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Saving on the Single Mom Budget

This post is the third in a three-part series on budgeting for single moms (and dads!). Our needs are different from those of the general population, so I think we need budgeting advice that reflects those differences. If you missed the first two posts, you can read the first one here and the second one here

So far in our budget journey, we’ve figured out what our real expenses are, made a prioritized budget, and started tracking spending. I also talked briefly about adjusting your spending in certain areas, taking small steps to reduce your spending in one particular area at a time – not eliminate it (not yet anyway). If you are actually doing those things, the next step of the budget won’t hurt too bad. If you’re not, you may need to read back through the other posts and catch up.

For many single parents, saving money is one of those things we dream about, but it rarely happens. I used to put money in my savings account all the time, but I always had to take it back out when I ran out of money before payday, or when Jay was sick and needed medicine, or [insert disaster here]. It seemed kind of stupid to take the money away from my checking account knowing I’d end up needing it. When something major happened (like the time my air conditioner went out in mid-July), I was left with a handful of crappy options: take out a payday loan, use a credit card (if I had any available credit, which was rare), ask my parents, or go without.

It is absolutely necessary to have a backup plan. Period. The end.

You owe it to yourself and your kids to be prepared for emergencies. No one can be ready for everything, but you would be amazed what a relief it is to have even a small amount of money put away that doesn’t have to be used for something else.

Often, we try to save too much at once. That was my problem. I would take out $50 knowing darn well I couldn’t spare $50. I used to get so aggravated reading personal finance websites. “Just take out $3 a day and save it!” they tell you. Um, sorry dude, but $3 a day is $90 a month, and I need that to pay my car insurance. I felt like I was supposed to build this massive emergency fund of somewhere between $1000 (per Dave Ramsey) and 6-8 months’ pay (per Suze Orman).

Well, let me tell you – unless you’re a single parent making a huge salary (and if so, why are you even reading this?), those goals aren’t attainable yet. If you just recently sat down and looked at how much money you owe and what you’re spending, how can you magically set aside thousands of dollars on a limited income? You can’t. So don’t try.

I seriously started out taking $5 from every paycheck. What’s five bucks? A meal at McDonald’s, a magazine in the checkout line, or a case of Pepsi? Five bucks is nothing. On payday, I would login to my bank account, move $5 to savings, and pretend it didn’t exist. I never noticed it was gone. Somehow, despite my self-proclaimed “broke” status, I could save $5 and still make it to payday without dying.

It’s hard not to get discouraged when you see a teeny balance in your savings account. It seems pointless. And you’ll be tempted to just spend it and forget about it. But if you get paid every two weeks, you’ll have $130 in a year. Well, big deal, right? But that’s $130 you didn’t have the year before.

No one can tell you how much to save.

At this point in your life, $5 may be more than you can save. Maybe you have to start with $2 or even $1 to be able to put the money away without noticing. It doesn’t matter how much you save, it just matters that you’re creating a habit. If you can do that, it will be easier to keep going.

Keep this in mind – the less you’re spending, the more you can save. If your tracking shows that you’re spending $200 a month eating at restaurants (I’m definitely guilty!), you could cut out just TWO meals and save ten bucks. But you actually have to do it, which is the sucky part. I used to tell myself, I’ll give up buying sodas from the vending machines at work. That will make up for the money I’m using right now! Never happened. You have to sacrifice FIRST, then use the money you saved by giving up something you like.

When you get it in your head that you’re going to save, an amazing thing happens: you aren’t satisfied with $130 a year. I did that for a few paydays, then increased the amount to $10. Still didn’t notice it was missing. Then I put my Christmas money in my savings account instead of spending it, which was really weird for me. Then I started looking for other ways to cut my budget so I could put even more money in savings. I even worked two jobs for awhile (which I know isn’t an option for everyone) to save more. In a little over 9 months, my emergency fund has grown to over $2000. Every time I look at the balance, I can’t believe I’ve managed to hold onto that much money.

Try it Out

The next time you get paid, take whatever small amount of money you can and put it in a savings account. If you don’t have a savings account, open one. If you can’t open one, get a shoebox. If you don’t have a shoebox, get a tampon box or a Ziploc bag or an old purse. Doesn’t matter as long as you’re putting money somewhere safe.

If something comes up and you think you need to take the money out, ask yourself what you would do if you didn’t have it. Would you borrow some money from a friend? Wait until payday for whatever you need? Whatever you would normally do, consider doing that before you take money from your savings. Unless your house burns down (hope you made it out with that tampon box!), don’t touch the money. If you’re constantly taking money out of savings, maybe you’re being too ambitious – cut down the amount for awhile.

Starting small is the key to creating and maintaining a budget when you’ve never had one before. No change happens overnight, and if you’re living on a limited income and/or adjusting to one income after years of being married, it’s going to take even longer.

Where We Are

If you’re implementing the Single Mom Budget, you should have the following accomplished:

  • Make a list of all your expenses and prioritize them.
  • Keep up with every dime you spend.
  • Spending too much in one area? Start gradually cutting back. Then pick another area and cut back there.
  • Determine a tiny amount of money you can save every payday. Move it to savings immediately and don’t touch it.

Are you building a budget? How’s it working for you? What do you still need help doing? Leave a comment!

About Andrea Whitmer

Andrea is a freelance web developer and mom trying to maintain a sense of humor in an otherwise chaotic world. She blogs in hopes of helping others avoid the same mistakes she made in the past. Join in the discussion here on So Over This, or connect on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or Google Plus. You can also subscribe to new posts via RSS so you never miss out!


  1. I think I commented on one of your previous posts that this budget sounds a bit like what I was doing in college, but I wasn't doing this.

    I really wish I would have saved even $1 out of each paycheck in college somewhere. I just used one account for everything (well, I had checking and savings, but back then I could have the accounts linked so if there was nothing in my checking account, it would just come straight out of my savings), so I tried my best to not spend much, but I didn't have a separate emergency fund of any sort. I never had any major emergencies, but it would have saved a LOT of stress if I knew there was even $20 stashed away somewhere.

  2. A commonly quoted strategy is to save 10% of your income.  As you say, just shift it into another account and pretend it doesn't exist, then live your life.  The benefit of this method is that is automatically adjusts, if you have low income you save less.  It takes advantage of the fact that most people's lives inflate to consume their available cash, so less available cash and the lifestyle adapts.

    • I like the 10% rule and actually try to save 20% of my take-home income. When I had all kinds of debt, though, even 10% was too much because my expenses were at about 96%. I think it all depends on your starting point – I'm a big fan of saving what you can save and always striving to increase that amount.

  3. Back when I was married to my first husband and we were really struggling, I used to try to put $5 per paycheck into savings for my son. I took it out again almost every week. I can't even think what we could have cut out, because we sure weren't going out to eat unless someone else was paying. But, the reason I mention this is, for people who ARE at the point where there just isn't any wiggle room at all, that's the time to look at the opposite end of the spectrum. You've got to go out and make more money to save, and/or sell things, if you have things to sell that could help you build up a cushion.

  4. I think saving what you can when you can is the way to go. There are tough times that hit us and sometimes we can't save as much as we would like but we should make it a priority to get back on track as soon as possible. Finding ways to make extra income like Jackie mentioned is also a great way to help with this.

  5. Love love love this. Thanks for the encouragement. Savings is my weakest point and this is such sensible advice. Now if I can just implement and stick to it!

  6. samantha says:

    Any help on making a budget with a third child on the way, while still working full-time with two toddlers? need serious help.

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