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.
Last time, we talked about how to create a financial plan if you're a new single parent. This week, Refinery29 spoke to single parents on how they budget, where they find support, and what kinds of government programs could benefit parents in need.
Christina, 35, California
"I've been a single parent since I was 30," says Christina. "I wasn’t really freaking out, because I just wanted out of my marriage. I spoke with my mom who lived near me about renting a room at her place, and my son and I moved in there temporarily until I found a place."
"I did start planning a monthly budget; I still do to this day. The thing with a budget, too, is that it’s like closet organization — or any organizing, for that matter: it requires maintenance," she says. "I had just gotten a promotion and was making $50,000 annually. I had the potential to make overtime and get a bonus as well. My budget breakdown back then was $600 for rent, $275 for the car, $83 for car insurance, $200 for groceries, $58 for student loans, $100 for TMobile, $13 for Tidal."
"I opened a second account at a different bank and would have all my 'bill money' go into one account. This way, I couldn't touch it because it was designated for expenses. The deposit into the other account would be any surplus money," she says.
"The court-ordered child support I receive is $225 per month," Christina continues. "I agreed to this because my ex-husband's work is up and down. I wanted to make it something he could actually commit to. Now, I ask for $400 a month and he has been paying me that. But I know it could change at any time."
"My mom and brother constantly help me. They're great support systems with babysitting. My aunt and dad and stepmother help out as well," she says. "I don’t know where I’d be without my family. It’s uncomfortable to ask for help, but they love spending time with my son. It helps me feel less guilty. My mom had me really young, at 19. She likes to watch my son so I can have 'me time' to not be a mom. I am so grateful for this."
"I stressed a lot about money. I had to max out one credit card to get my deposit together for an apartment. It was overwhelming. Especially thinking about money to do any 'leisure' things. I stayed up plenty of nights, laying in bed just thinking about my debt. Living paycheck to paycheck sucks," says Christina.
Her advice to new single parents is to first take a deep breath. "Look for resources and don’t give up looking. There is so much help out there! But you have to look," she says. "Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable about your story, but keep it tasteful. This helped me when people didn’t want to rent to me because my credit was ruined. Also, talk to someone — a therapist or counselor. That’s when I first leaned on one; I went through a mild depression."
When asked the biggest thing the government could do to help single parents, Christina's answer is housing assistance. "Housing is the most expensive cost. It would help if there was more assistance with housing and if it were an easier or shorter process," she says. "People are desperate during this time and don’t have time to wait. Also, a program to help people get jobs and assist with childcare as well."
Alexis, 35, Texas
"My ex-husband and I separated in October of 2019," says Alexis. "I hadn't been happy for a long time, but part of my reason for not making a life change was stress over money. For the majority of my marriage, I didn't work full-time and I was concerned about how a separation would impact the stability of life my children had. I didn’t want to have to change their living environment and wasn’t sure if I could make ends meet in our current home."
"What actually happened after my separation is that I felt very empowered to make the financial choices I wanted to make," she continues. "My ex-husband and I were never on the same page about finances. I am a frugal saver and he is very much a spendthrift. Separating gave me the clarity I needed to make more proactive financial choices that were in my best interest. I didn’t need to consult with anyone.
"Luckily, my ex-husband and I agreed that things should be as consistent as possible for our kids, and I was the one who remained in the house, since I spent more time parenting. But I needed to decrease my mortgage payment immediately. I was able to take advantage of something called a 'recast' because we had paid more into the principal of the mortgage. I was also able to pay my car off with an interest-free loan from my aunt. I realize not everyone would have these options, and I'm grateful for them."
"I work in marketing. After taxes and other payroll deductions, I take home about $3,400 a month. I receive roughly $1,350 per month in child support. I don't really pre-plan a budget, but I do keep track of every dollar spent in an Excel sheet. Early on in my separation, there were months I was in the red and had to pull from savings," says Alexis. "But after recasting and then refinancing and making some other adjustments, I'm able to stay in the green each month."
"We haven't received any financial support from the government, but I did find some free counseling by a local group and my kids and I went a few times after the separation," she says. "The only [government assistance] I could think of that would really help me is to increase child tax credits. But I was lucky that my income wasn't affected by COVID and I still received stimulus checks."
"In my case, being a single parent has not really been so difficult," says Alexis. "I feel more content in my life and feel like I can be a better parent to my kids because I'm a happier person."
Paula, 42, Puerto Rico
"I planned my kids and wanted to raise them on my own, so I felt from day one that they were my sole responsibility. But their dad contributes in some things, like clothes or toys, and hugs and kisses," says Paula. Her income is around $42,000 a year.
