Notes From a Single Mom: Money Matters

Plan ahead and appreciate what you have

Oh, the love of money. We never seem to get enough of it. The 2010 U.S. Census reports that the median income for Native American families was around $38,000 per year. Compare that to $50,000 per year for the general population, and you see why money seems so scarce.

Single parents, especially, know all about tight budgets. After the dust from divorce settles, there are dreams to tweak, financial adjustments to make, more fuel-efficient cars to buy. The word “downsize” looms large in our everyday lives. In fact, a woman’s standard of living after a divorce drops 45 percent according to Divorce.com. Trips to Wal-Mart replace sprees at Macy’s. Going to the movies means stopping at Red Box. Even ordering pizza seems extravagant.

But honestly, isn’t all this penny-pinching worth it?

I don’t know about you, but it is for me. In my previous, married life, I was a pampered, SUV-driving, stay-at-home mom with a tennis club membership. Life was good. But I was miserable. Now, in my more “enlightened” life as a single parent, my children and I live in an apartment on a tighter budget, and you know what? We couldn’t be happier. While I’m still dependent on support payments, as many single parents are, I’m working toward that day when I won’t have to be.

But I’d better step on it.

This year, part of my support package runs out. When I’m done hyperventilating, I plan to take action. The operative word being “plan,” says Kathleen Stayberg, a financial representative with Northwestern Mutual Financial Network/The Waltos Group. Stayberg is also a single mother of two girls. She strongly urges other single parents to be as financially independent as possible. In her words, “Any income you’re receiving from child/spousal support is never guaranteed and is subject to change.”

The frightening reality is, many single parents depend on child support every month “just to get by.” Some of us would be homeless without it. That’s why a contingency plan is vital, a backup source of income. But making more money means longer work hours and less time with your children. In most cases, the trade-off is hardly worth it. Talk about a dilemma!

Then, as if getting by day to day wasn’t enough to think about, there’s also the future to consider: life insurance, retirement plans, college expenses, long-term health care, living trusts. Staying in a loveless marriage doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect, does it? But before you do something you’ll regret, like reuniting with the ex, take a money management class. It will put your life in perspective and help you organize your priorities.

I’ve taken the same class twice, “Smart Women Finish Rich,” based on the concepts in David Bach’s best-selling book, taught by Pamela M. Adams, an accredited asset management specialist. Adams instructs, “Learn to live on less than you make and you’ll be able to pay yourself first.” The good news, she says, is that there really is enough money. It’s just a matter of “finding out what’s most important to you and aligning your financial behaviors to it.”

For me, what matters most is giving my kids opportunities I didn’t have. But to be a junior tennis champion or play Carnegie Hall costs a bundle in private lessons. Money’s tight and therefore potential must go unrealized . . . and that makes me sad.

“Don’t let guilt cause you to spend money on things you can’t afford,” Adams counters. “The greatest gift we can give our children is our love and our time.”

How right she is. Food, shelter, and the love of your children, family and friends. These are life’s real essentials. What more could you possibly want?

Lynn Armitage is a freelance writer in Northern California and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. She feels like the richest woman in the world with two wonderful, healthy daughters.