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Balancing Budgets and Kids on a Single Income

It doesn’t seem fair. On top of the stress of raising kids as a single parent, you also have to do it on a single income. It’s hard. We get it. And you’ll get through it. 

The key is to take control of your finances. It’ll be tough, sure, and you may not be shopping for designer shoes for awhile, but with a little planning, a lot of scrimping and some creative ideas, you can do it—and even have some well-deserved fun once in awhile.

The elephant in the room

Let’s start with the obvious: you need to make a budget. A budget acts as a roadmap so you can see exactly what you’re spending and where. It will help you get to the end of the month and still have money for rent (and maybe a little extra to pay down your debt or put into savings). A budget isn’t set in stone. You can adjust it month by month but it will keep you on track. When you see the numbers adding up, it’s easier not to splurge on unnecessary items.

There are plenty of great online resources for budgets that are already programmed to do the math for you (including our own CareOne Budget Planner). Here’s one set up specifically for single parents, with categories like alimony and college savings.

Another helping

One of the main categories on any budget, especially for a single parent feeding growing kids, is groceries.

Make a list of the staples your family uses: milk, eggs, cereal, etc. Do a little research on the stores you frequent to see where you can get the items for less. (Factor in mileage though. You may save a few pennies on milk by driving out to Wal-Mart, but will you lose money on gas?)

It’s also a good time to get familiar with coupons. Do a search online for your local supermarkets to get up-to-date deals. You can also head for online coupon sites like SmartSource, or build some extra time into your shopping trip to go through the circulars at the front of the store. Keep in mind, however, that just because you have a coupon doesn’t mean you’re making a smart purchase. When it comes to name brands, you may think you’re getting a discount but a generic label would cost less even without a coupon.

You should also look into discount grocery stores. Chains like Save-a-Lot are thriving in this economy because they offer an edited assortment of their own brands. All told, Save-A-Lot saves customers up to 40% off typical grocery stores. If there’s one near you, definitely check it out.

Another good way to save on groceries is bulk stores like Costco. If your kids go through six boxes of cereal a week, bulk will save you bank. And you’ll find more than groceries there. You can also get amazing deals on TVs, clothes, books and toiletries. You have to pay for a membership, but it ultimately covers itself. Or you might consider splitting a membership with a friend or relative and shopping together on a regular basis.

Sip, don’t guzzle

As any parent (especially a single one) knows, kids take up a lot of gas—from soccer practice to overnights, you probably spend way too much time in the car. This fact isn’t helped by the sky rocketing cost of gas. To counteract this expense, try to carpool as much as possible.

If you live in an area with good public transportation, you’re in luck. You’ll save money and your kids will love it—what little boy isn’t fascinated by busses? If you’re in a more suburban area, invest in used bikes to get around (Craigslist is a good source for deals). You may find your wallet and your legs are looking better (hey, you’re single!).

While you’re picking up your kids, try to multitask along the way. Drop off mail, pick up milk, return library books—whatever you can do to avoid an extra trip (and mileage).

Finally, keep your load light. Parents tend to stock up on extra stuff in their trunk: sports equipment, clothes, books, games. All that extra weight jacks up your mileage and the money you’re spending on gas. 

Regarding refunds

If you’re getting a tax refund this year (fingers crossed!), PAY OFF YOUR CREDIT CARD! If your card has a high interest rate, this is the single best thing you can do with the money. After that, consider starting an emergency fund so you don’t end up with debt for things like car repairs or unexpected plumbing costs.

Learn to love the library

The library is a great resource for single parents. Consider it a hub of free entertainment for your kids, and free time for you. Libraries often have reading circles and activities—you can take a break without paying for a babysitter. And of course you’ll head home with armfuls of free books and videos—even more entertainment for later.

Have some fun

It may seem at odds with balancing your kids and your budget, but it’s not: enjoy! You don’t have to traipse around like Ivana Trump, but having a good time will make it easier to save consistently. Think of it like being on a diet: total deprivation isn’t sustainable—you need a little chocolate now and then. So take the kids to a movie (a matinee, of course!). Go on a camping trip (borrow the gear from friends). Or just have a party for the fun of it (get your supplies at the dollar store). However you do it, make sure to have a good time.

Check out groups like Single Parent Travel too. They plan trips that are fun for the whole family, educational and mindful of cost. They can negotiate price breaks with hotels and resorts, too. Plus, you’ll be with a group of single parents who know what you’re going through.

As you can see, there are tons of ways for single parents to cut down. From big savings to all the little ones that add up, it pays to take a close look at your spending habits. We know it’s hard to raise kids by yourself, but it’s doable. In fact, you may even find you’re closer to your kids because of it. Good luck!  

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