Tips for building a more realistic budget and living more securely
If you’re like so many Solo Moms, you might find your paycheck is spoken for before it even lands in your checking account. Chances are, that is not because of careless spending habits. Life is just expensive, especially if you’re paying for child care and summer camp, or just have a few extra mouths to feed.
But knowledge is power. It may not be possible to control every aspect of our budgets—those unplanned emergency-room visits can be costly—but understanding where your money is going is an important first step to staying on budget now and making decisions that will allow you to live more comfortably in the future.
Although budgets can vary greatly from family to family, there are many online tools to help you track your dollars and plan for future spending. The Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator is useful because it shows how dramatically costs can vary in different parts of the country and also highlights some significant expenses, such as taxes, transportation, and other necessities, that we might overlook. A Solo Mom of two living in Albany, New York, for example, might pay close to $2,000 per month on child care alone.
And, since we often are unable to control certain expenses such as housing, it really does pay to watch some of the other items and consider how we might reduce our spending in those areas. Here’s a list of some big budget items and some suggestions for keeping them in check.
Child care. How expensive is child care? It is so expensive that in some parts of the country, it can even exceed housing costs; therefore, it pays to shop around and consider alternatives to traditional full-time day care. In-home day care from a trusted provider is often less expensive, and if you work somewhat flexible hours, you might consider a babysitting swap with other moms. Another tip that could save you a lot of money on child care: know when your child is eligible to attend public school. It might be earlier than you think. Increasingly, more school districts are offering half-day pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) for three-year-olds. This is also known as “3-K,” but you might find yourself calling it “Free-K.” That’s right, public school pre-K is free and brings the added benefit of exposing your young child to letters, numbers, and educational games.
Transportation. The basic rule of saving money on transportation is to live without a car. That’s because even if you own your car outright, insurance, gas, and maintenance add up. Throw in a car payment, and you are easily spending the equivalent of a nice summer vacation on your commute. Of course, Solo Moms often cannot live without a car, but they can commit to driving a little less, since gasoline is one of the major expenses associated with having a car. You may also be able to reduce your car-insurance bill by taking safe-driving classes or bundling your car and home insurance. And the next time you’re in the market for a new car, run the numbers and consider how much you drive compared with how much you spend on the car, insurance, and gasoline. If you drive mainly for errands around town and school drop-offs, you may find it makes more financial sense to sign up for Zipcar, car2go, or another car-sharing service. In his article “5 Ways to Drive a Car Without Owning One,” NerdWallet writer Philip Reed offers some good suggestions for how to access a car when you don’t own one.
Food. Limiting the amount we spend on food is a lot like dieting: though we all need to eat, many of us eat more than we need. That is not to suggest dieting as a strategy for reducing one’s food budget, but it does mean that in the same way that nighttime snacking can really put on the pounds, impulse food purchases here and there can really destroy a family budget. Most strategies for saving money on food are time tested and effective, and they bear repeating: brown-bag your lunch; cook large portions and serve leftovers throughout the week; never go food shopping while you’re hungry; plan your meals; and make a shopping list before you go to the store, and stick to it. We’ve all been taught these hacks at some point in our lives, but many of us have abandoned them under the overall stress that comes with solo parenting. I especially like the list of tips for saving money on food by BuzzFeed’s Rachel Sanders. After all, who doesn’t like breakfast for dinner?
Unexpected expenses. One of the reasons I’ve often struggled to stick to a budget is because something always comes up that I didn’t plan for: new tires for the car, expensive dental work, home repairs, or a field-trip fee. You can’t always plan for these specific things, but you can try to set aside a little bit every month for unexpected expenses. Essentially, you need to expect the unexpected because, as anyone who maintains the family budget knows, things come up all the time. The Family Budget Calculator estimates that in many parts of the country, “other necessities” can add up to several hundred dollars a month. Your mileage may vary, but the good thing about working these into our budget is we are better able to understand where the money is going and less likely to be caught off guard.
It’s tempting to see budgeting as another chore that you’d rather skip. But keeping a close eye on your budget will inevitably help you save, while developing good spending habits for the long haul.
If you are interested in building up your financial savvy and saving money, you may also want to check out these articles: “Don’t Let Finances Flip You Out” and “Three Life Strategies That Help Single Moms Save Money.”
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