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Tracking and Adjusting the Single Mom Budget

This post is the second 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 post, you can read it here. Check back for the next part of the series coming soon!

Last week I introduced the Single Mom Budget – a system that prioritizes spending according to a single mom’s lifestyle instead of one geared toward married couples. If you’re following along at home, you should have a budget that accounts for the following (in order):

  1. Food
  2. Shelter
  3. Clothing
  4. Transportation
  5. TV and internet
  6. Debt
  7. Everything else

Now, onto the fun part! (sarcasm)

Tracking Your Spending

No one enjoys keeping up with how much money they spend. It’s especially sucktastic for single parents because you seldom have enough to do all the things you need to do, and you get all depressed watching the money disappear. That said, it is totally necessary to figure out where your money goes if you want to improve your finances.

The categories we set up before are a good starting point for tracking. Figure out the easiest way to record your spending and start doing it today. It may be an Excel spreadsheet, a document on your phone, or a used Kleenex in your purse. It doesn’t matter. Every time you spend money, record the amount and which of the 7 categories it belongs in.

After a couple days, you’ll start to notice patterns in your spending. After a month, you’ll get a good picture of how much you spend in each category. Keep tracking, even when you’re tired and the kids won’t go to bed and you’re going to be late for work tomorrow. Keep tracking when you know you bought something you shouldn’t have. Just make it part of your routine and it will eventually become easier.

In the interest of suffering along with you, here’s my spending for one day last week:

Gas was necessary, but the other stuff was a choice. $21.81 worth of choice. And I broke my rule of only eating out on Fridays. Even though that’s painful to admit, I spent it so I have to keep track of it. My bank account actually keeps track of this for me because I use my debit card for all purchases, but I’m assuming that’s not an option for everyone.

Adjusting Your Spending

The first rule of making adjustments? Don’t try to change everything at once because you will fail miserably. Pick one thing, get it under control, and move on.

Looking at what I bought yesterday, it’s obvious that I could have saved $22. I could have brought lunch from home, NOT bought two drinks, and NOT bought cigarettes. Right now, my focus is on spending less on restaurants and drinks, so those are the purchases I’ll talk about.

The best way to reduce my spending on restaurants and drinks is to first figure out how much I’m spending in a month. (That’s why you’re tracking expenses – get your list and add up all the items in the category of focus.) I can divide that amount by 4 to figure out how much I spend each week. Let’s say I spend $60 a week. What goal should I set to lower that amount? If it’s too low, I’ll go over the limit, get mad at myself, and give up. So I’ll say $50.

After a few weeks of successfully spending $50 or less on restaurants and drinks, I’ll lower my limit to $40. I’ll keep dropping the number until I can’t meet my goal no matter how hard I try – that’s when I’ll know I’ve cut things back too much to fit my lifestyle. Still, it’s amazing how much you can save by doing this. If I can cut restaurant spending from $60 a week to $40 a week, I have $80 a month to go toward something else.

Notice I’m not telling you to cut anything out entirely. We’ve all read those stupid articles about the “latte factor” and going cold turkey on things like soda or cigarettes. Maybe that works for perfect nuclear families with two parents, but it doesn’t tend to work for single parents. We are TOO BUSY to give up the things we enjoy this early in the budget process. So for now, I ask you to simply cut back a little at a time, one area at a time.

Once you’ve cut back one area and consistently stayed under your limit, it’s time to adjust another spending area using the same method.

Where We Are Now

At this point, you should have a basic budget that accounts for the following:

  1. Food
  2. Shelter
  3. Clothing
  4. Transportation
  5. TV and internet
  6. Debt – from most to least important
  7. Everything else

You should be tracking your spending EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. After doing this for awhile, you’ll have enough information about your spending habits to start making adjustments to your budget one area at a time.

In the next installment, we’ll work on finding ways to save money. In the meantime, if this information is helpful to you, please let me know, and share it with another single mom while you’re at it!

Coming soon in the Single Mom Budget Series:

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. Anonymous says:

    I hope this doesn't come across as rude, but I'd like to make a few points regarding this post…

     I'm a SAHM of 4 kids & my husband works FT midnights, (AKA: perfect nuclear family in your books) so while I may have the advantage of being at home with my kids, we're still living off of one income, and need to watch where every penny goes & make sure we're not frivolously spending on "crap". 

    Being "too busy" to give up cigarettes, soda, etc… is a poor excuse in my books. Single, married, widowed, etc… Either you're willing to do anything to improve your budget or you're not. Married couples also have to give up "luxuries" in order to save $$ and stay under budget. I'm baffled as to why this would only apply to single parents?! 

    In regards to this:  "It’s especially sucktastic for single parents because you seldom have enough to do all the things you need to do, and you get all depressed watching the money disappear."

