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Single Moms: How to Manage Your Money and Start Saving

Guest Article
by Fran Sutherland

Life can be tough, and it is often very tough on single moms. I have been a single mom for the past 12 years, and I've learned some things that might help other people in the same situation.

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Just to set the scene, I was left with two sons aged four and six years old. Their father abandoned us, so there was never any problem about wondering if the maintenance check would arrive. It never did. That meant no help with the expenses, but it also meant budgeting was totally under my control.

Blind Panic

When I first divorced I was in a blind panic financially. We had two mattresses, a dog, a television, a computer, our clothes, and some kitchen stuff. And a mortgage.

The boys and I had a debate about what we simply could not live without. The four year old said 'You couldn't live without a television', for the six year-old it was the dog, and for me it was the house. The other stuff was a bonus, things that the ex couldn't find a use for.

Lesson One:

Know your spending type. I am a comfort spender, even a compulsive spender when the mood hits me. When life gets tough, I used to go shopping. This is not a good idea because debt is the last thing I've ever needed.

I have dug myself out of debt too often to count. But I take comfort from the fact that it took me 10 years and countless attempts before I stopped smoking. I stopped smoking seven years ago and now I am an ex-smoker. I accept that it's taken me 10 years of consciously trying not to debt, and one day I'll stop debting. Forever.

But I'll always be an ex-smoker, never a non-smoker. And I'll always be an ex-debter, never a natural-born saver. A cigarette or a credit card in my hand might prove to be an irresistible temptation. So I never handle them.

Lesson Two: 

You can control your spending habits if you want to. Like changing any habit, this does not happen overnight.

My spending habits have changed gradually over the past few years. The first big breakthrough came when I met a natural-born saver. I'd probably met them before, but this one became a close friend so I could watch it's tactics up close.

Natural-Born Savers do odd things. Here are just a few of the odd things they do:

They never throw food away. They put it in the fridge and later they eat up leftovers. They eat what they have in the house. Their food cupboards are amazing. At first I thought there must have been a sugar shortage that I'd missed hearing about because there were about 10 bags of sugar in one cupboard. No, it was just that sugar had been on sale, a 10% discount, so they'd bought lots.

I would never have known if sugar was 10% less than normal, because I did not know what normal was. I just paid whatever you have to pay to get the sugar out of the store without getting arrested.

They know how much their utility bills are. They know how much their car does to the litre. They never, ever cringe when bills arrive. They might get mad, but they are never scared. They get angry and argue back when people try to overcharge them. They hang onto what looks like junk, but when you need to fix a freezer out in a shed, the saver comes up with cable and a switch from a box that looks due for the dump.

The list goes on and on, but here's a really odd one to end up with: Savers don't live on their last salary check.

They live on the one before.

When this month's pay arrives, they don't plan to use that for another 30 days. So they never panic over how to meet unexpected bills. How sneaky is that?!

Of course with me that would never work. I'd definitely find an unexpected need for that money. Or maybe not, because the other breakthrough in changing my spending habits was reading Money Drunk, Money Sober, by Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan. If you need to learn how to change your money habits, that is a great book.

Lesson Three:

Whether you can believe it or not, your children do not need fancy bought things. They may want them, but they do not often need them.

They do need what money can never buy. They need attention.

I didn't realise that for years. Every season I'd shell out for the latest sports kit for the oldest son, the latest computer game for the younger one. I'd tell myself that they deserved it because I was out working full time, winning all the bread to keep this show going. Then one day the sporty one said 'You never come to watch me play cricket'.

No Son. That's because I am either working, housekeeping, or fast asleep. How ungrateful can a nine year old be?!

Or... maybe he'd got an insight that I had missed. A few weeks later I was scanning the local paper for part time work. I never had any money saved, so I'd better find a way to earn more. Then we could save something. Right?

Sporty son said 'You can't work any more. You already work all the days there are. He was right, I had a full time job for weekdays, two evening jobs and a Saturday job. The boys sometimes came with me, but that costs in meals out. And I never had time to watch him play sports.

Would he be happy using a second hand kit? It would save us money and I'd have more time. Maybe even time to come watch him play. Put that way, he thought it might work. And it did. Sometimes. But sometimes I'd forget, and go back to the throw-money-at-it way of dissolving problems and creating debts.

I am still learning. Sporty son now wants a television, but he is eighteen. He is old enough to vote. Surely that means he is old enough to buy his own television?

Lesson Four: 

Don't listen to what other people say is right for you and your children. When it comes to managing your financial life, you are the best judge of what is right for you.

Use financial advisors for basic ideas. Find out what the options are. But for most of us single moms the rules are pretty simple.

1. Get food on the table.

2. Get shelter. Preferably own a place of your own by the time you retire. That could take 10 to 30 years, so start as early as you can.

3. Get the saving habit. When I run up a debt, I can always make a plan and pay it off. Always. It may take time, but we can always find a way, right? So, for years we have gone on holiday, paying for it with plastic. Then spent the next 10 months paying for it. Why?

Why can't I work out what the holiday will cost, divide it by 10 and then save that for ten months? Because that is saver-talk. Not spender-talk. What I need is a goal. Fix the goal, and go for it. Debt of $1000, fine. What about Savings of $1000? In theory, that should work. Now I need to make a plan for saving.

There is no quick way for most of us to save $1000. We might be able to cut out the car, the new furniture, the holiday, or some other big ticket item. But no one has that many big ticket items, so we can only do that once or twice. Then we have to find other ways to save. They will be smaller. Lots and lots and lots of tiny savings, made every month.

My challenge this month is to find five ways in which I can save money. Even tiny amounts. I hope to make it a game. Climb ten $10 rungs on a ladder and I've saved $100. Do that ten times and I'll reach my goal.

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Copyright © 2002 Fran Sutherland. All rights reserved.

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