How to be a successful single mother: 7 steps

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Before you do any of this, you need to let go of your baggage.  Work in progress, I know.  I’ve been working on my own stuff with my BetterHelp therapist. More on that here.

1. Embrace that you are now financially independent as a single mom

Fights about money are one of the biggest reasons single moms are not romantically involved with their kids’ dads in the first place.

The fact that you are now financially free to make good, sound money decisions is one of the most positive, powerful changes in your life.

So is your newly encumbered ability to work and earn more money. You don’t have to play to anyone’s ego anymore.

Embrace this independence and all the freedom and power that comes with it.

Do not start to dream and strategize about how the next man will be your meal ticket to a better financial future.

Maybe one day you’ll couple with a man who is at least if not more successful 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.

Yes, you may receive child support and/or alimony. But remember this: That money could go away any time.

He could lose his job, skip town, become disabled or pass away at any moment.

You cannot control that. But you can control how much money you earn.

And you can earn far more than a judge may order you be paid.

Plus: It is critical to your ability to move on emotionally in this phase of life if you are not connected to your ex and your former life through bi-weekly child support or alimony payments.

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2. Let go of assumptions about what is possible as a single mom

Your family, media, friends, and colleagues likely give you messages — subtle and not-so-much — about your urge to get married “while you’re still young and cute,” settle for a low-paying, but steady job, and how statistically, your kids are destined for juvie and a life of otherwise underperformance.

Ignore those people, and contend with those messages in your own mind (I’ve had them, trust me! Worries about living out of a car that I didn’t even own, visions of constantly struggling). Instead, surround yourself with successful, positive people. Identify successful single moms in your own life, or in the world. Cocoon in messages of what is possible. You absorb it by osmosis.

Single moms are statistically poorer and more stressed out with kids who don’t do so great when compared with other families. That is not a sentence for your life. You can do whatever you want, but you have to do it through the lens of a person, a professional, a woman.

Were you offered a promotion of your dreams, but consider not taking it because the travel will permanently damage your kids? Has any man ever in the history of mankind ever had that thought?! Take the freaking promotion, hire a wonderful babysitter to help you out, get a housekeeper for crying out loud, and show your kids — and the world! — how shit is done.

Living your greatest potential is the best gift any mother can give her children and the world.

3. Don’t make money decisions ‘as a single mom’

Were you offered the promotion of your dreams, but consider not taking it because the travel will permanently damage your kids? Has any many ever in the history of mankind ever had that thought?! Go after that promotion, hire a wonderful babysitter to help you out, get someone to clean your house for crying out loud, and show your kids — and the world! — how shit is done. Living your greatest potential is the best gift any mother can give her children, and the world.

One of the biggest mistakes single moms make is they prioritize saving for their kids’ college over their own financial futures. I wrote about this in my SUCCESS magazine column.

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 an Allianz survey.

I suspect that single moms feel guilty for being a “broken family” and attempt to make up for any pain a breakup caused their children by financing their educations. The reason may also be that the moms themselves have struggled financially, and hope to lessen that struggle for their kids.

No matter how benevolent the reasons, 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.

4. Spend money in ways that make you money

Time is money.

If you spend all your free time on housework and errands, you will never break free from your financial challenges and build something new.

There is a reason the wealthy — and even the financially comfortable people — hire out cleaning, yardwork, and other chores: Their time is too valuable doing what they do not enjoy, and they can hire out to an expert, instead.

Pay for yard service, and use that time saved to build a business. 

Invest in a dishwasher and spend that extra time studying for a degree that will earn you more money.

Send out your laundry and devote those hours to fun family time.

Put money into advancing your career, learning a new skill or building your business.

5. Practice self-care

“Self-care is self-protection,” says Dr. Elizabeth Cohen.

Create a money self-care practice 

Just as everyone needs a fitness routine and can benefit from mindfulness or spiritual practice, so, too, is the case with money. Creating an action-based plan for staying conscious and actively involved with your money habits and attitudes is the essence of financial self-care.

Examples of items in your self-care practice might include:

  • Daily money gratitude writings
  • Weekly check-in with financial support group/friend
  • Weekly review of all expenses
  • Monthly assessment of financial goals
  • Twice-yearly meeting with financial advisor / CPA / banker
  • Monthly charity donation

Of course, your self-care practice will be your own. As you commit to and tweak your own wellness practice, you will find that it can feel so powerfully positive that — not unlike a great exercise habit — your whole being will crave it when you miss a day or week. That is when you know true change is underway.

