How to stick to a budget as a single mum or single income family

How can you save money and stick to your budget when you’re a single mum?

Being a single mum has many challenges, it is usually quite an adjustment to go from either two incomes to one or to go from having the support of a partner to relying on Centrelink. Add in the emotional turmoil and mum guilt (it’s real!), sticking to your budget can be tricky.

Having experienced being in a single income marriage, also having my then husband lose his job during it, then being a single mum for years, I get it! Here are my tips to stay on track and some budgeting methods which have worked for myself and others. This is a long post covering a lot of different elements, don’t feel like you have to read or do it all. Choose what will work best for you or pick one thing to begin with then add more as you get on top of things. Finances can be a big thing to overhaul in your life.

Disclosure, I will share exactly how I manage my finances at the bottom of the post. My income is variable but that doesn’t mean I can’t budget! Remember, I am not a financial advisor. I highly recommend getting proper financial advice specific to your situation to help you grow your wealth. Advice in this post is of a general nature. Also, there are a few affiliate links in here for products I use. You can read my full affiliate disclosure here.

How to create a budget and stick to it

Creating and sticking to a budget doesn’t vary much whether you are married, single, have kids or done. The basic principles are the same – know what you spend, spend less than you earn. I covered how to create a budget and stick to it here and more on getting your budget sorted here, so this post is going to focus a little more on the specifics I found important/useful as a single mum.

Get a small emergency fund

Most people struggle with debt and their budgets because every time an emergency comes up, debt is used to pay for it. Save up $1,000 to $2,000 to pay cash for these small emergencies e.g. unexpected car repairs, medical emergencies, things you cannot put off.

To get that initial $1,000 to $2,000 sell off anything you can, take on extra work or find ways to make money (check out our big list here). You need to get that fund up and fast. Once you have it, you can stop putting all your emergencies on your credit card. This system is designed to help you break the debt cycle and is recommended by financial experts. It might feel hard at first, but it works!

With the small emergency fund in place, you move onto paying off your debt asap. Check out this post on how to deal with debt and some debt payment stories.

Cash Envelope System

This system is for managing your budget. I first heard about it from Dave Ramsey in The Total Money Makeover. Money from your budget is divided into envelopes for different purposes e.g. groceries, petrol, education, electricity/bills and so on. Rather than doing your budget online with accounts, you see the cash and have to hand the cash over. Any money left in the envelope rolls over into the next week.

Having it physically in front of you helps you see where your money is going and be more conscious of your spending. It’s a great way to break bad spending habits.

If you are struggling with debt, Dave’s baby steps in his book will help a lot!

Buckets with The Barefoot Investor

If cash envelopes aren’t your thing, try the bucket system from The Barefoot Investor, Scott Pape. This book and his advice is geared to Aussies as he’s based here in Victoria. It’s a simple method which appeals to many. On the serviette example he uses, you have a few accounts which are split into 3 basic buckets – Blow (daily living expenses), Mojo (savings and paying off debt) and Grow (investing for long-term wealth). Your income is divided into these buckets in a 60-20-20 fashion, with 60% being for daily living expenses. The other 20% and 20% is split up further. It’s explained better in the book.

Treat savings like a bill

Pay yourself first. This was one of the biggest takeaway lessons for me when I read The Richest Man In Babylon as a teenager. We pay everyone else out of our income then try to save what is leftover. This doesn’t work. More often than not, we spend it all with nothing left to save. As hard as it is, set aside a percentage of each pay into a high-interest savings account. Treat it like any other bill you have and don’t touch it.

David Bach author of The Automatic Millionaire shows how easy it is to become a millionaire in his book by following a simple savings method. The sooner you start, because of compound interest, the easier it is and the more you will have. Check out our post on how to be a millionaire as a single mum, it is possible, though it takes time!

Have a spending plan instead

Go over your bank statements and see what you are truly spending, then base your budget on that. Track each dollar so you know you are keeping within your budget then look at how you can reduce your spending (lots of tips here). As you do this and get used to it, make sure you are directing your money to where you need to go and account for every dollar coming in. By this I mean, if you know you spend $100 a month on electricity, account for it and plan it out as your money comes in.

Say no to your kids

This is hard, especially at first. I know I felt super guilty about the whole situation during my divorce and wanted to give my kids everything. If you say yes to everything you will raise entitled brats who treat you poorly. Learn to say no for your own sanity and their wellbeing. Teach your kids about money, help them learn delayed gratification and keep the rewards/treats for birthdays or when it is truly deserved, not just because you went to the shops.

