When I first became a single mom, I had three children under 5 to raise. That meant 3 kids in diapers, daycare and needing me to do almost everything for them. I also had to work to pay the bills.
I had to find a way to make it work for me and them. There was no room for failure, so I found what worked for me. I can't tell you who said this to me, but hold onto the following quote. It's resonated with me many times over the years and is very true.
“You need to budget for yourself because nobody is going to take care of you.”
Most of us don’t enter parenthood planning to do it alone. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always go according to plan. Whether you're breaking away from an abusive relationship, filing for divorce, or your spouse passed away suddenly, it’s important to know that you are not alone. There are many single mothers who have found themselves in the same situation.
It's never too late to make a change and take control of life, even if you are a single parent. It may be challenging, but with proper planning and budgeting, it can be done!
The biggest mistake single moms make with their budgets is not prioritizing what's important. Before you buy anything, ask yourself: “Do I really need this?” If the answer is no, then don't buy it. When you need to stick to a budget, this question will come up a lot. As things change, the answer won't always be no, but you need to get into the right mindset to succeed first.
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The first mindset is to think of your budget as a spending plan. As you spend money, it's important to be mindful about the things that are most important and how much they cost. Once you know what's most important, focusing on the rest of your budget and what you spend is a little easier.
Here are my five tips for single moms that will help you keep your finances in order:
Know and track what you spend
Single moms can easily fall victim to convenience, impulse buys, or even blackouts because we don’t know what we’ve spent. Keeping a running account of what you spend is the easiest way to see where your money goes, and it will help you start making positive changes in how much debt or savings you have.
Tracking everything you spend: rent/mortgage, insurance, food, gas, and utilities can help you see where your money really goes. How you do this depends on how your mind works. Some will find keeping a budget sheet is easiest, while others will prefer to keep a running tally from the receipts of the day.
More often than not, as you start to keep track of what you spend every day, you'll find small ways to cut expenses. Packing lunches and snacks instead of stopping at the convenience store or going through the drive through. Making your own fancy coffee at home instead of hitting up your favorite barista every day. You'll be surprised at the savings you'll find when you start tracking what you spend.
Budgeting is a lifestyle, not just when money is tight
Many people budget when they are in dire straits financially, but if single moms make the commitment to budget every month, they will realize that it’s not just for emergencies. As you get in the habit of regular budgeting, you will see that it is a powerful tool for responsible money management.
Your budget will change as your children grow, as well. When they're little, you'll be budgeting for diapers and daycare. As they grow, more will be budgeted to groceries and activities. Budgeting is about more than just being able to pay the bills on time each month. You'll go from budgeting to save for emergencies, to budgeting so your kids can have a great future.
Your budgeting goal should be to have enough money set aside each month for any unexpected costs, plus five percent for savings. Don't worry about getting to this point overnight. It takes time to develop a budget, but it's important to stick to it.
Track your progress
Tracking finances is one of the most important steps in budgeting, but many people find it difficult to keep themselves accountable. Finding ways to stay accountable is key.
Try making a budgeting challenge with your single mom friends and see who can stick to their goals the longest! Decide on a goal for a week, month or longer and track how well each of you stick to it. See who can go the longest make their lunches for work instead of buying convenience foods or who can avoid the coffee shop longer and brew their own. Be creative and make it fun.
It’s important for single moms to understand their finances realistically. Most people don’t have an unlimited amount of money, so it can be hard to know what they should and shouldn’t spend on.
We want to give our children the best life possible, but we need to remember to do it within reason. You don't want to over-extend yourself to give them everything they want but you want to make sure they have what they need. Being realistic about what's important and what's available can help you do this.
The kids may be upset about not getting that toy they want or going on that trip you can't swing financially right now, but the feeling will pass. As they get older, they'll also start to understand and learn to budget for themselves, if they see you doing so.
Use your resources
There are lots of online budgeting tools that make it easier for single moms to keep up with their finances, and a lot of them are free. There are also so many ways to help you build an emergency fund and save for the future.
Free budgeting worksheets are available online and even in Word and Excel. You can choose daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. They even range from basic to more complex (with graphs), depending on what you prefer.
Mint.com is a great option if you prefer having everything accessible on your mobile device. It offers the ability to connect all of your accounts and keeps a running balance of them in one view.
Self is a great resource to start saving and build credit at the same time. It's basically a loan to yourself with a very low fee. You set up your account, set a loan amount and payout terms when the loan ends. Self then acquires a CD at one of their partner banks in your name for the amount of your ‘loan' and each monthly payment goes into the loan account. Once the ‘loan' has matured, the CD is cashed in and the funds (minus applicable fees and interest) is released to you. So, this gives you the option to save and help build your credit at the same time.
Additional Budget Friendly Tips
In addition to the budget mindset I've successfully used, these additional tips can help you attain and stick to a budget while giving you a little bonus along the way. Bonus and cash back programs are great ways to cushion your budget or reward yourself with a splurge here and there for sticking to your budget.
Try a no-spend month (or two!)
What's this, you ask?
Well, it's just what it says. You don't spend money on anything except essentials (rent/mortgage, utilities, groceries). It really puts in perspective how much of your income is taken up by wants versus needs.
