There is one positive point about being a single parent and facing down a mountain of bills and a slew of budgetary choices: You don't have a partner to bicker with. You can make your own money decisions.
But otherwise, being a single parenting and budgeting can be a long slog.
"Single parents have unique budgeting challenges," says Marilyn Timbers, a Stamford, Conn.-based financial advisor who works for ING Financial Partners, citing the scenarios of having to often raise a child solo and survive on one income. "Children are a joy, but they do not come cheap."
No kidding. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted in an August report, it will cost an estimated $241,080 for a middle-income couple to raise a child from day one until the child's 18th birthday – and some single parents have to shoulder that financial responsibility all by themselves.
Not that every single mom or dad is running on financial fumes and deserving of a pity party. Plenty are thriving and doing just fine. But if you sometimes find yourself staring at your bank account, wondering which bills you can get away with paying late – and still give your kids a decent life – here are some strategies from personal finance experts and single parents in the trenches.
Your budgeting process needs to be your own. Your partner may have been the one who paid the bills or made many of the money decisions. If that's the case, you need to step up. "Don't let anything overwhelm you," says Jose Perez, 47, a safety professional in the construction industry who lives in Bayonne, N.J.
Perez knows of what he speaks. His wife, Olinda, who was a substitute teacher in Newark, N.J., passed away almost three years ago of stage 4 breast cancer. Perez, who has a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, took over the family's budgeting, which had always been Olinda's territory. Perez didn't know any of the passwords for their financial accounts and eventually had to start over from scratch.
[Read: How to Manage Your Digital Afterlife.]
But while budgeting can be challenging, he says, "there is nothing that important that, if you lose it, can't be replaced or that you can't go without."
Formulate a plan for paying bills on time. It's easy to forget to look ahead if you're always looking behind you – at the car payment you didn't make or phone bill you didn't pay.
"I always total my monthly bills and divide my bills by paycheck. This made my bills much more manageable and forced me to keep close tabs on my money," says Ingrid Turner, a 29-year-old raising an 8-year-old son in Los Angeles. She is paid twice a month and earns $75,000 annually working for a technology reseller in Hollywood since 2012. She almost never receives child support.
Turner says she puts half of her first paycheck aside to cover a portion of her rent. "I shove it into my savings account, where it isn't so easily accessible," she says. When the next paycheck comes, paying the rent doesn't seem so daunting – she has half of it saved up already.
The strategy has helped Turner immensely. She divorced her husband when her son was 2 and spent several years unemployed and living in her mother's garage before finding jobs with income that placed her right around the poverty level. She was always careful about not falling into debt. She now has a credit card, but only for emergencies and major expenses.
"When money does get tight, I break down how much I can spend per day until I get paid," Turner says. "Knowing I have $20 or $30 per day, for example, helps me more than knowing I have $X per week or month."
And she always maintains a savings cushion. "When I was making $12 to $14 an hour, I wasn't able to save $100 or more a month, but I could do $25," Turner says.
Buy food last. Yes, last. It sounds counterintuitive, but it makes sense if one listens to Heather Slaughter, 39, a resident of Imperial, Mo., who works in business development for a title company.
"I pay my bills first and buy food second. You can't spend what you don't have," Slaughter says.