Parenting is one of the hardest yet most fulfilling jobs in the world. But the less prepared you are when you become a parent, the harder it will be.
You could say that my financial situation as a young adult started off with a disadvantage: I became a teen mom. I joined the ranks of the 4.7 percent of all moms in the U.S. who became parents in their teens. While most people my age were getting credit card offers in the mail, I was living at home with my son and feeling broke.
Luckily, I realized that custom-designed nurseries and name-brand baby gear weren’t necessary to raise a happy child. I focused on bonding with my son, making him feel loved, and enjoying the first few months of motherhood.
Becoming a parent at such a young age was a wake-up call on many levels. It also pushed me to get my finances in order. Otherwise, I’d suffer the consequences.
Common stereotypes about young, single moms aren’t very flattering. They’re judged as high school dropouts, drug addicts, and generally bad parents.
But when I became a mother, I didn’t focus on those stereotypes. Instead, I focused on keeping my head up and learning how to survive financially as a single mom. Here are some ways that I found to make ends meet, even when I was struggling.
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1. Look for Affordable Housing
I moved out when I was 20. At the time, a fancy apartment complex with tons of amenities in an attractive neighborhood wasn’t an option for me. I contemplated moving to Chicago and going to school there, but I quickly realized that it wouldn’t be affordable. My options were limited.
Instead I moved to the boonies and attended a state college in a more rural area. I was able to get a spacious one-bedroom apartment for the same price as a studio in Chicago. My apartment was incredibly basic, but it was home.
I used the money that I’d saved up from tax refunds and my work to pay the deposit and first month’s rent.
2. Seek Help
Since I barely made enough money to pay my rent, I qualified for food stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). For me, there was no room for pride or for worrying about what others thought of me.
I could either accept the help and eat, or I could starve.
I went on food stamps and learned how to create my first grocery budget with the money I received each month. The food I received on WIC was good for healthy snacks and milk for my son, but it wasn’t really anything to live on.
“Public assistance is designed to be a crutch for those that are struggling, not a leg for permanent use,” says Blake Rowe, a licensed insurance and financial adviser at Allstate.
“Its original design was to act as a supplement so those that use it could save and prosper, and ideally eliminate the poverty line. With a detailed budget and the correct mindset, the original goal can be reached: A better quality of living,” he adds.
3. Create a Budget and Cut Costs
When I needed to stretch, I visited local food pantries and found out about a community program that provided free dinner for locals every Wednesday. I remember regularly meeting up with a college friend and her kids at that dinner.
When I graduated college and found a full-time job, I got off food stamps, but the budgeting skills I learned from the experience still stick with me today, and my family of three spends only about $300 a month to eat well.
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4. Get Child Care Help
Child care can be a big issue for single parents. It’s pricey to begin with, and if you can’t pay the day care rates, you aren’t left with any other options, since you can’t work or go to school without child care.
Luckily, many states have programs that provide subsidies to make the cost of child care more affordable for people who qualify. You still have to pay something out of pocket, but not nearly as much as the normal rate.
The fact that there was a day care center right on my college campus was amazing. I would schedule my classes during the day so that my son could go to day care while I earned credits, then I’d pick him up in the afternoon.
Without the day care assistance program, I’m not sure how I would’ve managed to get a bachelor’s degree in four years.
5. Save Money and Pay Your Bills Ahead, If You Can
Set up a savings account for future costs and put money aside as you can.
“The best way to assure that you are regularly contributing to it is as simple as setting up a direct deposit into a savings account,” Rowe says. “From there, you can automatically contribute as much as you can to fit into your budget. The standard is 3 to 10 percent of your net wages out of each check plus an additional $10. It seems small, but it can and will add up.”
Once you start watching your savings grow, it may be tempting to spend it on things you think you need, such as new clothes or “treat yourself” instances that are really just random acts of splurging.
“Paying your bills one to two cycles ahead is recommended because if you’re ever in that ‘hard spot,’ then you have a small cushion to fall back on until you are stable again,” Rowe notes.
6. Take Advantage of Federal Programs
The WIC program I mentioned previously can be really life-saving.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a federal program run by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). It helps with child care costs for families dealing with a difficult financial situation. It also provides resources to help unemployed parents find work so they can support their families.
There is also the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which helps low-income families pay for their monthly heating and home cooling costs. The program can also cover the cost of small repairs to a home’s heating or cooling system.
These are federally funded programs, but each state has its own requirements, so it’s best to check the agency’s requirements on your own state’s website.
7. Find a Support System
If you’re young and wondering how to survive financially as a single mom, the key is to find support. I felt pretty discouraged when I became a teen mom. But then I realized that I had my whole life ahead of me. Some things might have become more difficult, but that didn’t make them impossible.
Everyone goes through different struggles in life, but the key is to ignore the statistics and the doubters.
Instead, focus on finding a support system and leaning on it so that you can get back on your feet. That’s the only way to reach your goals.
The bottom line is that a solid support system and a positive yet realistic mindset can make all the difference and help you take action to improve your life.
8. Take Stock of Your Situation
Once you’ve gotten through the rough patch and are back on your feet, it’s time to financially evaluate yourself and your situation. Start writing down every single time money comes in or goes out, and why it does so. This will help you catch those sneaky $5 lattes.
To begin, figure out what you owe and write it down. These are your expenses, such as:
- Rent or mortgage
- Bills — utilities, Wi-Fi, phone bill, etc.
- Credit card debt
- Student loans
- Monthly subscriptions like Netflix
- Transportation: Do you take the train or bus? Drive a car? It all adds up.
- Insurance of any kind
- Day care costs
- Annual expenses like tax preparation, property tax, and membership dues like the gym or local library
- School costs, such as supplies and uniforms
- Holiday gifts
Once that’s all done, evaluate what you own:
- Your home or other property
- Any vehicles
- Investments such as stocks, bonds, etc.
- Retirement accounts: 401(k), Roth IRA, etc.
- Income from anywhere else, be it full-time or part-time employment, self-employment, rent from a property you own, etc.
This may seem overwhelming at first, but remember: You’re not doing this to beat yourself up. Knowing what money is coming in versus going out will show you where to make the cuts — if necessary — or where you deserve to splurge a little.
Look at budgeting as a form of self-care — knowing the boundaries of when you can “treat yo’self,” will get rid of the guilt, and help you enjoy it more. Momma needs to have some fun, too!
Additional reporting by Kelly Meehan Brown and Jazmin Rosa.