Face facts about your money

Money still carries heavy taboos, and talking about it with anyone but your partner is still considered rude in many circles. This shadow over money carries over into our own feelings and management of our personal finances, which are easily ignored.

Do you tend to leave bills and financial statements unopened? Do you know exactly how much debt you have — and at what interest rates? How close are you to healthy retirement savings?

If you can’t answer these basic questions, it’s time to get really honest with yourself. Face all the facts about your money.

One of my favorite tips is to use free online tools to easily pull in all of your financial accounts into one place, tallying all your income, debt, investments and credit cards. Simply looking at these numbers in one spot is often life-changing.

You may be pleasantly surprised — one single mom who undertook this step at my advice told me she was stunned and thrilled to learn that she had six-figures in assets. You may be less pleased with what you see, and that is OK. Be kind to yourself, and appreciate the bravery involved in taking this first, hard step — which growth depends upon.

Identify the root of your relationship with money

To start a new, better relationship with your finances, dig into where your current relationship started. Think about your earliest money memories and write them down.

What lessons did your parents teach you about earning, spending and saving? Did your parents fight about money? Were finances a source of stress or joy in your home? Was money revered as a very important source of status? A means to control others? Or simply a currency to help achieve comfort?

Just like it can take decades to decode any other life challenges, money issues are complicated and nuanced, and your insights will evolve over time. But honoring the very real early influences on your money relationship can help you take control of a new, better path. Online therapy can be an affordable way to explore your money story. Learn more at our 2021 review of best online counseling apps and sites.

Get support

Surrounding yourself with others who are on a positive, self-care journey with their money is critical to your success in this part of your life. Studies find time and again that the people you surround yourself with have a huge impact on your habits.

For example, teenagers whose friends smoke are also likely to smoke. Same, too, with personal finance habits.

If your friends are all swimming in debt, love to shop when they can’t afford it and care little about their investments, it is time to find a new tribe.

This might include joining a Facebook group of like-minded women, forming a support group in your neighborhood or house of worship, or reaching out to a friend who lives far away and scheduling monthly accountability calls to keep each other on track.

Getting the financial support you need also likely includes working with professionals. A good accountant or tax preparer, financial advisor, bookkeeper (if you own a business), debt counselor and a banker might all be part of your financial team. What single parents need to know about taxes.

These experts will not only provide money- and time-saving services, but will also hold you accountable to your goals. Plus, simply reaching out and creating a professional relationship is a positive action step that will make you feel empowered.

Join my Facebook group, Millionaire Single Moms, where positive, evolved women support one another in building careers, businesses, wealth, relationships and more!

6. 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 therefore 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 pedal 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.

This is my story.

I was pregnant with a toddler when my ex left. He made all the money and his job provided insurance and other benefits.

I was terrified. I would lay in bed at night figuring out how the kids and I would live in my 1999 red Subaru Forester. Today, I run a business with revenue of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. My hot boyfriend of five years is a wonderful partner. I enjoy at least four vacations each year — often internationally, and sometimes with the kids, others with my boyfriend, a girlfriend, or solo. My investments are in awesome shape for retirement, as well as short-term goals. I co-parent 50/50. And best of all— my kids are thriving and happy.

In this post, I share how I got over my own mindset blocks that had me stuck. These include:

1. Live frugally and simply. Even though I could easily afford a different home, my kids and I enjoy our two-bedroom NYC co-op. We only buy what we need, or what will give us true pleasure, and are mindful of the environmental impact of our purchases. My 2013, banged-up Subaru Impreza hatchback is paid-off and fuel-efficient. How to create a budget you will stick to.

2. Invest in myself first. Every year for the past five years I have maxed out my tax-advantaged retirement accounts (401k and Roth IRA), which are especially rich because I am self-employed (did you know you can shelter up to $56,000 in a 401k if you are self employed?). 

Other investments include a cash emergency fund, and life insurance and disability insurance. Yes, these investments are wise and advisable, but the greatest advantage is they make me feel safe and secure. Knowing that the chances of my family’s future is secure has freed me from untold stress, and graced me with a confidence that informs so many of my decisions. 

3. I live debt-free. Early in my life, I struggled with student loans and credit card debt — did the monthly minimum payment mambo, and tossed balances around to different 0% balance transfer credit cards and other shenanigans. Fast-forward to today and a debt-free life (except a mortgage, with a very low, tax-advantaged interest rate).

4. I am grateful. It is very easy to slip into assuming society’s damnation of single motherhood, and buy into the mantra that as an unmarried mom, I am a hot, struggling mess.

