Before her divorce five years ago, Lisa Flowers worked only one job. Now, as the single parent of an 8-year-old boy, she works four to make ends meet — as a manager at a nonprofit law firm, an instructor at a local college, a social-media strategist, and as owner of her own marketing and public-relations firm.
“My biggest hurdle is not having prepared financially for the divorce itself and subsequent additional bills such as childcare and school supplies,” said Flowers, 50, who lives in Delaware in the US. “I do receive a small amount in child support, but I don’t get help with anything else beyond that. Having to work so much has really taken a toll on me as a parent.”
Being the only adult and breadwinner is stressful, but not uncommon. In the US, a third of children live in single-parent households, according to KidsCount.org. In Canada, one in six families has only one parent, according to the Census of Population. In Australia, 15% of families have one parent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
“Being a single parent is one of the hardest financial gigs out there,” said Shannon Lee Simmons, a financial planner with Simmons Financial Planning in Toronto. “You’re running an entire household on your own, whereas there may have been two incomes before. All the bills are yours. Fixed costs go way up, but if you’re the parent who’s the primary care giver, it’s all on your shoulders to maintain that standard of living.”
Here is some advice on succeeding at solo parenting:
What it will take: You will need discipline, fortitude and hopefully the backing of your community and family. “There is no magic recipe, but the biggest success stories have a ton of support,” Simmons said. “When you have young kids, if you can be near family, that’s critical.”
How long you need to prepare: The longer you have to plan, the better — but most people don’t have much time to plan before being delivered into single parenthood. Divorces typically take six months to a year to finalise.
Do it now: Know what you’re entitled to. “A lot of people, if they’re going through a tricky divorce, just want it to be over,” Simmons said. “But make sure you’ve fully maximized all the government support systems, apply for all the tax credits and deductions, and know if you’re entitled to spousal support and child support.” Getting the financial assistance you’re eligible for can make a big difference in your budget moving forward.
Aid varies by country, so do a little digging to see what’s available. “In New Zealand, if you are single and have children and are not working, we have a benefit called the Domestic Purposes Benefit,” said Rod Mudgway, a financial advisor with Brackenridge Financial Solutions in Auckland, New Zealand.
Make a money plan. There is no room for “winging it” financially for a single parent. “Budgeting is imperative,” said Brett Evans, executive director of Atlas Wealth Management in Southport, Australia. “If you are living on one income, you cannot afford any surprise bills.” That means accounting for every dollar that comes in and every dollar that goes out — and living within your means to avoid debt. You also need an emergency fund of three-to-six months of living expenses so you aren’t sunk by an unexpected bill or job hiccup.
Polish your resume. If you’ve been out of the workforce caring for children, jumping back in can be daunting. Contacts are key. Update any skills that are rusty, then focus on reinvigorating your network — and that means getting out of the house. “You cannot conduct your return to work from behind your computer,” said Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of back-to-work website iRelaunch.com. “You have to interact with people so they know who you are and your interest in returning to work.”
Ask for a raise. As the sole earner, your income is more important than ever. If it’s been a while since your last pay bump, now’s the time to approach your boss. About two-thirds of employees who requested a raise landed a larger paycheck, according to a survey from US site CareerBuilder.com. The best strategy: Wait until you’ve accomplished something great, and then ask. If there’s nothing in the pipeline, sign on for that big project or ask for more responsibility—and then produce top-notch results.
Seek flexibility. Child care costs—particularly if you’re the only one paying them—are formidable. In the US, parents can spend as much as $18,000 a year on center-based daycare for a baby or toddler, according to the National Association of Child Resource & Referral Agencies. If it’s possible in your line of work, look into either telecommuting one or two days a week or working flexible hours that might allow you to utilize less childcare. Emphasize the ways the arrangement would benefit your firm.
Don’t kill yourself trying to live your old life. “One of the most critical traps I see is trying to maintain the exact same lifestyle that was happening before,” Simmons said. It’s essential that you pay for the necessities — housing, utilities, insurance, food and clothes. Going into the red to keep your child playing sport, for example, by funding it on credit, isn’t a sound financial plan.
Consider downsizing. If you’re still living in the home you shared with an ex-spouse or partner, make sure you aren’t breaking the bank to stay there. “Those bills for a house and repair and maintenance can eat up a huge portion of your after-tax income,” Simmons said. “If you’re finding that more than 50% of your income is going toward keeping the house, it’s too expensive.”
Consult a professional. Your goals as a sole breadwinner are different from a dual-earner household, particularly since there’s only one of you preparing for retirement. “An independent financial advisor can advise you on whether your existing pension is sufficient for your future needs, whether you should consider a life-insurance policy or private healthcare policy, and whether you should open a savings account for university fees,” said Andrea Gormley, a financial planner with the Spectrum IFA Group in Paris. “They can also help you to draft or update an existing will and advise on whether you are entitled to any Social Security support while living as a single parent.”
Do it later: Avoid going overboard. It can be tempting to want to make up for your single-parent status by buying fun things for your child. “Don’t overcompensate with unnecessary new toys or expensive outings if you can’t afford it,” Gormley says.
Involve your children. Talk to your children about your family budget and what you can and cannot afford. “It helps to set expectations and adjust expectations, so you don’t feel like a bad parent,” Simmons said. “It doesn’t make it easier, but it stops the parent from paying for things on credit cards to maintain a façade or lifestyle and ending up swimming in debt.”
Do it smarter: Reach out to other single parents. “Other moms or dads who are going through the same thing can help with the mental anxiety of it,” Simmons said. “It’s very stressful.”
Said Lisa Flowers: “They are in the same boat most of the time.”