5 single mom money mistakes to avoid at all cost

Money mistakes single moms often make


11 steps to a rich life as a single mom

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.

About Emma Johnson

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.


  1. Rochelle on September 18, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Your link to the free report isn’t working.

  2. High Heels Backwards on September 18, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    I posted this on your FB page, but I thought I would post it here as well. As a single mom homeowner, repair costs can be painfully high for me. For example, today I paid $250 for a refrigerator repair that I probably could have put off or attempted to do on my own if I knew more. I would love to take the time to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix these things, but I have 3 kids and a fulltime job, and I need to take some mental health time for me as well. Sometimes I post on FB to ask friends what to do, but most of these things you have to have people show you. And I just don’t have the in-real-life community around me to help me here. Any thoughts? I’m feeling frustrated and discouraged. I was hoping to come out ahead financially this month, but there you go. Argh…

    • DarthW on September 18, 2014 at 5:55 pm

      HHB do you research the potential problem on the internet? I’m somewhat “handy”, but mostly still a novice at repairs so I have to research quite a bit just to investigate steps to a potential repair. And sometimes they can be tricky. Granted it can be tough to find an exact video, or instruction manual, or parts diagram that exactly shows how to fix the problem, but I will often at least get hints to start the process. I’ve fixed my fridge, replaced a toilet and sink, replaced a busted drum in a dryer, all things I’ve no experience fixing before, but learned by research and as I did them. In the end they weren’t really too bad. The more you do the more confidence and skill you earn.

      For those general repairs around the house it can be a stressful and overwhelming, but really few people know exactly how to fix any given break. At best, often a novice knows the basics, then starts loosening a bolt in the wall, or bathroom, or fridge, then loosens another bolt (making note where the bolts need to be put back). Then, wiggle here, look for the broken thingamajig the “expert” mentioned in the YouTube video, etc. Barring working with something that could majorly flood my house or electrocute me, I’ll start trying to see if I can take a part off or repair something, figuring I probably won’t do more damage. Then, worse to worse I call that repairperson and pay them to fix the break, and the parts I took off.

      I work in IT, and continually run up against problems or projects I’ve not seen before. It can be nervewracking, and, like with home repairs, I don’t know where to start. So, I research others experiences online, find the situations that seem similar, and start poking and wiggling to investigate some more. Sometimes I still have to call in an “expert”, but 90% of the time figure it out on my own. I guess what I’m trying to say is sometimes the “expert” makes it look easy, and really they may be doing exactly what you did (research and loosen some stuff) to find the issue. Heck, the expert may be just as flustered and scared working on the issue as you if they haven’t seen it before.

      • Margaret on September 27, 2014 at 6:05 pm

        That is one of the most empowering and encouraging posts I’ve ever seen. And especially useful to women or men who are not confident in this sort of thing.
        I often try to fix things around the home, with no-one encouraging me or supporting me. I often wondered if I was the only woman doing this, and why is it that men that I pay seem to know everything and I don’t? Then I, too, discovered ‘how to’ videos on the internet.
        It’s something I try to do in front of the kids, so they don’t grow up with the ‘mystique’ that I grew up with. I have a tool boar on the wall. Some people grew up with the same mystique around cooking a meal – it’s painful to see, and thrilling when you see them take a chance and pull it off.
        Thank you. Please keep sharing your confidence. It’s especially nice when men do this.

  3. Eve in Silver Spring on September 18, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    I did some internet research and even managed to find the manual, but it address the problem. I simply didn’t have time. I was really pressed for time…supposed to start work at 6 am, but didn’t actually get downstairs until 7:30. Thank God for telework, at least. But my day was totally taken up by either work (too much of it), my 3 kids (starting at around 3:00), and a little bit of me time (which I desperately needed). I guess I’m wishing we lived in the proverbial “village,” where neighbors and family show you the ropes. Even though I have a lot of friends and acquaintances, sometimes I feel so alone. And I was hoping to catch up a little bit financially this month as well.