Go for quality over quantity

I apply this to every area of my life from my clothes, shoes and mattresses through to time spent with others. In our house, my kids know when we walk to and from school, they have my attention and they spend a lot of time chatting about all sorts of random things. They can also ask each other to walk a little ahead or behind if they want it to be just me.

Friday is their favourite night of the week because it’s Friday Family Fun Night where we stay up, watch movies with treats or go out. Devices are switched off and it’s fun, just us.

Having quality time with kids helps foster your relationship and ‘fills their bucket’. When my kids feel loved and have quality time with me, they are happy to go off and do their own thing plus they ask for less stuff. I get more time, our relationship is stronger, they feel more confident and free plus it’s a budget win!

Delayed gratification list

I’m not saying you can’t have things but you do need to plan and budget for it. One of the best things I did to curb my impulse buys was a delayed gratification list or an ‘I want it’ list. Any impulse buys I wanted, I would put on this list and in 30 days, if I still wanted it, I was allowed to budget it in. By doing this, I wasn’t completely denying myself but usually, at the end of the 30days, I didn’t want the things on my list. It psychologically felt better than denying myself of everything because there was a time limit and a maybe later mentality attached to it. It significantly reduced my spending.

Have a visual goal

What are you saving and budgeting for? Is it a new home, a family holiday, retirement? Have visual reminders of it all and let your kids be involved. On our walls we have a house plan we like and would love to build one day, which is a symbol of our own home but is not our first priority. My eldest daughter made posters and cut out all the places she wants to visit from brochures, asked for maps from her teachers and made her own vision wall for travel.

I also have saving graphs for specific things so we can all see how on track we are.

Do not rely on child support

In an ideal world, both parents would contribute to the kids financially. We do not live in an ideal world. Many parents don’t pay, some pay sporadically and there are some who do pay regularly. I recommend viewing child support as a bonus, if it doesn’t come in for whatever reason (your ex loses their job, changes jobs or simply stops paying), it won’t impact your finances or independence.

What you do with child support if or when it comes in is your choice. You are already paying for all your childrens needs from your income, so the child support can replenish that. If you are managing your money well, you will be able to see how much has been spent on expenses relating to your kids. Child support can be great and is to be used for raising the kids, but there’s no need to rely on it and let it control your budget.

Plan for retirement

When you are part of a couple, you possibly assumed the super between you both would be enough, or your partner planned for retirement or maybe you had a goal to have rental properties etc. When I was married he worked, I stayed at home so his superannuation grew and we planned to have rental properties. The divorce changed that.

Think about your retirement. What age do you want to retire? Will you have your house paid off, be debt free and have income? How will you fund your retirement? If you want to be a millionaire, you can – this post shares how, as a single mum. (Be aware, it is not a get rich quick option. You need to be consistent, dedicated, use compound interest and take your time).

I am a huge believer in the FIRE movement, as in Financial Independence, Retire Early. My mum died at 37, my fathers’ parents both died at 63, before retirement age and I know of too many similar situations. Having been paralysed and survived other health issues, quality of life now is important to me. Create a life you don’t feel the need to escape from, but also plan for retirement. Pick a retirement age. Mine is 40. By 40 I plan to be completely financially free. I’m likely to continue doing things I love, but I won’t have to. That’s the difference.

The general idea of being able to retire early is to save as much as you can of your income e.g. 20% to 50% and invest it. The more you are able to save, the sooner you can retire. Reduce your living expenses and continue to invest. Shares are my preference and they have typically outperformed the property market for the last century. Choose how you want to invest so you get income from your investments.

Right now, I have businesses and shares (this post discusses it in more detail). My share dividends get reinvested, I don’t touch them. My risk tolerance level is higher than many so my share portfolio is predominantly aggressive at this stage in my life. It goes up and down but has still continued to climb. Read more about how the top 1% of Australians manage their money.

Change your mindset

“I’m so broke” or “We can’t afford it” isn’t encouraging. Yes, you might not have much money, but change how you speak about money and shift your focus from being unable to afford things to how can you afford it.

Whenever I focus on my lack of money, it stresses me out and it doesn’t change the situation. By all means, know what your money is doing, have a budget and spend accordingly. Don’t focus on the negative though. If you are spending more than you earn, look at how you can bring in more money (try these ideas) plus how you can cut back.

