Parenting is a hard enough business when there are two parents involved, but what happens when there's only one? One of the main challenges that single parents face is keeping afloat financially, so Kara Stefan, a longtime finance writer and single mother, wants to help. Her new book, Head of Household: Money Management for Single Parents, is refreshingly upbeat. Instead of dwelling on the angst and challenges of single parenthood, Stefan produces a long list of benefits - for instance, not having to put up with another person's bad habits, the freedom to choose your own decor, and never having to visit in-laws.
I asked Stefan what motivated her to write the book. "When you're the only adult in the house, you're the one who brings home the income, pays the bills, prepares the meals, hangs the shower curtains, kills the spiders, reads to your children in bed - we do it all," she said. "I think that helps single parents develop some pretty spectacular coping skills. I think we are amazing people. So you could say that I wanted to write a book for amazing people to help make their lives a little easier and more empowering."
Stefan hastens to add that her book is not a "how-to-get-rich" book - rather, it's a "how-to-get-by" book. "Most parents have a spouse with whom they can talk to about finances and childrearing," she says. "I hope what this book does is start a dialogue among single parents so they can share their knowledge."
What is the single biggest challenge single parents face? "It's different depending on your situation," says Stefan. "For a lot of people it's going to be trying to raise children with an ex-spouse. But financial independence is a huge challenge, time management is a huge challenge, and so is the inherent isolation of raising children on your own while trying to earn a living."
Stefan's main financial advice to anyone becoming a single parent is to dig in. "If you're not used to managing your finances or managing them single-handedly, look at divorce as an opportunity to do things differently. The more you learn, the more you'll want to learn, and managing money - saving, budgeting, investing - can become a very invigorating and empowering skill."
For newly divorced parents especially, Stefan argues that learning to take control of finances can be as soothing as a gallon of Ben and Jerry's.
"Many of my suggestions for saving money can also help you focus on nutrition and exercise," Stefan says, "such as cancel or turn off the TV and take your children out for walks. Stay away from the prepackaged aisles at the supermarket."
"Consider for a moment that you're newly divorced; maybe your husband found a younger woman," she says. "Instead of spending the first year overeating and feeling depressed, focus on managing your finances. Develop a budget, open an automatic investment account, eat better, and exercise with your children. A year later, you may become a confident, independent, svelte woman while your ex is hanging out with a giggly female who's running up his credit card debt."
Stefan herself became a single parent by choice. When I asked about her own experience as a single mom, she noted that because of the age gap between her two sons (one is 22, the other 8), her challenges are more unusual than the average single parent's.
"On any given day, my little one will have a skinned knee and the older one will call home to say he's lost his phone/wallet/laptop/whatever," she says. "Don't think for a moment that they're any easier to manage once they go off to college - they're simply further away!"
"The biggest indulgence in our household is that both of my boys love to go out to dinner," Stefan says. "It's a good way to treat them and spend time together. I don't know why this is such a big deal, but they love it. Maybe it's because we don't do it that often!"
Tips from Head of Household: Money Management for Single Parents
- Create a budget. Then stick to it. When your children bug you for items you can't afford, you can simply say: "It's not in our budget" - a much better response than "Because I said so."
- Pay yourself first. No matter how little money you have, it's important to save for a long-term goal (e.g. college tuition or retirement), so put this in the "necessary" column of your budget. An automatic transfer into a 401(k) account is a great example.
- After a divorce, work quickly to clear up any bad credit rating issues arising from your marriage; or, if your joint credit rating was good, have credit bureaus transfer old account information to a file under a new name.
- Even more than couples, a single parent needs to have an up-to-date will. Unless you have complex finances, you can do this without the help of an attorney. Sign it, date it, have it witnessed, keep it in a safe accessible place, and make sure your executor knows where it is.
Head of Household: Money Management for Single Parents by Kara Stefan, published by Praeger (Abc-Clio), $29.95.
Kirsten Denker is a freelance writer and mother of two.