Single Mothers & Finance: How Do Single Parents Cope Financially?

by Stacey Doyle on 2011-11-1810

Single parenting is a tough road to trek, especially for mothers. In the 1970s, three million households were run by single mothers. In 2003, there were 10 million single mothers raising children on their own. Besides taking over all the everyday personal issues, single mothers also have to make ends meet financially. Often, there is nobody to turn to when they need money. How do some of them do it? I’ve interviewed a few single moms to get their insights on financial management.

How Do Single Mothers Manage Their Finances?

Let’s go through a few real-life case studies.

Sade, An Unmarried Single Mother

Sade is a single mother who has never been married and who works long hours as a nurse to support herself, her son and her mortgage. Sade does not regularly receive financial support. The father sends gifts and provides some monetary support but has moved out of state. There is some resentment over this arrangement. Coming from a large family, Sade has taken in a foster child to offer companionship for her son and to increase their income. But this has also increased her responsibilities, prompting her to try to find additional solutions to her issues. What is her financial plan? She aims to:

  • Define her hours at work so she can care for her son instead of paying big bucks to a day care center. She said, “It costs almost as much to have day care take him off the bus and watch him for a half hour as it would for me to work another four hours. If I don’t rework my hours, my son will never see either of his parents. So I’ve worked out a better schedule with my boss to make things work.”
  • Return to school online. “I don’t have time to attend classes but my job pays for higher education. Going to school online means that I can be with my son with the hope that I can make progress at my current job. I will earn more for working the same hours.”
  • Enlist the assistance of family. Sade has her father staying with her so she can work overtime and occasionally go out with friends. She admits, “I rarely go out but need some time away to recharge.” Her father has health problems and is also a responsibility for Sade, but they’ve made it work so far.

Sonia, A Divorced Professional Mother

Sonia is a professional woman who married her high school sweetheart later in life. They had plans to have one child and two careers. But an emotional crisis struck Sonia’s husband, a former military member who has been to war. It led to infidelity and a wealth of legal problems that Sonia covered with her generous salary. However, Sonia has to work long hours to earn the paycheck needed to cover costs and to remain competitive in her industry. She is in the process of getting divorced and remains on good terms with her ex so that her son has the benefit of both parents. Raised by a single mother, Sonia has invited her mom to stay at her home to help out. What does Sonia do to keep it together?

  • Having her mom live with her allows Sonia to spend less on day care. Her mom fetches Sonia’s preschool son in the late afternoon so that Sonia can work until early evening. This means less day care time for her son and less money spent on outside child care for Sonia.
  • She plans to outsource certain tasks, such as hiring a house cleaner or landscaper once a month. Sonia said, “I tried to do it all myself but it was taking away my energy to work at my job and to care for my son.” She gives herself a much-needed break when it gets overwhelming. Sonia also enlists the assistance of an accountant to help her budget and make the most of her money. “He’s worth every penny because he’s helped me cover the mortgage and invest in a pension plan. He’s also helped me return to school online.”
  • She defines and uses a budget to keep it all together. Sonia sits down every month to go over her personal cash flow situation so she can find ways to save money and cover essentials. “Without a plan, I’d be lost.”

Jennifer, A Divorced Mom Working a Civil Service Job

Jennifer is a typical upper middle class woman who was raised in a privileged home. She has two parents, a good college education and has landed a civil service job. Jennifer married a man with a vastly different background. They have a daughter but the once-happy couple has drifted apart over time. Unlike Sade and Sonia, Jennifer decided to let go of the home they owned during the divorce. How does she make it work as a single mother?