"We live on a little farm where my dad built me a tiny house. It's my land, so I don’t have to pay a mortgage or rent. Groceries are about $100 weekly, plus my mom feeds us for free maybe five days a week. She also helps babysit, but I worked from home during the pandemic and only sometimes went into the office," she continues. "I also have no phone expenses because my kids' dad provides. I pay $100 for electricity and water, and have no other expenses. We love being at home; we maybe spend $30 on a pizza night every now and then." She says that better government programs providing food assistance and tax breaks for single parents would definitely be helpful.
For Paula, the most difficult period for parenting was after Hurricane Maria. "Our roof broke, so we were sleeping watching the stars. No water, so we were hand-washing clothes with rainwater. No power for three months. It was a real struggle," she says. "I love life and appreciate it even more after 2017."
"If you plan on being a single parent, you should research what you’re getting into," she advises. "For me, I just love it. My kids are amazing."
Mary, 36, Somewhere in Asia
"I became a mother four years ago knowing that I very likely would be supporting them on my own," says Mary. "I initially wasn’t concerned about financially supporting my children on my own because I had a very well-paying and prestigious job, but I was very concerned about the logistical and emotional weight of single motherhood."
"I used to earn over $100,000 per year, but I was laid off after my maternity leave," she continues. "Discrimination against new mothers is real and common. I managed to negotiate a large severance package, but many are not so lucky. I will start a new job in about a year at a similar level, once my children are older. I currently earn about $45,000 a year doing freelance. It is really hard to work full-time with young kids, especially in a field that expects long hours and frequent travel." Mary currently doesn't receive child support.
"In terms of public financial assistance, it's disappointing that calculations for most programs are based on family size," says Mary. "A family can be in different financial situations depending on whether it's one parent and two children versus two parents and one child, but they often have the same eligibility requirements for subsidized healthcare, housing, and nutrition assistance. We saw the same thing initially with pandemic assistance — the first round of stimulus had financial preference for adults rather than families, even though families were facing job setbacks due to childcare/school closures as well as the economy."
Mary has also experienced significant stress due to discrimination at work. "I worked at a Fortune 100 company that claimed to be compliant with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC], but individual employees discriminated against hiring female candidates they thought likely to have children in the future, and many friends who worked for large companies were laid off after having children because they weren’t able to put in more than 40 hours a week in the first year of their infant’s life," she says. It's why she believes strengthening the EEOC is crucial to supporting single parents.
"The worst part was when my children were in the NICU and I had to return to work shortly after," she says. "There's nothing like being unable to care for medically fragile children because your company is unwilling to accommodate human needs."
Samantha, 37, Tennessee
"I've been a single parent for about a year and a half," Samantha says. "My initial reactions were panic and dismay, along with a realization of the deep unfairness of the situation. Alongside those were gratitude for my job and income, and belief in myself and my ability to get by no matter what. There's been unceasing anxiety and I've had to readjust my budget and expectations in general."
Samantha makes about $120,000 per year. "I get paid twice a month, and, for each pay period, I keep a spreadsheet of my direct deposit. First, I subtract out all bills that need to be paid within that time period in the 'bills' tab. I put an x in the column next to it once the items are paid or posted. I then allocate money for groceries and miscellaneous/discretionary spending and savings. On a different tab of the spreadsheet that lists out each day of the pay period, I track what I spend and subtract from the grocery/discretionary budget. This way I'm making sure I don’t spend more than I’ve budgeted for and know when and how I’m spending, and what's left until the next pay day."
She doesn't have a court-ordered amount for child support, but tries to collect at least half of the childcare and tuition costs for her children, which amounts to around $22,000 per year. "Sometimes my ex’s family has paid his share of our kids’ tuition," she says. "I've also used an essential worker childcare reimbursement program in recent months."
Samantha believes that subsidized childcare, bigger tax breaks or child tax credits are the biggest ways the government could help parents. "I use a dependent care flexible spending account (FSA), but that covers up to $5k per year regardless of the actual cost of childcare or the number of dependents. It helps, but it’s not enough," she says. "Fund childcare programs and facilities so their employees can be paid a living wage with good benefits. Right now the majority of the cost falls to parents, although our entire society benefits from the labor of working parents. Invest in parents — mothers especially — so we can contribute to the economy. Invest in children so they can have quality care in a clean, safe, and nurturing environment."
"My biggest worry is having no backup if something were to happen to me," Samantha says. "If I’m out riding my bike at lunch and almost get hit by a car, my mind always goes to that place. What if I actually did get hit and there was no one to pick up my kids from school? What if I broke my arm and couldn’t drive or physically care for my kids? Everything depends on me being well and healthy enough to function 100% of the time. The emotional burden of this is immense. I already had anxiety, and it has only gotten worse and worse. I pray constantly for God to keep me safe and sane. I really wish there was room for me to have just a little more freedom, or to be allowed to fuck up, but I can’t. Financially, I'm in a decent place. Emotionally, I'm not."
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
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