    ANY time you're living off of one income & trying to support a family, eating out, buying cigarettes, drinks out, etc.. to the tune of $200 month will kill *any* budget. Especially if you are in debt & aren't covering your "needs". We'd be screwed if we spent $50 on fast food every week as that's almost 1/3 our total weekly food budget for a family of 6. 

    I have found that you just have to make your priorities & try as hard as you can to stick to them. Which is more important? Fast food/cigarettes/soda vs. paying off debt/savings/needs. 

    Changing your budget is a lifestyle change…sometimes you can't just continue on with your current lifestyle if you don't have the money to fund it. 

    Good luck to you! Hope you find a way to fix your budget! 🙂 

    • Wow, thanks for your extremely detailed comments.

      The point of this post series is to introduce budgeting concepts for single parents who may not have a budget in place. Because of that, the budget focuses on small steps instead of trying to change everything overnight.

      Obviously this post struck a nerve for you and I apologize if you were offended. But as a single parent and recovering spendaholic, I know that it's pointless to set unattainable goals. That's why I encourage people to start small and the other stuff comes later.

      Thanks again for your comments. Differences of opinion are what make the world interesting. 🙂

  2. Great post. One thing that I found really helped with keeping to a budget is tracking it. It really helps to see where you are at and where you are going throughout the month. We personally use Quicken and we really like it.

  3. I think you made some great points. I think it's important for everyone to have a "single" budget because, well, you never know.

  4. I'm glad to see the heavy emphasis on tracking spending every day. Tracking spending made the biggest difference in improving my finances, by far. I have to say though that some people may find it easier to quit something cold turkey than to gradually reduce it. I tried for years to "cut back" on pop, and it wasn't until I threw my can of pop away right in the middle of taking a drink that I quit for good.

  5. "The first rule of making adjustments? Don’t try to change everything at
    once because you will fail miserably. Pick one thing, get it under
    control, and move on."

    ^ that's the most important lesson I've learned so far in this PFjourney 🙂

  6. I'm just not convinced on your guide, so far but it seems to me like you're still relatively new to this whole thing and are constructing this as you go.

    Specifically, here are my concerns from what I've seen so far. One, your steps are backwards. You can't make any type of functional budget if you don't know what you're spending. You don't know what you're spending until you track your spending. So, that's definitely the first thing I would change.

    Two, I'm sort of surprised at the "too busy" talk. I'm a single mom of three little kids (ages 3 – 8). I have no cable or internet at my house. I've participated in spending challenges, fiscal fasts, etc. I coupon and shop sales. Granted, I'm "too busy" to do a lot of things households with two parents can do, but I'm definitely not "too busy" to make important cuts and experiment with ways to stretch my dollars. 

    Three, your budgeted priorities baffle me. As a single parent, you've got to have savings in place first and foremost. You and your son are hanging on by a thread. One stroke of bad luck and where are you? From what I understand in your background stories, you can't even count on the father of your son for assistance. 

    The biggest lesson I've learned so far is the faster you get rid of excuses, the faster you get to fixing problems. It is NOT an easy climb, hell I'm struggling all of the time, but you're doing yourself a major injustice giving yourself so much slack (I don't think that's the right word for what's in my head but I'm sleep-deprived). You'll be shocked at what you're able to manage with if you cut to the core first and then slowly expand as you go. I think it's a much better learning curve and a more rewarding experience for you personally. 

    • First, let me respond by saying that this is NOT the way I budget now. However, this is where I started and, in my opinion, is better than blindly throwing money without seeing where it goes. This post series is meant to be a starting point for something bigger and better.

      So many people are scared to budget because it seems too hard. If they can measure success in small increments (hooray, I made a budget!), people are more likely to continue.

      As far as my personal situation goes, I do save first. But I couldn't start doing that until I had enough money to make it until payday. And the audience I'm talking to may be able to yet. What point is there in telling people to save money when they may able to pay all their bills?

      Maybe I'm oversensitive because your comment got personal, but I get the vibe that you come from a different or higher rung on the ladder than I do. And if that's the case, that's wonderful. But people whose lives don't work that way don't need someone projecting middle class values on them. They need to be empowered to improve their lives, and that starts with small steps.

      You are welcome to disagree. Obviously you don't need budgeting advice from me. But I posting for those who might.

      • I'm sorry to strike a nerve, totally not my intent. And please understand I'm just trying to offer a perspective because I like to collect resources for fellow single moms. I actually came back here to tell you I included your blog in my list of Single Mom Blogs on the site because I think you offer some interesting information.

