Raising children is tough, and doing it on your own can add immensely to the task. Single parents need to balance jobs and child-rearing, sometimes without the help of nearby family to ease the burden.
And then there’s the money.
In 2016, single mothers were the head of 8.5 million U.S. households, with single dads leading just 2.5 million. There were 17.2 million children in the households headed by women only and 3 million living in households headed by men only.
In most cases, single-parent homes have smaller incomes than their two-parent counterparts. Many single parents are employed full- or part-time (91.7% of custodial mothers and 92.6 % of custodial fathers in 2015), but find it nearly impossible to work full-time without outside help.
The single-parent dilemma has mushroomed in recent decades. The share of American households headed by single parents tripled between 1960 and 2014. Rising divorce rates and an increasing number of households with a never-married parent contributed to the trend. The number of households with minor children headed by fathers increased nine-fold during the period to 8% of the total.
The toll that takes is huge. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 36.5% of households headed by a single woman were below the poverty level in 2016. For households headed by a single man, 22.1% were below the poverty level. The poverty rate for such households was about twice the rate for all families.
As hard as it is to raise children as a single Mom or Dad, it’s not impossible. Some parents are lucky to have relatives who help with expenses and childrearing. Yet the uncertainties never vanish. In two-wage households, the temporary loss of one income is a hardship. In a single-income family, it can be devastating.
More than a quarter of all U.S. children under the age of 21 grow up in one-parent homes. In some cases their parent receives child support from the non-custodial parent, but often not as much as the court ordered. That only adds to the custodial parent’s burden. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2015, the cost for a middle-income couple to raise a child through age 17 was $284,750. Single parents often must meet most, if not all, of that cost themselves.
Federal Programs for Single Moms and Dads
Government help exists for those struggling with one-parent, one-income households. For those with very low incomes, federal programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as Food Stamp Program, offer subsidies to pay basic expenses and buy groceries. Some families, depending on their income and state of residence, might also qualify for health-care benefits through the Medicaid program.
Other public assistance programs cover either part or the entire cost of school lunches for children. Contact your child’s school for information and an application.
Nonprofit Help for Single Parents
Financial help and guidance for single parents also comes through nonprofit organizations and religious charities. Groups like Bridge of Hope and Helping Hands assist single mothers with housing and educational training. You can search the internet or contact state divisions of family services to learn what’s available in your area.
Habitat for Humanity, which builds and helps low-income people buy homes, is another organization to contact. That agency has outlets called ReStores that sell used furniture to help single parents furnish homes. Organizations like Salvation Army, Goodwill and the St. Vincent de Paul Society operate thrift stores that sell used goods at a fraction of the original price.
The Childcare Challenge: Ways to Lower the Cost
For single parents with pre-school children and jobs, finding affordable childcare can be a tremendous burden, but help is available here, too.
If you attend church, find out whether your church operates a daycare center or has a liaison with another religious organization that might. In some cases, churches offer reduced rates based on parents’ incomes. Also, contact state and county government child-welfare offices for guidance. Even your employer’s human resources office might be able to help.
The cost of daycare and after-school care for children 12-and-under is tax deductible. Consult Internal Revenue Service publications for the latest requirements to take the deduction. In general, you must have an income, be a full-time student or be physically or mentally unable to care for yourself to qualify for the deduction, and the care provider must be older than 19.
Tax Breaks for Single Parents
Taxes are another area where you can save. If you’re a custodial parent or your child resides with you most of the time, talk to a tax consultant or go online to learn about tax breaks that might provide money for you. These include a child-care tax credit for money spent on daycare. Parents can also claim head of household status on federal tax returns, claim a child as a dependent and receive a $1,000 tax-credit for children younger than 16 as long as you meet income requirements.
For single parents who have child support orders, payments are critical. As important as these transfers are to child welfare and family budgets, they often aren’t made and enforcement isn’t easy despite stiff penalties for not paying.
Noncustodial parents face legal penalties for failing to pay on time, and child support debts are not dischargeable, which means you must continue to pay even if you filed for bankruptcy. The receiving parent often depends on the income. That parent can often seek help from the state to collect if payments aren’t being made or can sue for enforcement.
