Creating a Single Mom Budget

This post is the first in a four-part series on budgeting for single moms (and dads!). Our needs are different from those of the general population, so I think we need budgeting advice that reflects those differences. Check back for the next part of the series coming soon!

Being a single parent sucks sometimes. There’s no safety net from a spouse’s income when things go wrong. No one to take your kids off your hands when you’re stressed to the max. It’s just you, your offspring, and the desire to keep them from growing up to be stereotypes.

When I read articles or blog posts about budgeting and saving money, I find myself irritated by some of the “helpful tips” offered to readers. We’re told, Get rid of cable! Stop eating fast food! Uh, yeah. Do those people even HAVE kids? If they do, I would guarantee they have a spouse or significant other helping them out. As for the rest of us who are doing this on our own, I propose a new type of savings strategy.

The Single Mom Budget

The Single Mom budget is all about being realistic. If we try to hold ourselves to the exact standards of two-parent households, many time we will fail. Not that we aren’t good parents, because we are! We just can’t do things the same way married people do.

It’s hard for a single parent to sit down and dutifully schedule all his/her bills knowing there isn’t enough money to do it all. (Now if you make six figures and have no financial problems, obviously I’m not talking to you.) Financial experts will tell us to do things like save 10%, pay rent and utilities, THEN worry about everything else. And that’s how most budgets are set up. Well, I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t always work that way.

My first attempts at creating a budget didn’t work because I was trying to live on what society said I was supposed to give myself. I tried to save money, but after paying the bills I had to pull the money back out of savings to buy groceries and gas. I decided it was stupid to keep doing something that didn’t work, so I tossed the budget. This led me to spend irresponsibly because I wasn’t keeping track. My first workable budget was the one I made that actually took my lifestyle into account.

Prioritizing: Necessities

If you’re a single mom, what is the first thing you’re going to spend money on? Food for your kids. When payday hits, I’m on my way to the grocery store because my son has consumed everything within a 5-mile radius. Now, common wisdom tells us to do things like shop sales, buy fresh produce, and cook these amazing healthy and fun meals for our children. Which is great if you’re Martha Stewart and your kids are The Beav and Opie Taylor.

Are we really going to tell our kids they can’t have the fun stuff like Lunchables and fruit snacks? No! So why make a budget that ignores the stuff we actually buy? You know how much it’s costs to feed your family, so don’t try to change that just yet. Write down the amount you spend on groceries in a month as the first item on your budget.

Okay, what’s next? Shelter. That means rent/mortgage and utilities, because otherwise you’re crashing in your parents’ guest room. Consider putting your utilities on the levelized billing plan if available - it’s much easier to track your expenses when you know how much they’ll be each month. Plus you’ll never have those months where you open the electric bill and die inside knowing you can’t pay it.

Next on the list? Clothing. Personally, I know I can’t just randomly go on a shopping spree when my son needs something to wear. And he’s HARD on clothes. So I try to save back $15 out of each paycheck (confession: I keep it in an envelope in my dresser drawer instead of the bank). When he inevitably outgrows his shoes or rips a hole in his jeans, I take some money out to get what he needs. He doesn’t wear a ton of name brands - there’s no point when he’ll need more stuff in a month or two. And I’m totally not above buying clothes from my friends with older kids. Most yard sale stuff has only been worn a handful of times!

The final necessity is transportation. There’s no point living in denial - you have to be able to go places. Whether you own a car or use public transportation, you need to figure out how much this costs you and make room for it in your budget.

Prioritizing: Sort of Necessities

I have argued with myself about where to put TV and internet, so I’ll just put them by themselves. I know people are going, OMG, TV and internet are so not necessities! Yeah, that’s great. Keep telling yourself that.

A single mom knows that TV and internet are necessary. Otherwise she will go crazy and eat her young. First, TV entertains your kids while you cook, clean, and pee by yourself. (Hate all you want; it’s the truth.) Second, when the kids go to sleep, a single parent can spend some time catching up on what went on in the real world all day.

Internet access is necessary if you have school-aged kids. They constantly come home with some assignment that involves toothpicks, crazy glue, and printing out 25,000 pages from Wikipedia. If the public library is next door, maybe you can survive without access at home. But if you’re like me and work during library hours, I know you need internet that’s actually accessible.

So add a line to your budget for TV and internet. Don’t go crazy here - you don’t need all the movie channels and extra stuff. Just make sure you have cartoons and you’ll be good to go.

Everything Else

So you’ve got your necessities covered. If you have money left at this point, you’re doing great! This is where your choices will make or break your budget - if you have debt, now you have to plan to pay it down. If you don’t, you can do fun stuff with your kids and enjoy life a little.

Make a list of all your debts, from “if I don’t pay this, I’ll lose my [house, car, job, etc.]” to “I probably need to pay this at some point.” Pay the urgent debts first and devote what you can to everything else. If you’re able to cover all your debts, awesome! If there’s anything left, you decide where it can be used most effectively.

Where We Are Now

At this point, you should have a basic budget that accounts for the following:

  1. Food
  2. Shelter
  3. Clothing
  4. Transportation
  5. TV and internet
  6. Debt - from most to least important
  7. Everything else

Next week, we’ll look at how to track and adjust your Single Mom Budget. Right now just breathe a little knowing you’ve taken a first step that doesn’t involve giving up any of the things you need and enjoy. That comes later. (cue evil laughter)

Coming Soon in the Single Mom Budget Series:

  • Tracking and Adjusting the Single Mom Budget
  • Saving on the Single Mom Budget
  • Ways to Improve the Single Mom Budget


This entry was posted in budget, debt, goals, single mom budget. Bookmark the permalink.
  • First Gen American

    Although I’m not a single mom, I am a working mom and so much of what you say also applies to me as well. My husband travels a lot and so do I so, we’re like single parents a lot of the times during the week. As a result, eating out and convenience foods do make their way into our budget. Yeah, it’s cheaper to roast a chicken than buy one already made, but when it’s bath night, who has an extra hour to do it, when you have very little time between 5:30 and bedtime at 8.

  • Andrea @ SoOverDebt

    Very true! I usually get home around 8 or 8:30, so I don’t even have time to EAT dinner, much less cook it! Can’t wait to change jobs and get back on a normal schedule.

  • Sass @ gettingusthere

    I’ve been a single parent for 14 years now. My ex lives four hours away, and was very little help in the actual day to day child rearing. The best thing I ever did for my budget and my sanity was cultivating friendships with other single moms. My best friend and I kept each other’s kids, garaged saled, thrift shopped, crafted and everything else together. We’d split the costs for theme park vacations, help each other out when there was a project to be done that required more heavy lifting than one person can do (opposed to hiring it out).We split the costs of bulk purchases.
    The support was invaluable. And fun. Just because you are a single parent, you don’t necessarily have to carry the load all by yourself. Make those friendships. They will benefit you in ways you can’t imagine — and it will benefit the friend too!