Money doesn’t need to control you or dominate your thoughts and before you go saying “Oh, that’s fine for you, you make good money”, I’ve been homeless with 2 young daughters. I know what broke feels like and how hard relying on Centrelink can be. It doesn’t need to control you.

When I was homeless, I worked out the life I wanted to build and went after it hard. My income is from multiple sources now, I work school hours and am not employed elsewhere. Blogging, freelance writing, public speaking, consulting, shares and other random things make up my income. You do what you have to and think outside the box to create solutions.

Resources which helped me

I read a lot, listen to podcasts and over the past few years, my entire life has changed. (You can find out more about me personally at www.kylietravers.com.au if you want). Here are some of the best books, podcasts, courses and other things I found which helped me stay on track and create the life I have now.

Books

The Richest Man In Babylon

This was a book my dad had on our bookshelf when I was growing up. Reading it at 13 helped shape the way I view money. It is the book I have gifted and recommended the most.

Get Rich, Lucky Bitch

It will help with your mindset about money. Denise is another Aussie plus she has great resources on her site. While I haven’t paid for any of her courses, I did find her book and podcast useful.

Anything by Tim Ferriss

The 4 Hour Work Week, The 4 Hour Body, Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors have all had a profound impact on my life. The 4-Hour Work Week has a great backstory too, he was rejected by almost 30 publishers and it went on to be a best seller! The 4-Hour Body is all about slow carb eating and I have friends who have lost a lot of weight following it. It helped me in 2015, then I kind of fell off the wagon with it. Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors are more recent, based on his podcasts (which I love) and are a collection of interviews and top tips from incredibly high achievers.

The Total Money Makeover or The Barefoot Investor

Both are great books, my preference is The Total Money Makeover but many other prefer The Barefoot Investor. Dave Ramsey is American so his book, The Total Money Makeover, is geared to the American system and there are elements (such as paying for uni/college) which are different to what I’d recommend here. Scott’s book is for an Aussie audience.

The Big Leap

Recommended to me by a reader, it is one of the best books I have read lately. It opened my eyes to a bunch of things which have happened in my life, how I have self-sabotaged and how to change my mindset. While I have read many books on mindset, money, human psychology and similar topics, this one was a game changer. It is easy to read, covers so much for such a short book and gives you practical advice and action to take.

Smart Girls Screw Up Too

I read this recently and it really helped me focus on what I want, change a few things in my life and do a bit of a redirection. Bella has a great newsletter on her site too.

You can find a list and more details on 12 books I recommend in this post.

Podcasts

I listen to podcasts whenever I am walking, sometimes when I am cooking dinner and usually after dropping my kids at school. Since I don’t have a car, I walk pretty much everywhere. The podcasts I listen to change depending on my needs and interests. A few I have found useful are:

The Tim Ferriss Show

I know I’m coming off as a Tim Ferriss fangirl. While I love many of the interviews he does, his books and find his content useful, there are things of his I disagree with. The great thing about him is he is all about experimenting in life to find what works for you.

Search a topic

The Tim Ferriss show is the only podcast I have consistently listened to for the past few years. Generally, I will search a topic I am interested in and listen to a bunch of podcasts on it. Gary Vee is one I used to listen to a lot for marketing and business, The Neverending Nomad was one back in 2015 I listened to about travel, Strategy Hour has had a few I found fascinating, Pat Flynn and Chris Ducker have had some great podcasts. I will often type in a word and see what comes up as options for podcasts on it then download a few.

Courses and Other Resources

The Ultimate Bundles

I discovered these in 2015 and have bought a few. Each bundle is worth thousands and contains eBooks, courses and resources on different topics e.g. blogging, business, homemaking, photography etc. Most people involved in it offer extra bonus resources too. They’re usually really cheap but only released for a short period. You can use this link for the next one.

Currently, you can get an incredible parenting bundle and a work from home bundle with loads of tools and resources to help you make money from home.

16 Personalities Test

While you might not think a personality test will help with money, it does! Knowing more about yourself, your emotions and why you do what you do will help you change your habits and spend more wisely.

PDF with ways to make money

This is something I created with loads of ways to make money, how much you can make and links for more information. Rather than rely on one income, your job or other income (such as Centrelink and child support), you can take control and create multiple streams of income. I’m not saying don’t have a job, jobs are fantastic, stable usually and help you by contributing to super. You can create more income and put it towards your future or whatever you want. Doing this changed my whole life.

You’ve got this!

It can be daunting working from one income, but you can do it. A budget is basically telling your money where to go instead of letting your income dictate everything.

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