Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritize our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
This week, we’re talking about how to create a financial plan when you're a new single parent — and where you can look for support.
I'm going through a breakup and I will be a single parent to a baby soon. My ex probably won't be in the picture much, and they lost their job last year, so I feel really alone in financially providing for my child. I currently work in retail but I think I need a better-paying job, and I'm unsure where to start and what industries and positions I should be looking at. I'm also having trouble organizing a realistic budget as a new parent on a single income, or what financial aid if any that I could get. Do you have any advice or pointers on how to get my bearings?
Dear Feeling Alone,
I’m sorry for what you’re going through right now. I can only imagine how you might be feeling given the amount of uncertainty we’re facing in the world, but there is a little bit of good news. There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic, which means the economy will start to move again, hopefully creating more jobs and opportunities for folks.
Another promising development is the recent passing of The American Rescue Plan Act, a truly progressive relief bill that delivers direct economic relief to eligible families, an extension of unemployment benefits, and expanded tax breaks for low and middle-income households.
But of course, there's more to financial planning for a child than tax breaks. Here are the three priorities to focus on at the moment to get your bearings: finding safe and stable employment, crafting a budget that includes baby expenses, and understanding how and where to get support.
You mentioned that your ex probably won't be in the picture. But it's still your ex’s responsibility as a parent to provide support, and it's worth pursuing that. I encourage you to try working out a child support arrangement with the other parent. It may be difficult to have the conversation and to navigate the system, but that money shouldn't be relinquished if you can help it.
Beyond your ex, there are other forms of support you might be able to rely on — family, friends, religious or community organizations, strangers on the internet, and public assistance. Each family is different, with varying dynamics and unwritten rules. When seeking support from your family, you are the person who knows how to proceed best. I was raised in a family and culture where it was common to take in those who needed help. I’ve had grandparents live with us for months or sometimes years at a time. They made contributions to the household and looked after us. My sister and I spent several summers being looked after by relatives who offered my parents childcare at a steep discount.
Especially in the last year, many have leaned on their parents and other family members for support — or have been the ones who offered it. But, I know this is not available or ideal for everyone. If it is an option for you, though, have an open and honest discussion with your family about if and how they might be able to help. Can they help pick up your child from daycare? Can they provide childcare themselves? Can they help run errands for you? Can you move in with them if you want to save money on housing? These are all questions to consider, and though they may be hard to discuss, they will undoubtedly lead to a clearer idea for you of what is and isn’t possible when it comes to family support. If this is not an option for you, though, are you part of a community or a chosen family you can lean on? Communicate with them, and see what’s available. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Beyond your family, friends, and local community, support is available through government programs and public assistance for housing, childcare, food, nutrition, and even job training skills. Check with your state about disability or paid family leave programs that you may be eligible for. Applying to these programs may take time, and you may have to wait for benefits, but it’s worth it. State and local programs may vary. In most states, if you’d like to speak to someone to help you get these processes started, you can dial 211 for more information on essential community services. One important thing to keep in mind as you explore public assistance options is asking how receiving child support will impact your eligibility and the level of assistance available to you, and vice versa. For example, in some states and counties, when a single parent seeks public assistance, it could prompt the state or county to try their best to collect child support payments from the other parent.
Find safe, stable employment
I understand that this piece of advice is both obvious and challenging for lots of reasons. I understand the pandemic’s impact on what jobs are available. And pandemic aside, finding a stable, well-paying job is not always an easy task. Despite these challenges, finding steady employment is still probably the biggest, most helpful change you can make to support your family.
One of the constraints you mentioned is that your experience is limited to retail. Unfortunately, we can’t predict how soon retail will bounce back, but the skills you’ve gained in retail are most certainly portable to any industry that requires customer service. Every industry has a customer service role. When you look at it from that perspective, you can begin to spot opportunities.
For example, while I was in college, having only smoothie-making experience under my belt, I was able to get a job at a bank. I worked in a call center as a debt collector, calling people who were past due on their auto loans. It sounds like a horrible job, but it came with some crucial benefits: sick pay, health benefits, tuition reimbursement for business-related courses. I could participate in a retirement plan, got all the paid bank holidays (there are a lot), as well as paid vacation days. Granted, this was over a decade ago, so I understand that the landscape is different. And I certainly realize that working for a bank is not the right path for every person. The point I’m trying to make is to go into the job search looking for organizations that are generous with their benefits and are willing to invest in their employees. Other flexible job options include remote, administrative work, like a virtual administrative assistant; data entry jobs; or a customer service representative. A workplace where you’re able to bring your child to work, like at a daycare or as a nanny is another option with benefits beyond a paycheck.
Childcare is one of the biggest expenses parents face. A study conducted by Child Care Aware of America found that parents across the country spent $9,000 to $9,600 annually for one child’s daycare in 2017. But there's some good news here, because the current administration has committed to investing in this sector by expanding the child and dependent care credit and investing in the child care infrastructure.
Another way to look at stable employment is to consider industries that have the potential to expand and grow, like caregiving. Even with automation, technological advancement, and artificial intelligence eliminating jobs, there will always be work that is better suited for humans — like caring for the sick, elderly, or children.
Craft a budget
Understanding how exactly having a baby will impact your monthly budget can give you some much-needed clarity. If you don’t know where to begin with your budget, Nerd Wallet has a simple baby calculator to help you estimate roughly how much you’ll spend in the first year as a parent. They also have a baby checklist of the everyday purchases a new parent will likely make over the course of their baby’s first year. This list is a great starting point for crafting your budget and uncovering some of the unknowns you’ll face as a new parent.
As you make your budget, plan for putting money into an emergency fund regularly. The other thing to consider as you’re creating your budget is how your lifestyle will change with a new baby. While you may be spending more on diapers and clothes, you might naturally spend less in other areas of your life.
Throwing together a simple spreadsheet is all you need to get started. When it comes to tracking what you spend on a regular basis, there are so many options available. Since I like spreadsheets, I lean towards a tool like Tiller HQ that imports bank transaction data into a Google Sheet. Mint has been a popular choice for many, and You Need A Budget has many die-hard fans.
Focus on what you can control
Navigating your financial life can be intimidating, but there are a few small things within your control that will significantly impact it. The first is to set aside a little bit of time each week to look at and manage your finances. I call this "weekly finance time." You can use your weekly finance time to create or review your budget, research and apply for assistance, and map out your financial goals. Investing time and energy into regularly checking in on your finances is a simple act that will pay off big long-term.
Another benefit of having weekly finance time is that you create space to face your finances regularly. If dealing with your finances triggers anxiety, fear, or stress, having a practice of facing them regularly can help you work through your discomfort and help calm that anxiety.
When it comes to more significant financial decisions, carving out weekly finance time can enable you to more accurately examine the potential consequences of your choices. While there's no way to guarantee that you’ll always make the best financial decisions, this habit can create the best decision-making conditions.
I’m not a parent, so I can’t say I know exactly what you’re going through. But I have struggled with navigating my financial life and felt like I was playing a rigged game, doomed to lose — at times I still do. Every one of us will have our own difficulties, financial and otherwise. The reality of these problems does not mean any of us to deserve to suffer. But life is a dynamic struggle, constantly changing and challenging us. Sometimes we just have to do the best we can with what we’ve got. We have to find a way to play our hand and to keep our hope alive.
Your financial friend,
Are you a single parent? Share your experiences with us here to be featured in an upcoming Refinery29 story.
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