By Jon Cook
Whether you've chosen to be a single parent or not, it's a challenge in many ways, especially when it comes to money. Typically, single parents must master the art of doing more with less money and be careful long-range planners, too.
Without the financial cushion another adult family member provides, success likely will take more focus than with a two-parent family. Households with two parents typically have more to work with: a second income, or a nonworking parent who eliminates the need to pay for child care.
Of course, you have the same major financial goals as other parents, such as staying out of debt, building and maintaining savings, socking away money for retirement, and, if you can, building a college fund for your child.
To reach these goals on a single income, create a plan and stick to it. Follow these steps to get your plan rolling.
get a grip
First off, it's important to fully understand your financial situation. What are your assets and your annual income, and how will both change if you're becoming a single parent? Will you be forced to work fewer hours? Will there be child support from the other parent?
You should not sacrifice your own retirement for your child's college fund. Answering those questions will help you know exactly how much money you have to work with from month to month.
Next, keep track of your spending. Yes, all of it.
Look at what you spend over at least a one-month period. Once you've gathered your spending data, sort your expenses into two main categories: necessary expenses (rent, groceries, electricity, gas) and non-necessary expenses (eating out, travel, new toys). You also can sort your expenses into fixed (same amount every month) and variable (different amount each month) expenses.
Be sure to factor in expenses you don't anticipate, such as car repairs.
Once you have a feel for your financial situation, you'll likely need to make necessary adjustments to remain in the best financial position possible.
"Always keep in mind, the only way to be financially sound is to take in more than you spend," says Rob Siegmann, chief operating officer and senior adviser at Financial Management Group, Cincinnati. "Budget and cash flow are the lifeblood of any financial plan, so you should have a good handle on them."
These days, credit scoring has taken over a large portion of our financial lives. Keeping your score in good shape can mean saving money.
"Credit scores affect what you pay for insurance, what interest rate you pay on loans, and even if you get a job," says Kathleen Campbell, founder and principal of Campbell Financial Partners, LLC, in Ft. Myers, Fla.
Employers have even started looking into a prospective employee's credit history before making a job offer. The idea is that someone with a poor credit score may not be the best employee to bring on board.
build your emergency fund
Saving is vital if you're the lone breadwinner, because you can't depend on anyone else if you lose your job or have other unexpected costs such as car repairs, hospital bills, or family emergency travel.
Many experts recommend having at least six months' pay in a savings accounts, but you may be able to get by with less.
"You should keep a maximum of $10,000 in a savings account, because you make very little interest on a savings account. Your money just sits there," says Siegmann. "Also, $10,000 on hand is usually sufficient to handle most unexpected financial situations."
If you need more money than what's in your emergency savings, and you own a home, you might qualify to take out a home equity line of credit in advance of an emergency; set it up before you need it. The staff at your credit union can help you with this option or provide other low-cost loan options that could work for you.
select smart investments
When it comes to investing, taking a conservative approach is best when you're a single parent.
"Like overspending, overly aggressive investing can have a real detrimental effect if you lose your job or there is a downturn in the economy," says Campbell. "I recommend conservative low-risk investments."
Another solid investment option is a Roth IRA (individual retirement account) if you have earned income. The benefit is that money is taxed when it's put into the account but not when withdrawn, as long as you meet certain criteria. Also, you may withdraw direct contributions from a Roth IRA tax free at any time, making the money accessible if the need ever comes up.
plan for retirement or college
College is expensive, and you likely will want to do what you can to help your child get an education. However, you shouldn't sacrifice your own retirement for your child's college fund.
"College can be financed; retirement cannot," Siegmann points out. There are many opportunities for low-interest academic or need-based loans, grants, and scholarships, but there are no scholarships for your retirement.
That said, if you're able to put money away for your child's college education, one option is a tax-advantaged savings plan such as a 529 plan. These plans give certain benefits as long as you use the money for education only. For more information on these plans, check out the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's introduction to 529 plans.
have an estate plan
Because you're a single parent, it's crucial that you have an up-to-date will and power of attorney on file so you have control of what happens to your money and children if you can no longer make those decisions.
"If you have kids, these documents are vitally important," says Emily Card, practicing attorney and author of "The Single Parent's Money Guide." "You want to name two guardians for your children in your will: a financial guardian and a caregiver guardian. This doesn't have to be the same person."
Following these first steps will give you a solid financial footing as a single parent.