For Domestic Violence Survivors
If you have been the victim of domestic violence, as well as financial abuse, there are numerous resources that can help you transition to a new, independent life with your children. Refer to our page on Financial Help for Domestic Violence Survivors.
DIY Help: Budgeting with One Income
There’s also a lot you can do for yourself when trying to juggle the expenses of bringing up children on one income. The first and most important step is to confront the problem and create a plan. Single parents need to do what everyone else should: Make a budget and follow it. This is particularly important for those with low incomes. It’s not easy, but with discipline it can be done.
Most wage earners are paid at least twice a month. To budget, you need to tally work income with any other sources of money and compare the total to what you spend. The monthly figures should balance or yield a surplus, better known as savings. Deficits, especially repeating ones, paper the trail to ruin.
If you take home $750 every other week, start with $1,500 as an income number, then make a list of monthly costs, things like rent, utility bills, groceries, installment debt, transportation expenses, insurance premiums and everything else that eats at your paycheck. Add up the expenses and if they exceed $1,500, you have a problem.
Once you see the inflows and outflows on paper, it’s time to make choices. Start with what economists call discretionary expenses. These come in many varieties, but have one thing in common: They are non-essentials. Not everyone agrees on what they can do without, but some stuff is obvious. If you eat out every day, start packing a lunch. If you have a gym membership you don’t use often, drop it.
Obviously, certain expenses are less flexible. Unless you want to move, your rent or mortgage payment is what it is. But other costs are more fluid. Consider your cable TV bill. You could simply stop using cable, or you could look at the services you’re paying for and trim them. If you get HBO, Cinemax or a premium sports channel as an extra, drop it.
The same approach works for other fixed expenses. For instance, commit to using less data on your smartphone and going for a cheaper plan. Adjust the thermostat in your home to save on heating and air-conditioning costs. Drive a cheaper car that gets better gas mileage.
Eventually, you should arrive at a basic budget. When you do, try cut your expenses even more. You should also build a reserve fund to cover emergencies. Most financial planners recommend six months of expenses, but getting there isn’t easy, so start by putting away a little at a time. Consider opening a separate savings account for the fund. It will reduce the temptation to spend the money and you’ll be surprised how quickly it grows.
Emergencies are a special worry for single parents. If you child breaks an arm and you have a big insurance deductible, you’ll need reserve funds. There are little expenses, too, like field trips, athletic equipment and music lessons. Not all are emergencies, but if they’re unexpected, the money must come from somewhere.
Taking on debt can be particularly tempting for single parents. If you don’t have enough at the end of the month, it’s easy to use a credit card. If you don’t have credit, getting a payday loan might seem tempting. Before you do either, consider the cost.
The interest rate on credit cards average 15.3% and if you have a bad credit score, is going to be closer to 25%-29%. The interest rate on payday loans is frightening, averaging just under 400% APR.
If you don’t have debt, try to avoid borrowing, but if you’ve already sunk into a debt quagmire, your plan needs to include a path out it. Call your credit card company to see if they’ll work with you on a payment plan. If you have debt on multiple credit cards and are struggling to make minimum payments, consider contacting a nonprofit credit counseling agency and asking about relief options like debt management programs, debt consolidation or debt settlement.
These steps can be particularly difficult for newly divorced parents. In some cases, they never handled the household finances and need to learn the basics. In others, they suddenly discover that they can no longer afford the house or the car payments. Becoming a single parent requires many adjustments, and learning to live with less is a big one.
The Census Bureau reports that custodial parents receiving the full amount of child support due was just 45.6% in 2013. Another 25.9% received no payments at all. The average custodial parent received only $3,950 for the year.
Saving for your children’s college education and for your own retirement can be difficult when you’re on your own. But try to make contributions to your employer-sponsored 401(k) retirement plan, especially if the employer matches your contributions. If you can put money in a college fund, consider using a state-sponsored plan with tax advantages.
Finally, plan for the unexpected. Make sure you carry necessary insurance policies. Life and disability insurance are vital if you don’t have a large nest egg and die or become disabled. Also, draft an estate plan that includes a will and names a guardian for your minor children. If you have savings, be clear about how you want they divided if you die.