Managing your finances as a single parent is an uphill battle. To begin with, chances are (if you’re reading this article), you’re working with limited money. That money has to stretch to cover not only your monthly expenses like housing, food, transportation, and debt—but you also need to set some aside for emergencies and future expenses like education.

How do single parents manage? Well, the most successful ones have learned how to budget. Budgeting is simply making a plan for your expenses so that you can meet your obligations (first priority), and have enough left over to live a little, now and in the future.

It’s possible that your income is simply not large enough for that “left over” part right now. That’s okay—it happens to the best of them. If you can simply meet your obligations, you’re doing all right. Once that’s established, you can look into further education or training to increase your earning potential and start the next step of budgeting, which is planning for the future.

Starting Out

So how do you start? Simple—you keep track of every penny you spend. Whether it’s cash, check, automatic withdrawal, ATM/debit card, or credit card (and for obvious reasons, it’s best to stay away from those for the time being), keep a notebook log of everything you spend money on for a week.

When the week is over, review what you spent and fit each item into a category. There are an unlimited number of categories you can make, so try to keep it simple at this stage. Housing, utilities, food, transportation, clothes, entertainment, household, medical are obvious ones, and they might be sufficient for your first attempt.

Here is a list of common categories that you can choose from. Remember that if they don’t make sense to you, they won’t work, so mix and match or combine categories to reflect your actual thinking about spending:

Repeat this until you have assembled an entire month’s worth of expenses, including credit card payments, rent or mortgage, TV/telephone—anything you get billed for each month.

At the end of the month, review your expenses under each category. Separate out what is “fixed” (the same every month) from what is “variable” (this will include monthly bills whose amount is different every month, like electricity or phone charges).

Moving On

Set up a budget for the coming month by entering an amount for each category based on what you spent during the month just past. If you want to try cutting back at this point, make the amount in some categories a little less than what you spent last month. For instance, if you bought ice cream three times last month, make your grocery budget for next month less by two packages of ice cream (if that’s something you intend to cut back on). If part of your budgeting plan is to carpool to work, reduce next month’s gas expenditure by some appropriate amount.

Now you keep track of your expenses for another month, and see if you meet your budget goals (whether they’re the same or lower than last month’s)

Once you’ve been doing this for a few months, you can extrapolate forward to get a whole year’s worth of expenses. This is a good point to see if you’re paying too much for the largest expenses, like housing or food. A good rule of thumb is that 30% of your income goes to housing (including utilities and maintenance), and 15% each goes for food and transportation. That leaves 40% for everything else (clothes, insurance/medical, entertainment, and so forth). The following link has great information on all aspects of budgeting, including more information like the above:

If You’re Paying Too Much

If your figures for the month show that you’re paying significantly more than 30% for housing, you need to take some action. If you can’t think of any easy solutions that will work for you (such as taking in renters, moving in with family, and the like), here are some links to housing assistance programs that might be able to help:

HUD – Housing Choice Vouchers Fact Sheet

Local HUD Information by State
Homeownership Vouchers

If you find you’re spending much more than 15% of your income on food, it’s possible you’re not doing everything you could be to minimize this expense. Here’s some helpful links on how to cook nutritious and enticing food your kids will eat, and that will also help a lot in your budgeting efforts:

If your expenses fall within the ranges above, good for you! You’re completely average! Now why not do even better in the savings category by trimming items you really don’t need from the other categories? The only sure-fire way to make money is to save money.

Does the whole budgeting process sound too boring for you? Don’t fret—there are many like you. You don’t like to nit-pick about expenses, but at the same time you need to get control of your spending. The following story is a more philosophical view of budgeting from someone who managed to rein in her spending without becoming an accountant in a little green cap:


Involve Your Kids

One important thing to keep in mind when budgeting as a single mother is that most likely, you’ll have to cut back somewhere. That “somewhere” might be things that your kids are used to having, like cable TV, or lots of snacks in the house, or maybe spending money that you don’t keep track of. It’s important to share with your kids that the family’s budget needs to be under control, and they might have to give up some of these goodies. Don’t worry—they might make a fuss about it, but if you’re firm and keep explaining to them that giving up a little now, might prevent giving up a lot later, they should be capable of understanding.

You might have some success by enlisting them to help you meet the budget when shopping. Instead of a brand-name cereal they like, send them on a mission to find the generic brand, and compare how much cheaper it is. Or (a better bet, since kids are so computer-savvy), put them in charge of finding recipes on the Web that you can make with inexpensive, basic ingredients, instead of all the over-priced prepared foods the shops try to entice you to buy. If you have girls, see if they’re interested in learning how to make bread and pizza dough, or even something really challenging like canning. For boys, send them off to a mechanically-inclined relative or trusted neighbor to learn how to change the oil on the car, or do basic home repairs. They’ll not only help the family save money—they’ll learn skills they can use their whole lives to continue the tradition of common-sense budgeting and saving.

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