakes. The extra rooms in your house won’t pay your bills.
3. Find a Roommate
I was never actually able to find a roommate, but I certainly tried my best, based upon an excellent experience a friend of mine had with her roommate. If you find a traditional roommate, that person can share the costs of rent and utilities resulting in huge cost savings over time.
Traditional roommates aren’t for everyone though, so try to think outside the box. For instance, you could provide a free room to a college student in exchange for childcare, which could save you up to $1,000 per month. My friend did something similar, and it helped her save money while sharing caregiver responsibilities with another adult. Her kids enjoyed the fun college nanny too, especially as their family went through a significant change.
Before you make the decision to bring another person into your home, be sure to run a background check, and trust your instincts with a potential renter. It’s wise to choose another single parent of the same gender, since adding an opposite-sex roommate to the mix may cause upheaval for your children. It also may be frowned upon by the court, if your divorce isn’t yet final.
4. Slash Your Grocery Bill
Daily variable expenses like groceries represent a great opportunity for cost savings – and they give you room to get extremely creative. I decided to go vegetarian two days per week to reduce grocery bills, since meat products are pricey. I also made a point of only purchasing meat on manager special, which was my grocery store’s way of saying that it was about to go bad. Just put it in the freezer and it should stay good for months. Frozen veggies also pack all the nutritional content of fresh produce, at just a fraction of the cost.
Many single parents have also found success with couponing, or co-oping with other parents and dividing the large, low-cost portions available at warehouse stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club. If you have the space for it, consider planting a garden to slash the costs associated with fresh produce. A friend of mine plants fresh vegetables from seed and saves an estimated $100 per month on her family’s daily homemade salads.
5. Allow Others to Think for You
Without the support of a spouse, it can feel nearly impossible to shop smart at the grocery store. You either don’t have time to create a cost-saving meal plan and grocery list beforehand, or you’re chaotically dragging your children through the store after a long day at work and school. Neither is a recipe for success.
Instead of plunking down as much money as possible to escape the grocery store without losing your mind, allow other people to think for you. For instance, you can subscribe to a service like eMeals, which delivers a meal plan and grocery list to your inbox every week. The $5 to $10 monthly subscription is well worth it, since you’re not wasting time and throwing away unused produce at the end of each week.
It might save your sanity too. Remember that options like frozen dinners may seem like quick fixes in the short-term, but they’re often nutritionally incomplete budget-busters compared to home-cooked meals.
6. Ask for the Gift of Activities
Child activities are another daily variable expense that can add up quickly. Since you’ve downsized and don’t have as much room for toys, ask loved ones to give your children the gift of activity and experience rather than trinkets on birthdays and holidays. If you’re able to accumulate an annual pass to the zoo, botanical gardens, museum, and aquarium, you’re going to be well-prepared to keep your children happy and entertained – and all with no ongoing cost, outside that of driving to your destination.
7. Load Up on Multiple Streams of Income
In my day job as a social worker, I work closely with many single mothers. They like to call the process of creating an income portfolio, “grabbing a little hustle.” I love that phrase. It suggests they have to hustle to create multiple streams of income, but that the income will begin to work for them once it’s established.
Some of these women collect scrap metal on weekends and sell it to pad their incomes. Others work a full-time job, but dabble in mixed level marketing for a small paycheck on the side. It protects them against hardship, buffers their savings account, and allows them to pay for the inevitable clothing purchases or school fees that come with raising children.
How you “grab your hustle” depends on your skill-set, talents, and interests. Personally, I try to keep at least four streams of income going at all times, which is far more important to me than working a traditional full-time job. Currently, I’m working as a social worker, contracting as a grant-writer, evaluating and editing projects for local college professors, authoring a book, freelancing as a creative writer, and collecting a small paycheck from a rental property I own.
My portfolio protects me against a layoff or a low month. Additionally, I do everything I can to create streams of passive income, since there is nothing sweeter than collecting a paycheck for doing very little – which, for me, is renting out a house I own for a few hundred dollars more per month than my mortgage.
8. Find a Childcare Co-op
Childcare costs are exorbitant, and there isn’t much you can do to get around them if you work full-time. There aren’t many alternatives during a 40-hour work week, but the times you need childcare after the work week is over represent an opportunity to save a lot of money.
You can either find a friend and take turns babysitting every other weekend giving yourself a well-deserved break twice a month, or you can join an official co-op for childcare. A babysitting co-op is composed of a group of parents who barter their services with one another. Utilizing this type of exchange just one or two nights could save you about $100 per month.
In the case of a childcare co-op, parents take turns watching a group of children for free, and their payment is an opportunity for free childcare when it’s their turn for a night out on the town. If you’re a woman and are not sure where to start, sign up for the free “dating service” Mom Meet Mom, which can connect you with local mothers looking for play dates and co-ops.
9. Don’t Fear Benefits
Government benefits can feel scary to single parents, particularly if they are used to describing themselves as middle class. However, there’s no shame in seeking help from programs that aid Americans in dire straits – and newly single parents often qualify.
The American welfare system was initially created for single mothers with small children, and it was intended to help those who found themselves in situational rather than chronic poverty. Call 211 to find out more about the programs in your area. They may be able to help with short-term rent assistance, food, utilities, and even childcare. Though programs vary by state and city, a simple call could unlock access to health insurance for children, food stamps, WIC, and even subsidies for childcare. Furthermore, many programs offer job training and job placement assistance if you need help finding higher-paying employment.
Protecting your family from financial chaos can be overwhelming, particularly as you’re grappling with grief. Give yourself permission to grieve for an hour a day, or to spend at least that much time with your children not worrying about money or anything else. You need to commit the rest of your hours to pushing onward and establishing a new financial life for yourself and your kids. This is a painfully stressful time in life, but with the proper planning, you and your family can move on to a future that is full of hope and promise.
What would you tell newly single parents, based upon your experience?