It’s a tough money world out there for single moms. No matter your situation — whether you’re separated, divorced, widowed, or never married — your household’s finances largely (or entirely) depend on you. But with a ton on your plate (from dealing with your kids’ day-to-day to staving off burnout), thinking about and planning for your financial future can understandably slip through the cracks.
Finding time for anything personal, let alone managing personal finances, is a struggle. So we hope this list of smart money moves for single moms can take a little bit of financial stress away.
Work your way through this list as you can. We prioritized the most important single-mom money moves for you, so you can knock them out one by one and feel more in control of your (and your family’s) finances.
How to survive financially as a single mom
1. Update your paperwork
Make sure your kids (not your ex or probate) will get your assets if something happens to you.
If you have an ex, and they were a designated beneficiary, remove their name from your bank accounts, retirement accounts, and any other place you have financial assets.
Minors can’t legally inherit property. So ask an attorney or estate planning professional to help you make a plan for that.
Update your will and power of attorney. If you don’t have those yet, now’s a great time to make them. Your attorney or estate planning professional can help here, too.
2. Get insurance coverage
Make sure your kids have a safety net to fall back on if something happens to you or your ability to make money.
Take out or update your life insurance policy to help cover a lot of important expenses — from pricey death-related costs (we know it’s bleak, but mortality becomes business when you’re a parent) to big costs like college, living expenses, or mortgage payments.
Take out or update your disability insurance, especially if you have a physical or high-risk job, to protect your earning power if you get sick or injured.
3. Make a spending plan
Make sure you have a method to keep track of how much money is coming in and going out so you can maximize your budget.
If you don’t work a steady amount of hours each week, try using this budget calculator worksheet (free for Ellevest clients) to set a target income based on your current expenses and lifestyle.
If your work is steadier, try the one-number budget. This approach gives you one amount to remember for weekly spending on flexible costs, like groceries and shopping.
Or, if your work is steadier, try the 50/30/20 budget rule. It’s more of a guideline than a rule (you can adjust the breakdown to fit your current situation). With this method, you allot a certain percentage of your take-home pay toward needs, wants, and Future You — that’s debt payments above the minimums, saving, and investing.
4. Save for emergencies
Make sure you’re financially prepared for whatever life might throw at you so you don’t have to run up your credit cards.
Open a separate FDIC-insured savings account just for your emergency fund and aim to save at least one month's worth of non-discretionary expenses.
Keep building your emergency fund until it covers the basic needs for you and your kids, which might take a while. Aim for three months’ worth of non-discretionary expenses first, then six months’. If you have a big family, keep going until you’re at nine months’ worth (or whatever amount you feel secure with).
5. Pay off high-interest debt
Make sure you’re on top of debt with interest rates at 10% or higher so you’re not sabotaging your best budging efforts.
Use the “avalanche method” to pay your debt, which means you’ll pay as little interest as possible and pay it off as quickly as possible. Pay more than the minimum, if you can.
6. Set goals, but don’t rob your retirement
Make sure your biggest long-term investing priority is your own retirement (yes, even before helping your kids save for college).
Set aside time to process what comes up for you when you think about putting yourself first financially. This is a necessary step to help you feel in control about moving forward with your retirement game plan once you’ve come to terms with the hard truth that student loans and scholarships exist. Retirement loans and scholarships do not.
If you work for an employer and they offer a 401(k) match, contribute (at the very least) enough to get the match.
If you work for an employer and they don’t offer a 401(k) match, set your own contributions on autodeposit based on an estimate of how much you’ll need to save to retire.
Once you’re on track, turn toward other goals, like opening a 529 college savings plan.
7. Model good money habits
Make sure you’re teaching your kids healthy money habits in the ways you talk about money, deal with money, and relate to money.
Normalize money talk as soon as possible — and include your kids in your financial routines. Some studies show that kids’ financial habits solidify as early as age seven. The more familiar kids are with talking about and handling money, the more comfortable and confident they become in their relationship with money.
Be mindful of what language you use about finances and your reactions to money. Maybe you don’t swear in front of your kids, or drink alcohol with them around, or doomscroll on social media in their presence. Do your best to treat your money triggers with this same care to avoid negatively influencing your kids’ money mindsets.
Hold all of your kids to the same money standards. It’s been shown that parents tend to (subconsciously, we’re sure) teach children different things about money depending on their gender identity. Sons are taught to build wealth, and daughters are taught to be “responsible” with their money. But there’s no reason why your whole brood can’t be raised as financial feminists. As a part of this, you might start exposing them to money lies so they can be better at overcoming the biases holding them back (or allowing them privilege).
8. Don’t let “work-life balance” hang over your head
Make sure you do what you need to do in your situation, no matter how different it may be from anyone else's schedule, priorities, or routines.
Let go of the fictitious notion of “work-life balance” and instead talk to your kids about why you do what you do. Your kids will see that you’re working hard, so let them in on the impact you’re having or the difference you’re making — big or small.
Recognize all that you do. Job(s). Commute(s). Unpaid domestic labor. Emotional labor. The list goes on. You deserve to notice your own achievements and the value they add to your and your family’s lives.
Celebrate small wins. Track them in a notebook or on the fridge as proof that, little by little, you’re making progress with your family’s financial future.
9. Nurture your network
Make sure you lean on and lean into your personal and professional networks — after all, that’s why those relationships are there.
Toe the line with traditional networking. Have an up-to-date version of your resume and cover letter saved on your devices and ready to share, and make the most of LinkedIn: search for jobs, contact connections, post updates, take courses to brush up on skills, and subscribe to newsletters to be more in-the-know.
Be open-minded about all sorts of networking. Because women help connect their friends with one another and the opportunities they know about. Networking is networking whether you’re drinking coffee with a local moms’ group or attending a professional conference.
Need support navigating your next steps? Book a complimentary 15-minute call with a financial planner on Ellevest’s all-women team or consider our Comprehensive Planning Post-Divorce package to help you build a comprehensive, tax-inclusive financial plan.
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