Making a go of it on a small income

Surviving Financially as a Single Mom

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Single Mom Finances

I am responding to the story Just Start. She says that she has saved a lot of money by saving and holding on to frugal things. But how do you do this when you are a single parent and you make minimum wage working 10 1/2 hours per day six days per week? Thank you for your much-anticipated responses.
Maria R.

Look at All Available Options

This is a subject close to my heart. I raised my children as a Solo Parent, meaning I had no financial assistance from my children's father. The trick is to start with the basics, such as housing, food, medical care, and transportation. These are top priority. Next comes education and savings.

First, I hope Maria has been to the state assistance offices to get child support that her children are due. They will garnish the father's wages if needed. Your kids need that money so this is the first priority.

Next, consider getting help for your family, whether that means receiving food stamps, heating assistance, job training, etc. Our taxes pay for this. Once you get a better paying job, you will pay this back by paying taxes yourself, so no guilt! Call your state welfare department immediately.

Most importantly, pursue higher education. Call the closest college or university and ask what programs they have. Meet with a college advisor and ask about financial aid. If your income is low, you can get loan and scholarship money that will help pay the bills while you're in school. There is plenty of help and support available.

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Lastly, get in the habit of saving. At this point in my life, I was unable to save much, but I did save all my change in a jar and dipped into that for true emergencies only. I learned to save money so I saved even more later when I was well employed. Today I have stocks, mutual funds, a 401K, profit sharing and a partnership. I would never have dreamed I could do this, but it all began by looking into all my options back when I worked minimum wage and "couldn't" save.

Related: Easy Ways to Build an Emergency Fund

Two Options: Spend Less or Make More

There are two ways to improve your financial situation: spend less or make more. It sounds like Maria has a great opportunity on the "make more" side. I would highly recommend that she start looking into getting her college degree. You'd be really amazed at all the resources there are to help cover college expenses and provide for the children of college students. Try calling your local university and any community colleges. The more information you can gather, the better. Write down every contact name, phone number, etc. in the same spiral notebook. There is so much financial aid available out there! You might also want to see if there is an Upward Bound program in your area. This program is typically for high school students, but their job is to help those students get into college and find a way to pay for it, so they might be a valuable resource, too. Financially, things will be slim for another few years, but after that, the income potential is limitless!
Mary in Colorado

Family Teamwork

I understand your frustration. I was a single mother of three for twenty years. Sometimes it seemed as though it would never end. There was the constant worry about money, the endless work with never enough sleep, the way simple things like a lost shoe were catastrophic because there was no money to replace such things.

I made friends with another single mom (she had four girls) and we helped each other. We rented a house together for less than our joint apartment rents used to be. Since her smallest child was recovering from open-heart surgery (she lived on welfare and disability), she mostly stayed home and watched kids while I worked. On my day off, I stayed home and she got a day off. Quality time with the kids was teaching them to read, to wash dishes, and to cook. We never did have cable TV. I always packed my own lunch. Eat out? None of us had money to eat out! I never received any help from those "save money" articles in magazines because I was already doing all those things. Somehow we staggered along.

Related: House Sharing With Another Single Mother With Kids

Eventually, it did end. The kids grew old enough to not need daycare. Oddly enough, since they had grown up spending time with me and helping me, they considered this normal. When my friend met an interesting man and moved out, we moved into a tiny apartment and continued on our own. My children did housework and cooked meals. As teenagers, they worked babysitting and cleaning houses. My oldest wanted a lot of pets so she got a part-time job and bought all their food.

Talking with other single moms and then with people at work whose children had never known any lack, I decided my kids were better off. They learned how to work for what they want. They don't expect everything to go their own way all the time. They played sports in high school, had part-time jobs until they graduated and none were ever in trouble with the police. I never gave any of them a car or an apartment, and they knew I had no money to pay for college. All three are independent, responsible, tax-paying citizens today and I am proud of them. I often tell them so.