  • She maintains a tight network of friends to help her out. Unfortunately, Jennifer’s mom has passed away while her father lives in a different state, so Jennifer leans on her friends for support. “My friends are like family. My sister also offers her assistance, but I don’t expect her to give up her life for us.” Having help means spending less for day care, housecleaning and more because they share favors rather than pay for these services.
  • She rents an apartment rather than owning a home. “I don’t know how other single mothers keep up with the costs and responsibilities of owning a house,” says Jennifer, who appreciates having landscaped grounds that she doesn’t have to maintain. If something is broken or in disrepair, she simply calls the landlord to get it fixed at no extra cost to herself. She adds, “those unexpected costs can really add up.”
  • Jennifer maintains a civil service job because her salary, raises and hours are predictable. “I need continuity so I know when I can spend time with my daughter, when I can clean and go grocery shopping and when I need to work.” She uses a combination of day care and friends to watch her daughter, and also takes advantage of a low-cost after school program for an hour everyday. “It takes a bit of creativity and planning to save money and to make sure my child is safe and cared for during all hours of the day.”

Maureen, A Widowed Mom with Teen Daughters

Maureen was unexpectedly widowed after over a decade of marriage. Fortunately, she has a steady job working as a chef. Her husband planned well, leaving a life insurance policy and small pension. Despite these facts, she still finds it hard to make ends meet. Her daughters are approaching college age and she feels the pressure to cover the cost of higher education. What are her suggestions to make it happen?

  • Maureen has made the sacrifice to work the graveyard shift. Her daughters were in their late teens when they lost their father. They are responsible kids who are juggling both school and work everyday. Maureen has opted to work nights and has asked her children to accept this adjustment. “I earn a lot more when I work the late shift and thankfully, my daughters are trustworthy. They are able to keep to their responsibilities at home while I work. In the morning, they are both up for school and their own jobs.”
  • The family works together to make it happen. “My daughters realize that we all have a responsibility to cover costs and get what we need or want.” They’ve attended counseling at their church to develop a game plan that would work for their new family structure. Without her husband and parents, Maureen’s support network is slim. She depends on the church, her former in-laws and her daughters to pull it all together. “It’s hard work sometimes, but ultimately, it has brought my small family closer together.”
  • Maureen is always looking to save money. She’s a frugal expert who cuts coupons and shops online to find deals. Maureen also participates in points programs such as MemoLink and MyPoints to earn gift cards for holidays and birthdays. “Every little bit helps.” There was one time when Maureen took out a payday loan but noted that the costs were astronomical. She gave this justification: “I realized that cutting coupons and earning gift cards could make up the difference, and these quick loans weren’t the answer. But I really needed my car repaired to get to and from work that week.” According to her, the payday loan was necessary.

What About Single Fathers?

The number of single parent households that are run by a father has dramatically increased since the 1980s. Today, 15% of such households (two million) are run by single fathers. Women tend to worry about money more because of wage gaps in certain industries. Some still earn about 75% of the salary for the same job that is accorded to their male counterparts. However, men can be ill-prepared to handle the multi-tasking that is required of single parents.

Seth, A Doctor

Seth is a doctor who recently went through a divorce. He earns enough to hire a full-time nanny to keep up with his five-year-old son, but he still finds it a challenge. “I have the money to support my son but I don’t always have the time to devote to him as I am on call very often. It took a while to find the right nanny who shared my personal philosophy for raising children. I make the most of the weekends by engaging in memorable activities with my son.”

Joe, A Widowed Man Who Works In Construction

Joe is a widowed blue collar worker who does roofing and construction. During the busy season, he enlists the help of his mother and sisters. “I can’t afford day care because I have to put money away for the winter.” Careful budgeting is key for Joe, who collects unemployment during the winter. “I get to be with my kids in the winter but money is tight. I take odd jobs to get by. I also cut coupons and write out a budget every week.”

In Closing

Single parenting is not easy. These cases show us that it’s a life situation that can prove challenging. But most folks in this situation try to reach out to networks to get help. Many carefully plan their finances so they can get the most for their children and themselves.

Created November 25, 2007. Updated November 18, 2011. Copyright © 2011 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Angela July 2, 2008 at 4:34 pm

Such an informative post for someone like myself (single, stay at home mom!). I’m new the the whole blogging thing, but would love to get some feedback from someone like you who is established. Mind checking out my blog? I’d totally appreciate it.

