I grew up in a house that had one parent and three children. My mother raised the three of us while getting her master’s and then working full-time. In our single-parent household, finances were both a specter and a fact of life. It was abundantly clear to me that we didn’t have a lot of money, but we never went without.
The older I’ve become, and the more involved I am in the personal finance world, the more I realize that being raised by a working single mother deeply affected the way I handle money now. Watching my mother deal with single-parent finances shaped my mindset, habits, and emotions surrounding money.
My Childhood Relationship With Money
Money was never plentiful when I was a kid. We used coupons. My mother closely monitored water usage and was adamant about turning off lights and TVs when they weren’t in use. My brothers and I qualified for lunch assistance at school, and our closets were filled with hand-me-downs.
There were also summer camps, dinners out for special occasions, and a trip to Disney World. I played the flute for four years and always had great birthday parties.
I never, ever felt deprived. But still, my family operated inside a scarcity mindset.
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A scarcity mindset is the belief that there will never be enough of something. When my mother told me to put name-brand food back on the shelves, or when we couldn’t afford clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch (the coolest clothes at the time), I worried that it could be the purchase that blew everything apart. The scarcity mindset was instilled in me from a young age, and I’m still working to shed it today.
Thanks to my mother’s frugality we never went without, but I often worried that we walked a fine line as a family — and that others might notice.
Single-Parent Finances: What My Mother Taught Me
Growing up flirting with the line between broke and comfortable meant that I walked away with some tangible money lessons.
1. Name Brands Aren’t Necessarily Better
I still abide by my mother’s staunch belief in off-brand products. At the grocery store, I never buy brand-name foods. If you look at the nutrition labels and ingredients list, they’re often nearly identical to the off-brand options.
In fact, you could save up to 30 percent by switching to store-brand alternatives, which are outpacing national brand-name products year over year, according to a 2019 study by the Private Label Manufacturers Association.
You’ll save money and all you really lose out on is the name — which you can’t eat, anyway! No need to waste money on packaging alone.
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2. A Scarcity Mindset Is Limiting
Being mindful of your money is a good thing. Being afraid of your money is not. I was afraid of money as a child. I felt that I couldn’t understand or control it and that it wasn’t for me.
“Beliefs and attitudes about money are often formed in childhood and are typically unexamined,” says Natasha Knox, certified financial planner and financial therapist. “They aren’t inherently good or bad, but they can play havoc with our finances when they remain unconscious.”
For me, my money anxiety stemmed from a deep insecurity that there was never enough to go around.
Operating from a place of fear is limiting. You don’t take risks, and you don’t push yourself for more. You simply accept your current situation because you’re afraid to lose even that.
Many fall into a pattern of behavior from the feeling of “not enough” that was born in childhood. Knox says this feeling “can lead people to not do the financially appropriate thing — such as paying off credit cards in full — even though they have ample cash to do so.” Having the cash in their bank account makes them feel more secure.
“It can also manifest as not asking for a raise or undercharging for services, and becomes a problem when they continue to unconsciously live by those beliefs in situations where they no longer apply,” she adds.
So how do you combat these financial insecurities? “The first step is to develop awareness of our beliefs and where they came from,” Knox advises, “and then begin the process of forming new, healthier thought patterns around money.”
Where once you were afraid of money as a child, like I was, consider your financial situation today and how it differs.
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There often doesn’t seem to be enough time in a day, but when there is, here are some ways you can increase your income to make ends meet.
- Babysit or Pet-Sit: If you’re at home with your own child anyway, why not pick up an extra one (or furry one) along with some extra moolah? Try Care.com or Rover to get started!
- Barter: There’s no shame in the art of the barter. If you’re handy around the house, and someone you know is adept at all things auto, consider a trade instead of spending money. You never know until you ask!
- Sell Stuff: Use your judgment here, but remember one man’s trash is another man’s treasure — plus it’s a great way to declutter!Facebook Marketplace is an amazing resource for getting rid of things you no longer need, along with eBay, CraigsList, or even a yard sale.
- Task Rabbit: You’ll need heftier spare time for this, but if you’ve got it, flaunt it! This could be anything from cleaning to helping someone move, to acting as a personal assistant, and is a great way to monetize your spare time.
- Online Surveys: It doesn’t get much easier than this. Though it won’t make you rich in a hurry, you can take the surveys from the comfort of your own home while you’re vegging out on the sofa. Try Opinion Outpost or Survey Junkie.
- Sell Your Skills: Are you a good writer? One hell of a transcriber? Have a head for numbers? Advertise yourself on Facebook, LinkedIn, freelance sites like Fiverr, Upwork, or And if you’re good at something, never do it for free.
For more resources for single parents, check out the Single Parents Alliance of America.
3. One Source of Income Only Goes so Far
Supporting four people on one income calls for some advanced personal finance skills. As a single parent, my mother didn’t have the time for side hustles, so we opted for frugality to make the dollars stretch. Today, I have several sources of income because I know how hard it can be to make just one work.
4. Look for the Deal
I’m a big fan of negotiation. I’ve negotiated with my internet provider, my car insurance agency, and every landlord I’ve ever had. Growing up with a single mother who scouted out deals left an impression on me. Almost everything is negotiable — all you have to do is ask.
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A Final Thought on Single-Parent Finances
Growing up with a single parent made me hyper-aware of finances at a young age. Today, I’m impressed with what my mother managed to do with the money she did have.
I’m also largely grateful for learning about money so young. I’ve been saving for years, and I’m in a place where I feel comfortable with my lifestyle and my money habits.
Additional reporting by Kelly Meehan Brown.