We really don't think about what we spend on things that aren't necessities until we keep tabs on it.
I totally get that you will only buy that name brand pasta or just one specific brand of toilet paper, but are there other items that it wouldn't matter as much?
Do you really need that barista to make your coffee every day? Yes, it's enjoyable, but could that $5-8/day be used better elsewhere in your budget?
These are things a no-spend month can help you see. It can help put what's really important into focus and help you find ways to modify your budget that you wouldn't see otherwise.
Reward yourself with something small as an achievement. You've earned it!
Use cashback apps
You have to buy groceries and toiletries. Why not earn rewards for buying them? These rewards can be exchanged for gift cards at retailers, restaurants and online stores.
My favorite is Fetch Rewards. You simply scan every receipt and earn points, plus it's free for you. Some receipts will only garner 25 points, but others will earn even more, depending on the items bought. They also have the ability to access online receipts. It adds up, especially when you have kids. I bought a good portion of my family's Christmas gifts last year just using gift cards earned on this app.
Ibotta is another option. They reward points when you buy products listed in their app at participating retailers. This one is a little harder, in my opinion, because it rewards for specific items versus receipt scans. You still scan your receipt, but you also scan the products that match their list. They also offer cash back options for some online retailers and subscription programs.
Most grocery stores have a rewards program now. Check with yours and make sure you scan your rewards number every time you go shopping. Every rewards program is going to be different. They may offer cash back or cents off gas/purchases. A few cents off a gallon of gas (Hy-Vee rewards) or $10 off $50 can help you stick to your budget when doing your weekly or monthly shopping.
Increase your income
If you're finding there just isn't enough income to get out of the red in your budget, maybe you need to increase your income. Honestly, shouldn't we all increase our income?
It's hard to take on extra work as a single mom, but it can be done. Try a delivery service like Door Dash or Instacart while the kids are in school. Both of these will require you have a vehicle, as will Lyft and Uber. Sign up for the 10K in 10 Days Challenge and start brainstorming ideas to make $$!
There are many ways to make money online, too. Digital products are quite popular and easy to design with very little experience. Check out this great Build your Etsy Empire course to get started designing and selling digital products online. Sadie does a great job walking you through the steps and, if you follow her course, you'll be making money online in no time.
Save money on kids
A single mom needs to set goals for herself and her children. Being a single mom, myself, I know my kids have always come first. That doesn't mean I didn't struggle at times to provide for them. Finding ways to increase savings and provide well helps teach your kids a budgeting mindset, as well.
Let's face it, kids are expensive. They say it costs over $233,000 to raise a child from birth to age 18. That's a lot of cabbage. So, finding ways to give them a great life and opportunities while keeping costs down is ideal for the single mom and her kids.
Cooking is a great way to save money. It's easy and it can be healthy, too! Plus, kids will usually eat anything you make for them. They might not do a good job of cooking on their own, so it's your responsibility to make sure they have healthy meals. It's also a great learning opportunity. Teaching your kids how to cook is a life skill that will benefit them after they leave the nest.
Focus on free fun
It can be hard to find free fun when you have kids. But there are so many ways to have a good time without spending money.
Find a hobby that can be done at home and is inexpensive. This not only gives you an activity to do, but it also helps reduce your grocery bill because all of the supplies are at home. You could even turn a hobby into another stream of income and get the kids involved. If your children enjoy crafts, they might enjoy making things with recycled items found around the house.
Choose to visit parks and museums that don't charge admission. Every year, 4th graders are eligible for a free pass to National Parks. In addition, many National Parks have eliminated fees altogether. The National Park Service announces 5 entrance fee-free days each year for the remaining parks. In addition to the National Parks, there are bound to be trails and parks in your area to explore. Make an adventure out of it and/or use these types of outings as educational opportunities, too!
There are also many ways to have fun outdoors without spending money. You can try exploring your neighborhood or making a scavenger hunt for things you find outside.
What to do when you don't have a budget
I feel a budget is important for any family, especially single moms. But, if you don't have a budget, then it can be hard to stick with. There are still things you can do when you need to buy something outside of your plan. This will start you on the way of building a budgeting mindset.
First, ask yourself if you have enough money for this purchase. If not, what's less important to buy? Next think about whether or not you will use it in the next month. If not, wait until you have the money or can use it.
If you do need it, then think about whether or not the item is something that will be used for a length of time. If so, tell yourself this purchase has some value and you can afford it.
Lastly, if you have some left over money from your budget after this purchase, then tell yourself that the next time you need to buy something outside of your plan that this purchase has given you the ability to buy something else that is more important.
Build your budget
I've shared my five budgeting mindset tips for single moms with you. While there is plenty of advice on this topic out there, I think it's helpful to hear from others on what worked for them. So, take what I've shared with you and try it out, modify it to work for you and build your own budget mindset. You have the ability to achieve all you want as long as you put your mind to it and put in the effort.
Do you need more?
My friend, Nishaea, and a few other single moms started Single Mom Budgeting, a site to help other moms (and dads) learn the ins and outs of finance management.
Are you ready to change your life? The time to start is now and you've got this!