“Being a single parent,” Meg Lowrey writes, “is not a life full of struggles, but a journey for the strong.”
Lowrey understands. She’s a single mother who has dedicated her free time to sharing her experiences in her online blog The Life of a Single Mom.
Her statement, which has been used by other single moms and websites as a source of inspiration, captures the life of a single parent. He or she lives with great rewards, but also must face significant challenges — emotionally, socially and especially financially.
Kimberly Diemert’s son is now an adult, but she was a single mother from the time he was 8.
“The challenges of being a single parent never change,” said Diemert, who calls herself a warrior fighting human trafficking and is the Executive Director of the Hue Jackson Foundation that supports survivors. “Some of the biggest challenges are not what is going on around you, it’s what is going on in your support system. Do you have the support that you need in the world you live in? I had the emotional support of family and friends. But the tangible support that I needed at certain moments like … who could pick up my child from school or after day care because I had to work an extra half hour?
“That leads to fear and anxiety and panic about leaving when the employer says you have to stay. What if I get sick and have to choose between work or paying my bills? One reason I do what I do is I’ve had a life full of challenges and I understand them.”
A 2019 Pew Research study shows that almost one-in-four children in the United States reside in a single-parent household. The most recent government census statistics from 2019 put the total of single-parent households at 11.008 million. Of that total, 80% are headed by a single mother.
That means more than two million households are guided by a single father a 700% increase since 1969. There are several charities and foundations geared to helping single moms. Help for single parents via government and charitable programs is not defined by gender.
Among single parents, three million are below the poverty level. With rent, utilities, cell phone bills and normal expenses that go with raising a child (chief among those, food), it takes no great financial savvy to figure it’s difficult to make ends meet.
But support is there to be found. Programs are available through the government, private organizations and some self-help websites. Some of it is easy to find; some takes work.
But it’s there.
Federal Programs and Benefits for Single Parents
Nothing is more concerning to a single parent – to any parent, really — than ensuring his or her child has enough food to eat, and that it’s the proper food. Doing that on a single income can be extremely challenging.
The government has several programs that provide single mother help and single father help. Funding of these programs can be political footballs, but Congress generally retains its commitment to them.
Some programs are based on income, others come via the school system where a child has his or her classes.
Outright grants are also available based on need. The website singlemothersgrants.org provides a comprehensive list of grants available nationwide. Applications are required, but could be well worth an hour’s time it takes to fill out. The Single Parents Alliance of America includes a link to check eligibility for programs that may be of help.
Financial Aid Benefits
Some aid programs, which provide real buying benefits, based on income. AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) provides cash payments for families that lack the support of a parent. Need is defined by each state. TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) assistance lasts five years, and may have work requirements, depending on the state.
Two key food programs are among the more important benefits single parents can rely on. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) helps low-income families through direct monthly benefits. Eligibility depends on income. WIC (the supplemental program for Women, Infants and Children) helps low-income applicants who are pregnant, breastfeeding or who have children younger than five. The WIC website (fns.usda.gov/wic) provides information on applying and benefits.
SNAP is about helping those who qualify, buy necessities at places like grocery stores or farmers’ markets. WIC is about providing supplemental food to under-nourished women and children during their developmental years.
The Department of Agriculture offers several nutritional programs through school lunch and breakfast programs. The DOA also has a Summer Food Service Program and TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides free-food help to low-income single parents (as well as families and individuals).
The Housing Choice Vouchers Program – formerly called the Section 8 program from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – helps provide low-income families the ability to live in a home that is clean and safe. Vouchers are issued at the local level, and can be applied to homes that meet the standards of the Public Housing Authority.
The home is rented by the single parent, and the PHA pays the “voucher” subsidy to the owner. The single parent is only responsible for the difference between rent and voucher. The PHA determines eligibility by family size and income.
Low-income single parents also can apply for low-cost rental units from the Public Housing Assistance Program. More than 3,300 local public housing agencies take part in the program, in all 50 states.
LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs) help low-income single parents pay utility bills. Applications are accepted on a local basis.
Health Care Support for Single Parents and Children
Employed single parents who have access to health insurance through their employer will usually find that is their best option for health care. However, not everyone has that benefit. The government provides health care plans through the Affordable Care Act, but those have seen rising costs.
Medicaid helps low-income families for those who lack or are without health insurance. Eligibility is determined by state, but the ACA allowed states to expand their Medicaid programs, and more than half of the states have found it beneficial to do so.
CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) provides low cost health care to families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private insurance. Those in need can apply at any time. Congress has funded the program through 2023.
Medicare, a health insurance, government run program for the elderly, is for those 65 and older, and there could be single parents in that group who could benefit from the low-cost program. But in certain rare circumstances, those under 65 can qualify. The Medicare site has an eligibility tool to determine what individuals meet the requirements.
Nonprofit and Local Help for Single Parents
Emma Johnson of Wealthy Single Mommy decided earlier this year to give a $500 grant to one single mother each month. Qualifications are basic: You’re a single mom and you need the money. Once Johnson made the program public, three donors who follow her web site (wealthysinglemommy.com) added $5,500 in matching funds. Applications are on her site.
That’s a unique way to help that shows the help is available.
Available Programs and Help
Single Mother Grants lists dozens of potential aid programs and grants via charities or churches for needs as specific as electric bills and medications. The site also has a state-by-state list of grants available to single parents.
