It’s more than doable!
At the age of 25, heartbroken with a huge drive to continue learning, I moved 3,390 miles cross-country to attend graduate school in Toronto with my 11-month-old daughter.
I didn’t know anyone, had very few resources and no community, and had been on my own with my daughter since early in my pregnancy. I also had no experience with asking for help or self-advocacy. At the time, the university’s co-op day-care fees were close to $1,000 per month, but I’d been told there were day-care subsidies available from the city for low-income solo parents, so I made my appointment and went in to speak with the subsidy caseworker.
She told me I was too broke to be believable (I was a young single mother with student loans, no assets, and not a drop of savings), and therefore she was not going to help me. Not even a dollar a month. Having had no experience with asking for help or dealing with that kind of bureaucracy, I simply accepted her blatant and vehement “no,” swallowed, held back my tears, and went back to school.
My story would have ended quite quickly—I calculated I had about enough money on my credit card and student loans to keep me going for four months before I’d have to quit and return to my hometown. My discouragement was intense, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt trapped and embarrassed. The thing that saved me was the community of hardworking, savvy, intelligent, and tenacious Solo Moms I met at the university. All combined, we were from Canada, Sweden, Nigeria, and Jamaica, all parenting solo, all attending school full time, all of us strapped for cash.
As I started to share my story and circumstances, these friends taught me that how I was treated was not fair and that I had to go back and push to get the help I needed. One friend in particular knew who in the day-care subsidy office was kind, ethical, and fair, and told me to ask for her and push for what was right. I followed her advice with a pounding heart, went in, was heard, and was helped—more than helped, in fact. The kind caseworker was so furious at how I was treated that she made sure the three months I’d been paying full price were adjusted accordingly. I learned so much from these Solo Mom friends, lessons that have kept me going through 13 years of solo parenting on a budget, spanning several moves to several different towns.
Living well on very little money is absolutely doable, but it hinges on three crucial skills: the ability to ask for help, build a community, and receive what is offered.
Here are some of the ways I get by and feel rich, regardless of my circumstances:
Host potlucks. Gather together your friends, especially your solo parent friends, and feed each other. Make time and space to sing, laugh, eat, and chat. Conversation leads to sharing, which leads to empathy, connection, and connecting the dots. Your friends have skills and knowledge that can help you, and you have the same to offer them. Make it a regular event. If you don’t have family, make these gatherings your “Sunday dinners.”
Throw clothing swaps. I rarely, if ever, buy clothing for my daughter or myself, but we never lack in style. About three times a year, we throw clothing swaps. Set a date and time and then invite all the women you know to pare down and purge their closets and come with an appetizer and their choice of drink for the evening. All the clothing gets piled in the middle of the room and rummaged through. Invite the moms to bring kids clothes and set up a separate pile. Make sure that you invite at least two people of each body type. Broaden the circle of friendship and potential clothing by asking everyone you invite to bring a friend. Remember: the more, the merrier. (Again, it’s also about building community.) Use social media to make it easy. (I find a Facebook event page very handy.) Any leftovers get donated to a charity thrift shop of our collective choice. At the end, we all leave refreshed, fed, and happy, with new items to wear.
Shop at thrift stores. Most towns have several thrift stores, and these are exceptionally economical ways to dress yourself, furnish your house, and generally provide for most material needs in an affordable way. I find church thrift stores in small towns have great prices. An added bonus: you’re being kind to the planet by reusing and recycling perfectly functional, unique, and stylish items.
Trade off on child care. Take turns babysitting with another solo-parent friend (or three or four). One of you stays with the kids, and the other ones go out dancing, to yoga, on a date, or to work. It costs nothing but your time and pays you back when you get your turn to go out and have fun.
Host a women’s circle. In need of a deeper connection with other women on a regular basis? Women’s circles are a deeply nurturing way to achieve that goal. The structure is entirely up to you and your group of women. Learn about the Red Tent Temple Movement, and read Jean Shinoda Bolen’s writings on women’s circles as two great ways to get started.
Ask about sliding-scale fees. Are you in need of more professional services? There are many options besides paying full price. Often therapists and other professionals have scholarships or sliding-scale fee schedules based on the combined household income level of the person receiving the service. Sometimes they advertise these, but often they don’t. Other organizations might have solo parent and low-income rates and discounts. It never hurts to ask.
