8 Financial Tips for Single Parents Facing the Holidays

8 Financial Tips for Single Parents Facing the Holidays
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Raising a child, financially speaking, is no easy task, particularly for those doing it solo. Children, as we all know, are expensive: The estimated cost of raising a child, born in 2013, to age 18, is about $245,340, according to the Department of Agriculture. And single parents have the extra burden of balancing their emotional needs with their financial ones.

Related: 5 Essential Tips for Financial Planning After Divorce

That burden only increases now, at holiday time, with the glut of advertising about pricey gifts and celebrations that children will see. But parents who plan can often meet these types of challenges and surmount them.

“It’s important for everyone to have a budget and financial plan, particularly single parents, because they’re relying on themselves,” Clare Levison, a certified public accountant financial planner in Blacksburg, Virginia, told me. “There are pros and cons; the 'con' is that you have to do it all, but the 'pro' is that you can do it all yourself.”

Here are tips for what to think about as you plan for yourself and your family’s future.

1. Budget, budget, budget.

As you review your income and spending, create categories for different expenses. Budgeting so you can spend less than you earn will also keep you out of debt.

Fixed monthly expenses are most important. These include housing, food, utilities, health insurance and whatever else you need to keep your life going. An emergency fund is for unexpected expenses, like a car repair or new furnace, or to tide you over if you become unemployed. “You want at least six to 12 months [of expenses] saved, erring on the side of a year, because you don’t have a second income to rely on if something happens to you,” Levison advises.

Goals and priorities, such as retirement, the purchase of a new home or your child’s college tuition, have dollar amounts associated with them. Save for these by taking advantage of your employer’s 401k retirement plan and any matches available, plus your state's 529 college-savings plan; also put aside whatever you can, even if that’s only $25 a week.

Don’t forget about vacations and birthday gifts in your discretionary spending bucket, either; but be mindful about these costs. “If you take a vacation, instead of flying somewhere, go somewhere local,” says Mary Mullin, managing director of wealth management at Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management in Boston.

2. Teach your children well.

Become a financial role model for your children by setting a good example. Educate them about budgeting and explain the difference between a need, a want and a wish when it comes to spending.

“If you’re single and relying on one income, it’s extremely important to help kids understand what household needs are and what you need to plan for,” says Laurie Barry, wealth advisor at UBS Financial Services in Chicago.

Related: 10 Single Mom Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Business Advice 

3. Make trade-offs.

“When you’re a single parent, life is about trade-offs -- more so than ever,” says Mullin. Even though you plan the week’s meals on Sunday, for example, you may instead have to buy dinner some night you’re running late. This expense was unplanned, so you’ll be trading time for money.

“Sometimes, it’s more important to take advantage of and pay for conveniences so you can have a better quality of life, but this means you’ll likely have to trade off in other areas of your budget,” says Mullin.

4. Create an estate plan.

Having a will in place with a power of attorney is imperative for a single parent, who should be sure to make his or her wishes are known, and early, about a child's care. “You want to write down who you want to take care of your children and who will manage the funds for the children -- these are two different people,” says Barry, at UBS.

5. Insure yourself.

Being able to protect your family with health, disability and life insurance should have the same priority as budgeting and saving. A life insurance policy will provide your child with financial security in the unfortunate event that something happens to you.

“If you don’t have [health insurance] through your employer, it’s really important to build into your budget the cost of healthcare,” says Mullin. “If someone gets sick, it could be devastating.”

Most employers offer disability insurance that will protect your income if you should fall ill. “If [a single parent] gets sick or disabled, that’s another situation that would hit the family especially hard,” says Marcy Keckler, vice president of financial advice strategy at Ameriprise Financial in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Insurance premiums can be expensive, though, and you need to budget for them.

6. Manage settlements and lump sums.

A lump sum from a settlement or life insurance policy may seem like a lot of free money, but it can go pretty quickly. Have a plan in place to begin building income, especially if you've stepped out of the workforce to raise children. Look to build up any assets so you can spin off some income from a portfolio.

Alimony and child support payments don’t last forever, either. Child support stops when a child is 18 years old, but this money may end earlier if the payer dies or loses a job. “If you can afford it, use the child support as savings and consider it extra money for a rainy day,” says Randy Kessler, founding partner of Kessler & Solomiany, in Atlanta. As part of your divorce or child support order, you can also ask to exchange tax returns, so you can ask for an increase if your ex’s income increases.

7. Create a support system.

Trading favors can ultimately save you money. Use your goodwill to create a network of family and friends who can pitch in when you need help. “You can work carpool arrangements to give yourself more time and barter something in return for a favor,” says Mullin. “When children are little, childcare can be a huge expense on your budget, and bartering can help alleviate this.”

8. Build your career.

Jumping back into the workforce may seem daunting if you’ve been out for a while, and you may need to add skills to your resume to give your career a boost. Going back to school often has a cost and time commitment though, and you’ll want to find the most cost-effective and safest option for your children during this time. Consider friends, family, a high school babysitter or a local after school program.

“When you work out those scenarios, it’ll take a toll on being with the kids less to get ahead financially, but you can figure out the cost and benefit of doing that and how that will impact their situation in the long term,” says Barry.

9. Plan your time.

“Having control over your schedule can be a godsend,” says Mullin. “Flexibility to work certain hours, to trade shifts or to work from home, for any working parent, especially single parents, is a game-changer.”

Related: The Parental Responsibility of Estate Planning