        Perhaps, you may want to clarify a bit because it's not clear from this post or the previous that these aren't your current methods. You kind of mention it, but it gets lost in a big way. As a matter of fact, the posts are very much written in a "I'm doing this right now and you can too" style. That, for instance, is the reason I'd mention how close you and your son are to being in a problematic situation. Because the way you read it, that's what it is. I see a previous commentator also may have picked up that perspective.

        I'm not sure what you're talking about regarding ladders. Like I mentioned, I am still constantly struggling. You can see one of my most recent posts for an example of just how tight a situation I am in. I actually came to your blog to see if I could learn something about budgeting as a single parent that I haven't considered yet.

        I have three young children, my divorce is pretty fresh and new, and I live in an extremely high-cost part of the country with a mediocre-income job. Expenses pwn Income.

        And in that mindset, wouldn't you agree  it's ok to keep withdrawing from your savings to pay your bills because it's not more debt? That's actually a HUGE accomplishment– you were able to cushion against what otherwise would have developed into a crisis. And then you build it back again and use it again when you have it. That's what they're for until you're in a bigger and better place.

        Like I said, the point of my comment was not to offend but actually to criticize and no, really, I meant in a constructive fashion. I never insulted you or made a derogatory comment. I think it's important for single mom perspectives in the personal finance arena. It's strongly lacking. 

        • Even though I don't budget this way anymore, this method DOES work because I did it. When I started, I didn't even know who I owed money to and when things were due. So that's where I started – prioritizing my bills and figuring out when to pay them. Then I had to keep up with where my money was going and decide what to cut.

          I'm not saying everyone has to budget this way – I'm just introducing one of a thousand concepts that might be useful to someone in the position I was in.

  7. As a single mom of 2 I plan every penny I earn except the $60 each payday that I give myself in cash to use for whatever. Coffee, groceries to stretch the grocery budget, Mcdonald's for my son for a treat. Have to enjoy life too!

  8. SheShelle says:

    I’m a single mom with one man-child, who eats everything within his grasp. I’ve been at my wits end with my expenses lately and recently hit a very low point. After having a come-to-Jesus moment with my tax preparer, I decided it’s time to create a budget. In the past, I’d never kept to one. I found your series and firstly, THANK YOU!!!!! I really appreciate you writing this from the perspective of a single mom. You’re absolutely right. We prioritize slightly differently than other budgets suggest. Reading your post, I felt like a dyslectic kid who’d discovered a learning tool. Things made sense!
    Secondly, I read some of these other posts from people examining your suggestions rather critically. I think sometimes people don’t recognize that a particular piece of advise is not for them or doesn’t apply to their situation. Different strokes for different folks, people. If it sounds a little strange to you, or it doesn’t make sense – it’s likely NOT for you.
    Just like the many other budgeting concepts I read before didn’t make sense to me. You clearly already know how to ride a bike, let the people who need training wheels practice first, cool?

  9. Christina says:

    After reading the comments under this blog I think I am definitely offended on our behalf. Obviously, not everyone is in the same situation. I am just starting out on the budgeting part of my life. I was never taugh money management growing up and it has been a very diffiuclt lesson to learn. I am going to start by using your advice. I am a single parent of 3 kids (one of which will be going away to college next year.) My exhusband does not do anything close to helping and when he does pay child support it is just enought to keep himself out of jail. Yes. I am at that point. My account is currently overdrawn and I think that my outgoing expenses far out weight my income. I rob Peter to pay Paul and sometimes Peter doesn’t get paid at all until well after the due date. I do not know if your advice will help me, but I am sure going to give it a go. I get very defensive when family memebers try to help, because from their points of view, I am irresponsible. This is because they are all either married with 2 incomes or do not have children and are single. It is very hard to be a single parent and try to cover all of your bases and end up falling short no matter what you do. Just when I think I have it all figured out I get a kick of reality when something unexpected happens. I do not go out and spend money like crazy and half the time I feel guilty about not being able to buy things for my kids. Their birthdays this year sucked. My oldes got a pair of concert tickets, my middle kid got to have a big sleepover party and I bought her a crappy movie. I felt/feel like th biggest failure of a parent. I go to work every single day, sick or not and I have even tried to have a 2nd job. The problem with the 2nd job is then I have no time for my family and household responsibilites and I am exhausted for my 1st job and main source of income. My ex can barely work one job, but I am the one who is struggling and having to endure my kids feeling like they have gotten the short end of the stick. I never have money left over for saving let alone emergencies and my bills are never all covered. The state says I make too much money for assistance (not that I want it) but it would help with food anyway. I have to be living below the poverty limit and you will never hear me complain in front my kids, but damn…stress can kill a person. So if someone out there has an idea that may help then I don’t think we should be criticizing it. Like SheShelle stated, if it sounds odd or whatever it most likely is not meant for you.

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