Keep up the good work! Added your feed! 🙂

Single Mom October 2, 2008 at 5:57 pm

You bring up a great topic for single moms. You have a lot of good information and I am adding your site to my list of faves! Come check out the new kid on the block and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Single Mom Weekly August 19, 2011 at 8:39 pm

With the way this recession is going, strategies for paying off debt will be quite welcome. Many single moms are already stretched thin financially, so every little tip helps.

Luke November 18, 2011 at 11:02 am

These are interesting stories. I also agree with the previous commenter, that people should start with paying debt off early. I work for a debt collection agency and it is sad that there are so many people who are past due and in deep debt. Regarding the case of that mother who picked up a payday loan — I can understand how a single parent can find themselves in a bind and end up taking a payday loan. But they have to be very careful about falling into the loan trap. They must first have a plan to pay it off quickly before they even apply for this type of loan or they can find it very hard to get rid of.

Another Mother November 19, 2011 at 1:49 pm

While the article may have been informative, it does not seem to represent the majority of single parents. Most listed in the article have training for middle incomes and have a professional status. It does not show that most single parents have to rely on assistance, garage sales, food shelves, and thrift stores for food, clothing, child care, medical care, transportation, and shelter, Nor are there adequate ways to show how to balance or obtain time/resources between work and child raising to get a better education or job. You state it is a “lifestyle that proves challenging”, while I say that for most it is a war of survival just to try to live AND raise your child to be a decent human being mainly on your own. It is a frail house of cards if you are a low income single parent.

If you want to help, how about listing/giving some concrete strategies that work to help single parents and the children: Ways to barter for food, exchange outgrown clothing/toys/household, how to shop and eat more economically, HOW to find time for social outlets (babysitters cost more than dinner and a movie these days! So forget dating!). Even 2 income families could be helped with these strategies. And remember that as the child ages, situations change. It is different to be caring for an infant/toddler compared to raising a pre-teen! Don’t just say there is a struggle and soft peddle it. Please give solid advice and resources, if possible

Silicon Valley Blogger November 19, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Thanks for your points, Another Mother. Our entire site is a resource that provides concrete ideas for saving money. We invite you to check our archives or visit our Frugality and Smart Shopping categories. We wrote about this matter in one article as a way to discuss how people are dealing with their specific situation, and to hail the resourcefulness of folks who are single parents. But we’ve spent a lot of time on sharing concrete strategies as well.

Credit Sesame November 22, 2011 at 8:28 am

You brought up some really great points about what single mothers (and fathers) have to deal with financially. There is no one-size-fits all advice that will work for everyone (and in this economy, it seems like very few single parents aren’t struggling), but you did a good job of showing different strategies for different scenarios. Thanks for showing that the face of single parenthood is a diversified one!

Silicon Valley Blogger November 22, 2011 at 9:47 am

@Credit Sesame,
Single parenthood does have many faces. The common thread I am noticing is how the situation encourages or calls for the support of extended family and perhaps even the local community. I’m amazed by the degree of resourcefulness and courage that single parents display — J.K Rowling comes to mind as a very inspiring example of a single mum who turned her life 180 degrees and who managed to put her name on the map despite all odds!

Kelly November 23, 2011 at 8:34 am

My sister is a single unmarried mother. She has been, since the day my nephew was born (now 8 years old). Luckily she has had the support of her parents and 2 sisters. Otherwise, I’m not quite sure if she could have made it financially…or emotionally. She works as much as she can to support herself and her child and to give him the best life she can. But between all of us, we make sure that little boy is not missing out on anything. A lot of single parents do not have the support system that my sister has. So hats off to those who really are on their own. It’s hard work and lord knows it’s stressful. I hope you all have a happy holiday.

Ask Sara December 29, 2011 at 8:39 am

Great stuff! It is so important for people to understand that they are not alone. With 11.8 million single moms in the US, we are definitely NOT alone!

We also need to remember that being married doesn’t assure we will have wealth, support, or stability. We have to create the lives we wish to lead.

I have been a single mom for over 18 years and my website is designed to provide advice, tips, and support for single moms raising fabulous kids.

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