My secret weapon against the single-mom blues is finding a gratitude exercise. The more you focus on what you DO have, and what you CAN accomplish, and HAVE ALREADY accomplished, the more likely it is that you minimize your focus on what you lost, or what your friends have (that you don’t), and free yourself to step into all the possibility of your future.

A gratitude exercise can include writing in a pretty notebook each morning all the things you are grateful, or creating a family ritual in which each member shares three things they are grateful for before a meal or at bedtime, or simply taking a moment during a stressful spot to remind yourself of all you have. Here are just a few things that I am grateful for:

  • I live in a time of peace, in a place and time where there are unprecedented opportunities for women — including unmarried mothers.
  • My children are healthy, bright, kind and funny people.
  • I have all the love I am capable of receiving.
  • I have skills to pay the bills.
  • So much privilege

5. I give back. Once you embrace all your blessings, big and small, and step into a sense of true gratitude, the resulting humility precludes you from serving others. This may mean giving to a charity or house of worship. It can include volunteering your time, being a listener, or bringing a casserole, shoveling the driveway or other favor to a friend or family member for those in your life who need a hand, or other selfless acts. 

My service includes giving at least 10% of my net income each year to charity; buying extra food with my kids each time we go to Costco each month and give it to a local food pantry; and giving free consulting services to people, organizations and businesses that align with my principles. Recently, I launched Moms for Shared Parenting, an activist organization to which I am giving my time, money and skills for zero pay.

This truth bomb from Jessica Mraz, 50, St. Paul, Minnesota, who let go of child support, changed her life for the better, and changed the world:

“Life lesson learned yesterday. I was struggling to figure out how to pay for my son’s health insurance and medical bills since the premiums went up and my deductible changed as well as sports and guitar lessons. I got into a big argument with my ex because he refuses to pay for any of it since he gives me some child support and thinks that should cover everything. Suddenly a light went off in my head and I thought:

“Why are you wrestling with this piggy ? You are just covering yourself up with mud. You will never get him to agree with you. So woman, you are just going to have to make all the money you need to pay for everything that your son needs and you need to have a great life. Stop thinking in this limited way. Now raise yourself up and walk away from this struggle.

“I was angry and felt like blowing off some important things I had to do. But I didn’t. I turned that anger into energy. Then I walked into the recording studio where I do voiceover and knocked it out of the park. One of the most empowering moments of my life. I am grateful to Emma and the Millionaire Single Moms (Facebook group, join here!) for helping me get to this place of awareness and dignity.”

— Jessica

Jessica is a professional translator, one of the career paths that pay very well and many moms do from home — learn how to get into this lucrative, flexible field and 12 others in this post about work-at-home high-paying careers, and 7 business ideas for single moms.

7. Write your own mission statement

This is my mission statement for this platform, myself, and for single moms everywhere. It is from my #1 Bestselling book, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), which the New York Post called a “Smart, must read” and was featured on The Doctors, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Jenny McCarthy Show, Oprah Magazine, MONEY magazine and more than 150 other outlets:

  • I will set big, giant scary goals for myself and family, regardless of what my family looks like, or what other people think I am capable of.
  • I appreciate every single day that I live in a time of unprecedented wealth and opportunity for women, and it is my duty to achieve both to honor the people who fought for me to have these opportunities, as well as for those who come after me.
  • I accept responsibility for my own financial well-being.
  • I might not have it all figured out right now, but I am taking steps to be debt-free, financially independent, and with a financial plan for the future.
  • I will never chose to under-earn in order to maximize receipt of child support, alimony or public benefits.
  • I will never under-earn to minimize paying child support or alimony.
  • I will take steps to minimize working mom guilt, instead deferring to extensive research that finds that after age 3, the number of hours moms spend with their kids does not impact their development, and actively thwart peer pressure that assumes that the stay-at-home mom is the better mom, because all science finds to the contrary.
  • I will take big and calculated (and some not-so-calculated) risk. Because that is the only way to grow and change — financially, professionally and personally.
  • I will seek without guilt or shame work that is exciting, creative and fulfilling.
  • I will never minimize my professional success — in actuality or perception — in order to appear attractive to men.
  • I relish that I am role model of earning and professional success for my children. Also, for other women and moms.
  • I give back. Even — especially — when I feel like I don’t have any more to give, I remember that I can give to others, and that gives me strength.
  • I accept help. I’m just one woman, I am vulnerable, and I can’t do everything on my own (that would be insane).
  • I will stumble, fail, eff stuff up in the worst way. Then get back up and go for it again.
  • I’m never, ever, ever, ever, ever entitled. Ever!
  • I am capable of so, so much more than I limit myself to. I open myself up to the amazing and impossible.

Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.

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