    But thanks Poindy — I mean Darth — for sharing thatyou also feel clueless, and you actually succeed at these repairs! I think as women (that doesn’t include you, Darth), in some areas we’re raised with this learned helplessness and knee-jerk self-abuse. Two of those areas are home repair and finance, so there you go.

    To make things worse, the noncommittal guy I’m sort of dating/not dating said to me, “Why didn’t you wait until I coulld help you?”. Well, duh! Because you didn’t offer? Because I’m not sure if you’re there for me, and I’m afraid that if I assume you are it will make you feel “pressured”. As they say in my ex-husband’s language, “Ma jebi ga.”

  4. Erin on October 14, 2014 at 5:51 am

    Your comments about debt – does that include a new mortgage? We are in the process of selling the marital home as neither can afford to buy the other out. I won’t have enough money to get a decent place straight away but am thinking a year of hard saving, waiting for market conditions to change and then purchasing a small place in a safe area once I’m back at work more days is the path to financial security. Your thoughts?

    • Emma on October 15, 2014 at 7:52 pm

      Erin – I think that sounds like a really solid plan. A mortgage/ buying a home are not 100% always better than renting, but over the aggregate real estate tends to be a solid investment if you plan to keep it for at least 10 years. Keep us posted.

  5. LRR on December 5, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Hey Emma – Just wondering about your thoughts on the professional side of the spectrum here. I am a consultant in my profession, and maintain certifications in my field through obtaining CEUs (continuing education units). These cost money and take time, usually involve attending a conference and/or taking multiple courses and a self review test every year. I have 30 some odd college credits from starting and stopping my education “for the sake of” my (now ex) husband and family. My deal is – I have reserves about taking on student loans for myself. There is potential to keep acquiring certifications in different arenas within my field, and I’m trying to weight out which is more beneficial and efficient with use of time and energy. Wondering what your thoughts may be?

    • Emma on December 6, 2016 at 6:35 am

      What is the upside of earning those degrees or certifications? Is there a direct financial return on investment? Or other ROI — ie work you really love doing or affords your family a higher quality of life?

  6. Carrie on December 6, 2016 at 10:38 pm

    One mistake that I made right after my divorce was buying too much food. I felt safe when we had enough food in the house. Due to a 50/50 custody schedule, I only had the kids 50% of the time, but I still bought food as if they were there 100% of the time. So food expired, spoiled, and money was wasted. Now, I buy only what I know we’re going to eat, and I eat what I buy.

    A second mistake is trying to give my kids the life I wanted them to have when I was married. For example, I feel my kids deserve to go on an annual family vacation, have a good birthday party, wear brand name shoes, etc. But I toned this down to give them the life they need instead. So if we need a vacation, it’s a 5-hour drive to a great big city with free museums and zoos. Cake and icecream birthday parties at home are awesome and I save the external parties for landmark years (5, 13, 16). And for clothes, I discovered that some stores have great quality affordable clothes. And I willingly accept hand-me-downs from family members and friends.

    I also started paying down my car note and paying down debt while also saving. Every little bit counts. There’s freedom in being debt free and when I have money in the bank I feel confident. It all takes one day at a time, though.

  7. Michele Cagan on December 21, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    This article was very empowering! I’m a single mom and a CPA – and I still have periods where I struggle with money issues. I think it’s really important for women (and especially single moms) to truly understand their finances. So many women I know and work with are terrified of financial issues, and sometimes avoid until the problems get too big to ignore. I’m in favor of anyone who helps women stop being afraid, and start being proactive – and I think your site really does that. Kudos!

  8. Single Parent on January 26, 2019 at 7:23 am

    This is a wonderul post. As a single mom, my motivation us to break the stereotypes that plague single parent families. I followed the u baby steps of financial peace and have shattered what society statistically says will be my outcome. I love the motivational element if this post and give the same encouragement on my blog too. Thanks for extra push. Well done.

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