I know it is hard now, but you have a priceless opportunity to be an example to your children and help them grow up to be the kind of honest, hard-working people who made this country a great place to live. Good luck! By the way, I eventually met an interesting man myself. My kids all call him "Dad," even though he came along after they were grown. He gave away my youngest daughter when she married last year. Now I get to live happily ever after too!
GG in CA

Related: Extra Income for Single Moms

What Worked for Me

I did all of these 10 years ago as a single parent with a teenaged girl at $6 an hour and 40 hours a week:

  1. Buy no convenience food. It's always cheaper and better if you do it yourself.
  2. Never eat out unless you have a really good coupon for a relatively cheap restaurant.
  3. Use public transportation. I had no car for 11 years and asked for almost no rides from friends.
  4. Use coupons for groceries but only for what you need and will use.
  5. Buy damaged and outdated goods at the grocery stores. Most places mark down meats, fresh vegetables and bakery items the day they expire or the next day. Cans dented by the stock people are fine. It's the bulging cans that can be a problem. I've used these items for at least 15 years and have had no bad experiences.
  6. Hide 10% of your pay, on payday, as a rainy day fund and challenge yourself to not use it.
  7. Goodwill and Salvation Army are good places for almost anything. Their stuff is usually in very good condition.
  8. Rummage and garage sales can be a good source for items to use or sell on eBay, but know what you are buying.
  9. Use store brands for most items at the grocery store. Very often they are name brands that are store-labeled for a variety of reasons.
  10. Pick up that penny on the sidewalk and put it in your rainy day fund. You might be surprised at how it accumulates.


Finding a Niche

I was in a similar position three years ago, and it was rough. I had four part-time jobs, and I could barely make my bills on what I made. I was ruthless with the budget. I stopped spending money on going out to eat and anything optional. I had a strict budget for the grocery store, and I mostly shopped at Aldi and Wal-Mart.

I accepted help. I inquired about financial aid for the childcare program located at the elementary school and found that the state would pay for almost all of my childcare if I was under a very generous income level. I also applied to be a childcare worker in the school. This would have allowed me to have my kids in the before- and after-school program for free, and I would have almost seven hours during the day to work another job.

When school started in the fall, I filled out a form that came home for reduced hot lunches for the three kids. This helped immensely. It was less food for me to buy, and it freed up some energy and conflict over making lunches. It is hard to take help, but the one year of help I received made a huge difference. Now that I have some breathing room, I donate time, resources and money to the local charities.

I scoured the ads and networked like crazy to find a better paying full-time job. I talked with other parents at the school, called co-workers from my pre-kid days and talked it up at every family party. I kept praying and reassuring myself that we would get through this, and God would provide. Of course, He did. Within a year, I was on my way.

I thought about skills I had that people were willing to pay for. For me, it was making beaded jewelry to sell at craft shows. I paid approximately $25 for the space, brought my kids with me, and sold beaded jewelry at a table. I brought home $150 to $200 on a Saturday. If you can find your niche, it may be worth it to take the edge off.
Katie in Illinois

Related: Could What You Know Make You Money?

Cut Housing Expense

At that pay rate, you have to cut all expenses to the bone, beginning with housing. If you don't have the opportunity to live with family members (for free or for a small amount of rent), try your best to find a roommate. Consider another mom with children so you can share babysitting.

If that isn't possible, put an ad in your church bulletin for a place to live with your children and offer your services for household help in addition to a small rent payment. There are many elderly who would love to have someone help them take care of their home and who love and miss having children around.