Barter skills. Consider the skills that you have. What do you do that has value for your community? Maybe you’re a great tailor, painter, writer, editor, or handywoman. Or maybe you have a huge veggie garden and can’t eat everything in it, and you make a ton of fantastic pickles in the fall. It can be anything that you’re good at that someone else can’t do and is in need of. Perhaps someone has a fabulous suite for rent and is hoping to offer cheaper rent if the tenant can help with the garden or with keeping an eye on the property or in exchange for a little bit of child care. If the place is beautiful and it feels doable for you, go for it.
Offer up your services in trade for something you need. Be prepared for people to say, “No, thanks,” but also be prepared for people to say, “Yes! That’s exactly what I need!” For example, I’ve done trades for art, bodywork, editing services, child care, music lessons, organic food, naturopathic and acupuncture services, massage, and more. To keep these trades successful, make sure you establish the ground rules beforehand. Discuss and agree on the value of each good and service, how extensive the trade will be, and the timing for redeeming the items and services. (I advise pacing it equally, or things will start to feel lopsided—and you don’t want resentment to build.)
Find a community garden. Many city neighborhoods have community gardens, and plots can be rented for a small price each year. Then you get to grow your own veggies, in community, using shared tools. If there isn’t a community garden where you live, consider starting one. Make sure you ask around first—there might already be a group working on it. Join in and participate. These communities have a wealth of knowledge about other community-oriented initiatives that help save money and make life feel better.
Rent a bigger place. Sometimes the solution is to rent a bigger place, paying more money at the outset. This works because then you have the option of taking in a roommate or two who enjoy being part of a family environment or sharing the home with another solo parent. You can also take in exchange students. (Many student exchange programs pay a monthly room-and-board fee and are run through the school systems or privately.) If you go through the screening process and qualify as a host family, you can ease your housing costs and add some cultural diversity to your family.
Help your child travel and experience the world. Did you know the Rotary Club has international exchange programs for high school students? If your child is interested in cultural experiences and is accepted (there’s an application process), the entire cost for the whole year abroad is often just the round-trip airfare, insurance costs, and a little bit of spending money. With planning, that can even be fundraised in advance. How about wilderness experiences? National Outdoor Leadership School offers phenomenal backcountry youth learning adventures, and it has scholarship programs. Your child could qualify for some or any of these programs.
Research—and research more. Often there are many resources out there waiting to be accessed but that are not widely known about. Ask around. For example, day-care subsidies are generally offered through city municipalities. Summer camps often have low-income and solo parent scholarships and offer reduced rates. Legal services have legal-aid categories, and there are children’s activity funds and recreation centers that often offer reduced rates. Get online and start googling as many keywords as you can think of. Use the local classifieds and your social networks as well, and be sure to read community bulletin boards.
Know your specific demographics and details. Certain kinds of financial support, both public and private, are available for specific populations. This applies when you’re a solo parent–student, as well as when you’re not.
It could be from a grant for parents of a deceased child for someone who is studying art, from a wealthy philanthropist who loves murals and has dedicated funds for the creation of city murals in your city, or via Jewish associations for Jewish students. The list of communities dedicated to supporting “their own” is extensive and worth exploring. You or your children may qualify for one out of 100, but it’s worth doing the research. It just takes some digging, and even if it doesn’t apply to you, it may be exactly the kind of resource your friends could use, which is even better, as you can help them out, too! Also, learn what the low-income cutoff is where you live. This is useful information to know and can help with funding programs geared toward people who are living under the poverty line.
Finally, and simply, just ask for help. Sharing your story with honesty—without shame or expectation—and describing what your life is like and what you’re finding challenging are always an option. You’ll be surprised when you share: someone who you thought was an invulnerable powerhouse might know what it’s like or may have been raised with little money, or someone else might just have the best hug you could dream of, right when you need it most.
Be persistent and patient, do your research, ask for help, and share with others, but—most important—don’t take anything personally. Sometimes we need help to get by, despite our greatest efforts to manage on our own. There is no shame in needing help or in asking for help. Remember that the best way to receive is to offer. Pay it forward! And when that flow of support runs in a reciprocal fashion, your biggest reward is an incredible growth in community and love.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.