"I pay my bills first and buy food second. You can't spend what you don't have," Slaughter says.
Food and shelter come first, but as long as you ensure some money is slotted for food, Slaughter has a point. Budgets can be upended by a poorly planned or impulsive grocery outing.
[Read: How to Trim Your Food Budget.]
And Slaughter has a lot of bills to pay. She doesn't want to divulge her annual salary but says her position typically pays between $35,000 to $65,000, and one can only hope she makes closer to the higher range. Slaughter, who divorced in 2010, supports a 5-year-old and four teenagers. She says her husband has only paid two checks for child support, totaling $750.
Meanwhile, Slaughter pays her monthly $690 mortgage, including the tax and insurance. Her insurance is more than $600 a month, due to having three teenage drivers on the policy (and that includes life insurance). The cellphone bill – again, all those teenagers – is $250 a month.
Your kids can help you with the budget. There's no shame in explaining your household economics to your kids if they're old enough to understand. Obviously, Timbers says, "be selective in what you share, especially if they're younger – you don't want to frighten them."
Susan Elliott is the author of "Getting Past Your Breakup: How to Turn a Devastating Loss Into the Best Thing That Ever Happened To You." She is no longer a single mom – she has remarried and her kids are in their 30s – but when she was working for a computer company and getting her master's in psychology, her three teenage sons "were eating me out of house and home. I would come home, and they would be sitting there, eating boxes of cereal and gallons of milk – before dinner," she says.
She finally sat them down and told them she was changing how they were shopping. She gave each of them a food budget for breakfast, dinners on the nights she was working late and snacks.
"Your food is to last you through the next shopping trip," she told them. "I don't care what you buy, but you can't eat any food that is not yours or not marked 'community food.' If you want to eat Cap'n Crunch morning, noon and night, be my guest, but you're not eating each other's food, nor are you eating my food. If you run out of food, too bad, so sad."
Her friends didn't think it would work, and, no, Elliott didn't intend to let them starve. But she was hoping to teach them a lesson, and it worked far better than she expected. Elliott says her sons became very budget-conscious, bartering with each other, buying family-sized packages and divvying them up.
"I would come home from work, and they would be sitting there, cutting coupons," Elliott says. "These were three boys who typically didn't get along for three minutes."
Keep the money-guzzlers under control. Slaughter didn't want to deny her children a good Christmas but recognized that presents can be a budget-killer if you're not careful. So she has one credit card, which she only uses for Christmas gifts. She spends the next six months paying it off, "so I'm ready to do it all over again next December," she says.
Turner took in roommates when she was making less money. When she needed a car, she knew an expensive one could derail her budget, so she purchased a 1998 Volkswagen Beetle from her cousin for $700.
When the timing belt started having trouble, and she had the money to buy another car, she paid it forward in a sense. Turner found a 19-year-old single mother who needed a car and whose father was a mechanic whiz – and sold the VW bug to her for $100.