Aside from those things, spend as little as possible, buy nothing new and bank whatever you can, even if it's just change thrown into a cup at the end of each day. It will add up in time.
Joan H. in Hockessin, DE

Related: Clever Ways to Reduce Your Rent

Use Time with Kids Creatively

  1. Sell your TVs (I bet you have more than one, so sell them all!) and put that money in a savings account. Sell the DVD player. Spend all that time (and the electricity money) on creative, constructive time with your kids.
  2. Don't ever eat out. Yes, it's painful, but it will save you money. Get used to eating stir-fries and pasta salads with the frozen veggies they sell in Sam's/Costco in big bags.
  3. Don't see movies. In fact, don't even rent them. Your kids can watch movies when they have sleepovers at a friend's house. What do you need movies for? Get a library card and use your imagination.
  4. Instead of relying on the entertainment and fast food industry, make every lesson a fun one for you and your kids. Take advantage of opportunities to teach cooking, sewing, bargain hunting, etc. Take a long walk with the kids in this beautiful spring season and pull some dandelions for a water glass on the kitchen table.
  5. Don't be afraid to ask for help from your local MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) groups, church, ladies' clubs, etc.
  6. Make sure all the kids have a list of chores. If you're working six days per week, the last thing you need to do is bear the burden of cleaning everything on that seventh day all alone!


Could you earn $50 while junior naps? Here's 5 possible extra money sources to put your naptime plans in motion.

It Pays to be Frugal

  1. Groceries: Go vegetarian at least once a week. Remember that chicken, especially whole chicken, is almost always cheaper than red meat. Eggs are cheap and cook quickly. Soups and stews do not require much attention while cooking and reheat quickly; use your day off to prepare a couple pots for the week. Avoid restaurants, especially fast food, and convenience foods; save them for special treats.
  2. Entertainment: Dump cable TV; we ditched our service when the price hit $50 per month and haven't missed it at all. Go to the library and read, read, read. The long-term benefit of this is that your children will be better readers, better students, and better equipped for success in adulthood.
  3. Clothing: Buy clothing exclusively at thrift and consignment shops. Patronize shops in affluent areas; they tend to have better quality and newer items. If you must splurge on a brand-new item for yourself, be sure it is a timeless piece in the best quality that you can afford. (I once purchased a pair of basic black pants from Nordstrom on clearance and I am still wearing them ten years later. Discount store pants would have had to be replaced several times in a decade.) Limit your shoes and accessories to a few classics. My children and I use just two pairs of shoes in the winter: sneakers and dressy casual black shoes.
  4. Toys: Don't spoil your children! Youngsters with few toys develop better imaginations. Limit your kids to a maximum of ten, high-quality toys that promote creativity, including building (e.g. blocks, basic Lego kits) and role-playing (e.g. dolls, dress-up). Don't buy fancy "educational" toys (they don't help in the long run) or anything that requires batteries (they limit imagination). Especially don't buy video games! If you already have a system, get rid of it! Video games are addictive, stealing away time that could be put to better use and driving up your electric bill. At our school, the underachieving students are almost all video game or TV addicts.

Above all, remember that your current struggles will be temporary if you get serious about frugal living. Don't be swayed by grumbling children. They will get used to the frugal lifestyle soon enough. When they grow up and begin to understand finances for themselves, they will respect you and your wisdom in getting out and staying out of debt.
Elsie in North Georgia

Related: Making Frugality a Family Affair

This Book is a Must-Read

That sounds like a really tough situation. The first thing I can suggest is to put 10% of every paycheck you make into a savings account. Yes, I know you may possibly have a lot of debt to repay, but this way, you will have the peace of mind of knowing you are saving for your future. It is possible.

Also, another suggestion is to "double layer" with coupons. Shop for loss leaders at the grocery stores and combine it with coupons. Also, shop for clothes and necessities at consignment shops. Many offer quality clothes for affordable prices.

Another suggestion I have is to find a local church and get connected. Many have ministries that help single moms. They can also give you special support from friendship to babysitters.

Also, Brenda Armstrong, a single mom who's been there, wrote a book entitled Financial Relief for Single Parents: A Proven Plan for Achieving the Seemingly Impossible . The book will come out in late April. I am sure it will help you!

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Reviewed March 2018

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