Families lead by single moms are statistically poorer than other families. No big surprise there! After all, one income is less than two incomes, and one person to help manage a home and care for children is less than two people teaming up to do that work.
But being a single mom doesn't mean you can't have an full life — including a meaningful career and abundant money — no matter your family status. But single moms have a bad habit of doing dumb stuff with their money. I get it, and have made plenty of single-mom money mistakes myself. Many single moms default to poverty mode — regardless of their actual circumstances — because that is the media and society equates single moms with Welfare moms. Also, we tend to feel guilty a lot — guilt for being divorced otherwise not living with our kids' fathers, guilt for working more, and guilt for spending less time with our kids than our married-mom friends (statically this is true).
And so we make emotional decisions about our money. When you make decisions based on guilt and fear, nothing good happens. If this is you, you can turn this around. But first you have to recognize the errors of your ways. Here are some of the most typical mistakes:
Think a man is a financial plan Maybe one day you'll couple with a man who is at least if not more successful for you, and than you, which will bolster your financial security. Even then, you need to take care of yourself, and your finances, and build a life and wealth as an independent adult woman. Because you are, and you can.
Fail to build wealth According to one New York University study, on average single mothers possess only 4 percent of the wealth of single fathers: $1000 compared to $25,300. The study found that black and Latino single mom have a median wealth of zero, while white single moms report $6,000. Compare this to the 64 percent of successful retirees (those who claimed to be comfortable in their retirement) who saved and invested during their 20s and 30s — prime baby-making and raising years! A recent Allianz survey of professional families found that the average traditional, two-parent family has saved $264,000 for retirement while single-parent families had just $171,000 in savings.
While you likely have less than when you were married or if you lived with a partner, that is not necessarily the case. Also, it is never too late to invest even a small sum each week or month. Putting away even $50 per week can mean the difference between homemade or Starbucks coffee — and a whole lot of financial security.
Wrack up more debt. Sometimes debt is unavoidable, and consumer debt can be the result of health emergencies or the downside of lousy divorce law that splits a couple's debt 50-50 — even if one person (usually the wife) earns far less than the the other. The rates of bankruptcy for women have skyrocketed since the 1980s and one of the top reasons cited is divorce.
Even if you don't make it all the way to bankruptcy, avoid debt at all cost. I don't need to tell you why — it is expensive, it ruins your credit and keeps you back from doing all the awesome stuff you dream of doing. Also: it is really freaking stressful. Read my post about single mom and credit here. And how to pay off debt for good here.
Prioritize college savings before retirement. Nearly half (47 percent) of single moms say that saving for their children’s education is their No. 1 greatest motivation for developing a long-term financial plan — above saving for retirement. Compare that with just 26 percent of other modern families who say the same, according to this Allianz survey.
Don't do this. Your kid can get loans for school, you can't get loans for retirement. Financial pros will tell you that retirement savings trump college on all fronts: more tax benefits, longer vestment periods and a higher priority overall. Plus, your kids will be super irritated if they have to support you when you're old and you could have made better decisions.
Final single mom money mistake: Fail to dream really, scary big
Single moms might get out of rock-bottom poverty mode, but they often fail to truly break free from mindsets that hold them back from their true potential. I often see single moms who blame their exes for their financial limits, complaining that failure to pay child support means they can't go back to school to earn a higher degree, and therefor make more money. Others say that the lack of their ex's involvement means that they work the hours required to qualify for a promotion. Others blame their family status for not taking on big risks like starting a new business, taking a demanding new job, or otherwise stretching their professional or financial comfort zone, citing needing to be home more, or lack of support as the reason.
I get all of these, and have felt them myself. But when I am about to kill my ex for not honoring his visitation schedule, which means I have to scramble to find a sitter last-minute, or cancel a media opportunity, I have learned to pause, reach out to my network of sitters, family and friends, and hire that child care, work after the kids are asleep, or otherwise do whatever it takes to make it work. Otherwise, I am giving my power to others — my ex, my family status, or society who I may fear judges me and my parenting. Do not give your power to others. Do not live in fear, anger or otherwise mute your brilliance. Instead, put the petal to the metal. Set giant, scary, ridiculous goals. Hire the child care you need, and make parenting about quantity over quality time. After all, if you are stressed over money, resentful over unfulfilled dreams and goals, you are a far, far lesser mom and woman than one who spends a few less hours with her kids, but is living her full potential, and serving as a far poorer role model for her children.
Go for it. You got this.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.