The Single Parents Alliance of America has a list of government assistance available, with a link that checks eligibility. The website also lists (among other things) seven places to get free assistance, places to feed children on Sundays and the best careers for single parents.
Those are just two examples of sites on the internet found via a Google search. Some of those searches can lead you down long and winding paths, but focused searches about “help for single parents” and patience will yield results.
Help with Budgets
With the help of the internet, more single parents are sharing their stories. Some are relating how they plowed their way to financial viability.
Kumiko Love, founder of The Budget Mom, paid off $77,821 in credit card debt and student loan debt in eight months. Chonce’ Rhea paid off almost $50,000 in debt in 2015, two years after she was living in low-income housing and making $35,000 per year. She now tells her story on mydebtephinay.com. Yvonne Kaloki writes the blog Hudduma from London to help single mothers.
All talk of the importance of chipping away at debt so that single parents can keep the money they earn and start to build some savings. All also stressed budgeting, determining where money is spent and how to keep track.
There’s probably not a lot more aggravating then being preached to about budgets when you’re struggling to pay the electric bill. But getting to a more secure point has to start somewhere, and often the work put into budgeting and realizing where money goes makes a difference.
Though budgets are individual to each person and circumstance, a few general principles apply. Ideally, rent or housing should not cost more than 30 percent of monthly income. On average, though, single parents spend slightly more (35.8 percent).
Some basic steps can make a difference. Turning the thermostat down a couple degrees in the winter and putting on a sweater or sweatshirt can help with utility bills. Being aware and frugal with other necessary expenses — water, cell phone, internet, etc. – also can help. Listing annual subscriptions in one place can be eye-opening. The web site TrueBill can help sort through these expenses.
After figuring her necessary expenses, Love uses envelopes with remaining cash to keep track of variable spending — the item bought at the store on a whim, the rare night out for a glass of wine and dinner, a movie with the kids. By keeping what she has in cash, she knows what she has to spend.
Savings also is vital. Even setting aside $20 a week over a year adds up to $1,000. The more that can be saved, the better.
The key to a budget: Being honest about where the money is going; being willing to change to make ends meet; and being disciplined enough to stick to the goals.
It takes work, willpower and a plan – and not being afraid to seek help when it’s needed.
Child Care Help and Deductions for Single Parents
Finding affordable child care can be a tremendous challenge, and burden, for single working parents with pre-school children. One important government program is the Child Care Assistance Program, which provides funds to states to help pay for child care for low income families. Each state runs its own program. ChildCare.gov has a link to information for each state.
Head Start provides learning opportunities for children up to age 5 from low-income families. Eligibility is generally based on family income at or below the poverty level. Some states fund pre-K for children aged 3 to 5, and some churches operate a daycare center or can connect you with another religious group that might.
Tax Breaks for Single Parents
The main tax break for a single Mom or Dad comes in the ability to file as head of household, which lowers the tax burden and increases the standard deduction. Those who work and use child care for children under the age of 13 can claim the Child Care Credit. Single parents with children under 17 can also claim the Child Tax Credit. Credits are of great benefit because they reduce the amount of taxes due, and in some cases could lead to a tax refund if the credits exceed what was paid.
It’s easy to say re-budget or re-focus to make ends meet, just like it’s easy to say get a second job to add to your income. For a single parent, working one job while raising a happy, healthy child is difficult enough. In the age of COVID, it’s also wise to limit out-of-the-house exposure to minimize risk to your health and your child’s. One advantage of today’s economy is that online opportunities can help, and every little bit helps.
Proofreading or transcription sites will pay, and the work can be done on your timetable. Dog lovers could make a few extra dollars by starting a dog walking business through Rover – and the more adventurous could also dog-sit and make more money. Several sites – Opinion Outpost, Toluna and LifePoints are three – will pay those who take online surveys. If you have the free time, restaurant and grocery store apps will pay for delivery. Selling old household items (especially toys your child has grown out of) on eBay or Amazon Marketplace – one person’s junk is another’s treasure – also can provide some extra cash, and give the extra benefit of reducing clutter.
Financial Aid to Help Single Parents Pay for Their Education
Single parents who decide to go to college should be able to qualify for a Pell Grant, which goes to low income applicants. A new focus for the Grants is to help low-income single moms, and the amount will increase from $5,350 to $6,900 over the next 10 years. The best part about a grant is it is not a loan; it does not need to be re-paid. The first step in applying for a Pell Grant is to fill out the FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Single parents can quickly learn how much he or she qualifies for by submitting income and the number of children. The FSEOG (Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant) program is administered by colleges; not all take part, but those who do can grant up to $4,000 to those in need.
Several other programs offer grants to single parents. The Women’s Independence Scholarship Program helps victims of domestic abuse. The Raise the Nation Foundation offers assistance to single parent women to help with education costs or to repay student loans. The Capture the Dream Fund is a San Francisco Bay Area group that offers $1,000 scholarships to single parents (yes, a student can accept more than one scholarship or grant). Soroptomist is about empowering women through education; every year it distributes more than $2.5 million in education grants to approximately 1,700 women around the world.
Two other groups that could offer help for single mothers are the American Association of University Women, and the Adults Belong in College scholarship (ABC) program.
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 averages 18.6% in 2020 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 43.5% in 2015. Another 30% 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.
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