Two years ago, almost exactly, I became a single mama. It has been quite the journey, filled with happiness, sadness, guilt, snuggles, cheers, and a LOT of credit card debt. While I never imagined myself as a single mother, and never really wanted to be one, I knew that it was the best choice for my favorite person in the world, my son. Unfortunately, amongst our close friends, Cole is the only child with divorced parents (which is awesome for those kiddos, but kind of unbelievable in 2015). So, of course, the main factor in my every day life was (note that I said WAS) guilt. I felt like somehow my child was being robbed of the happiness of a two parent home, robbed of the economic freedom that would provide for us, and somehow he was suffering because he lived in two healthy homes instead of one unhealthy one. I tried my best to provide every trinket, toy, article of clothing and trip I could for him, usually bought solely on credit. I wanted for him to be just as happy as his friends with two parents homes. What I didn’t realize was that he did not care about the “things”. Granted, what little boy is not going to turn down a new toy every time he goes to the grocery store, or constant entertainment by ipads, trips and new monster truck shirts? Chicken nuggets from a fast food place every day, because why not, right?
I had dug myself into so much debt getting out of debt that it was shameful. Two years ago I discovered direct sales, and being a retail addict (not kidding. I can say that now), I did it all wrong. I bought so much “stuff” trying to sell it that I barely broke even. It was a difficult lesson for me to learn. God kept trying to nudge me along the way, I stumbled upon a great deal on my dream house one year in, and amazingly, even with my lackluster credit (yes, I can admit that now), I somehow got financing. God kept flinging open windows for me, but I continued on my retail pathway towards credit card hell. I would go forward two steps and go back three. I tried the debt snowball last year at the same time, but did not change my ways and dug myself into deeper debt. I went on a fabulous vacation for my direct sales company….all financed on my CREDIT CARDS. Ugh. So I ended up paying it off much later, at a high interest rate. I have spoken a great deal about how I had my moment right before Christmas at church one Sunday. Our pastor was speaking about stuff, and I needed to hear it. He spoke about how stuff cannot make you happy. You will never have enough “things” to make you happy”. It was like something finally clicked in my head, finally.
So I went home and started writing down every cent that I owed everyone, and it was a lot, a staggering amount of money for a single mama. I prayed for God to give me control over my finances, for me to finally be able to kick the retail and “stuff” addiction that I have. I started thinking more clearly about my role as a single mama, about my role over being the soft place for my child to be, and how children look to their parents for healthy ideas about money and finance. I had a duty to Cole to give him the life he deserved…but it was not the life I thought about two years ago. He deserved to have a mama who was not so stressed and torn up about finances all the time. A mama who was rejoicing because she could pay cash for their vacation, instead of a mama who was avoiding collection calls. Cole and I regularly make bucket lists on vacations for what we want to do (I highly suggest this…it will open your eyes to what your children truly want!). We have a chalkboard wall, and we add things all the time. His bucket list for summer included things like “blowing bubbles in the yard, going to the library, riding bikes at the park, having a picnic at the “little beach” (the lake). Do you notice a trend for all of those things? None of them cost a lot of money. They are mostly free. So, do you know what my child wants from me the most? My time. When I finally realized this, of course I cried. (I cry a lot, I guess. I cry when I am happy, sad, hungry, tired… Gah). Here I was, digging myself deeper into debt from mostly guilt, and all my precious little guy wanted from me was time (and to turn the water hose on me, usually). I needed to change my ways so that he would have healthier ideas about money, and we would be stable financially. I am including the tips that work for me. Your list might be different, but our system is working, praise God. I am continually thankful for second chances (and third and fourth).
1. Right now. Sit down and write down every single penny that you owe everyone, from your preschool to your little medical bills to your car loan to your family members who have loaned you money because you are too financially irresponsible to function in your daily life (I am looking in the mirror here). Take responsibility for the mess you have made. No one else put you there but you. Whether you did it out of necessity, or guilt, or because you don’t know any better. The earlier you own up to it, the faster you can get to work. I use a Debt snowball app, because I like to visually see what I am paying off every month.
2. Enroll in online banking. I am not a mathlete, so balancing my checkbook each month made my head hurt. You need to be aware and alert of everything you spend. Keep a current checkbook register of all purchases you make. You must be aware of what you are spending, so that you know where all of your money is going. If an overdraft fee is $25-$30, imagine how much money you will save by being on top of your checking account balance! If you are a techie, track what you are spending in an app, like everydollar.com. It is terrifying to see where your money goes every month, but it is the only way to see where you can cut costs.
3. Open your emergency fund. An emergency is not a new bag (hello, 2009 me). An emergency is a blowout on your car (not a hair blowout, ha), catastrophic medical bills you didn’t plan for (does anyone plan for them?) or another family emergency. You should have at least $1000 in your fund. If you want to have a separate vacation fund, open a Christmas club account.
4. Set some goals. My short term goal was to get out of credit card debt. You know how Tj Maxx has those tiny little carts? I have decided it is so you can put less in it. I am now the person who loads up my tiny cart, then puts things back as I walk around the store. I am such a recovering retail addict that I have to think about every dollar that I spend. I literally think, do I want these shoes, or do I want to pay for a day at the beach? Do I need this bracelet, or do I need to pay off that department store credit card sooner? My long range goals include (five year goals) paying off my car early, paying off my mortgage early, and saving more for Cole’s college fund. You need to save for some fun too, so a kind of short range goal is to save for two weeks of vacation next year instead of one!
5. What do you have in your garage (and your closet) that you could sell for cash? Instead of giving up a food or beverage this year for Lent, I gave up stuff. I did the 40 bags in 40 days challenge and it was eye opening. We live in a culture of “More is more”. Would I love a bigger house, or a new car every year? Maybe. (actually, probably not now…bigger = more expensive). But I can delay that for right now to get us there eventually. A lifetime as a retail addict has gotten me a ridiculous amount of clothing, bags, shoes and jewelry. I could literally wear something different every day for a year. That is excessive and shameful. I love fashion, but I refuse to love it at the expense of my family’s wellbeing and health. Sell your excess and pay something off, or build your emergency fund. That peace of mind is worth more than having so much stuff.
6. Make regular meal plans, with a shopping list to match. Grow your own veggies. Get a deep freeze and freeze some crock pot meals. Plan for fun evenings at home and have a staycation until you can afford to go away. My little man is so pleased making a car wash with the hose for his bikes. Most of the time if we go out to eat, he would rather be home, and he loves to help me in the kitchen (you’re welcome, his future wife), so we have regular dinner and a movie date nights at home. Time is the most important thing. You cannot get time with your sweet little ones back.
7. My biggest tip for you when you are just starting out is to just breathe, and pray. You are just one person, if you are a single parent, so you can only do it one step at a time. Luckily I have the support of my family, and Cole’s daddy will help me with the things he needs. You are the anchor in your child’s life, as their parent, so think about what you are showing them.
I am just starting, and I have big plans for our financial health and planning. Will I stumble? Yes. Mostly because I am human. But I have learned so much (and I should have listened to my daddy years ago, just a thought). I have been trying to read as much as I can about finance, and even bought a book, called “Finance for Single Mothers”, and it is….horrid. So, if I can help one person with our story, I figure my blog is a success. Let me know your favorite tips, and keep me posted on your successes too!