Single mothers comprise more than just teen moms and those women whose children's fathers chose not to be involved. Single mothers can also be widows, divorcees, single women by choice, and single women whose children's fathers are unable to contribute or unknown. Single women face exceptional challenges, especially when we aren't receiving support financially or emotionally from the father of our children. Public assistance through the form of WIC, food stamps, Medicare and TANF, not only helps us make ends meet, but also give us added means to allow us to save a small amount of money, and provide ourselves a safety net should an emergency arise. There has been a lot of talk about entitlements lately. As a single mother, I have never felt "entitled" to the few benefits that I receive. I have only felt grateful.
But to help shed some light on exactly what it would take for a single mother with a single infant and an hourly job to make ends meet without entitlements, I have composed this sample budget. It accounts for the things that many people expect lower income families to maintain, and maintain without the benefit of public assistance. This budget doesn't account for saving for college for our children, saving for retirement, or saving for much of anything at all. The list accounts for the bare minimum that all parents and children should or are expected to have access to.
The budget is as follows:
Rent for a one bedroom: $500 (Rent gets more expensive as the rooms go up in number, and more expensive depending on where you live.)
Child care: $400 a month. This is a bare minimum, for somebody who works a normal 9-5 job (I don't; my hours are long and tend to run late into the evening) and often times it's more expensive for an infant. Most licensed child care facilities cost upwards of $125 a week. I forwent licensing in favor of affordability.
Electric utilities for a one bedroom home: $85/mo. This is assuming you are a single mother with one young child and can share your room. Hopefully you are also fortunate enough to not have to pay a water bill, or trash bill. My electric bill for a one bedroom apartment last month was upwards of $150, and my thermostat was set at 68 degrees all month.
Cell phone: $75. Landlines are not a viable option in this day and age. You have emergencies away from home, especially with a child, and you need a cell phone. If you are job searching, it is helpful to be able to answer your phone when a prospective employer calls. People survive without these, but it's difficult. At the absolute bare minimum, $25 a month for a landline.
Health insurance: $300 on the cheap end for one adult and a child. (I am fortunate enough to have my health insurance paid through my employer, and my daughter's paid through the state, but many people aren't so fortunate.)
Vehicle: $150 a month on the cheap end. If you're lucky, you've bought a cheap one and paid cash, so you don't have this monthly payment. Some people are also fortunate enough to live downtown and be able to rely on the bus route, but generally speaking, everybody should own a reliable form of transportation. Unless you live in a big city, buses often do not operate on holidays, or late at night, and in many cities are very limited as to where they travel. I knew one woman who had to leave at 6 a.m. to take the bus to drop her child off at daycare, then be at work by 9 a.m. That's a three-hour commute, to a job 15 miles away.
Vehicle insurance: $60 a month, for a good driver.
Fuel: $200 a month (assuming $50 a week for a four-week month). I only work five miles from home, but none of my friends or family live nearby, nor are there any quality affordable grocery stores nearby, so there are times I go over this budget.
Basic groceries: Includes healthy meals, toilet paper, soap, medicines, basic odds and ends. I spend around $300 a month, and I'm pretty careful with what I buy (I shop at discount stores like Aldis), though I'm trying to be even more frugal by cutting back on treats like coffee and ice cream. Also included in this is clothing/toys, etc. for you and your child (bought at the Goodwill, because "basic necessities" dictates that these things don't have to be new).
Infant's groceries: Diapers run about $35 ($16 and some change every two weeks for a box of the store brand diapers. And that's for the weeks the baby doesn't have diarrhea or diaper rash and can go more than an hour without a diaper change.) Plus any diaper rash cream, jarred baby food, or other baby necessities you may need.
Formula: $120. Most low-income single women qualify for WIC, which provides formula. I wasn't able to breast feed, and formula costs about $30 a week for two cans on the cheap end (one can a week for home, one can a week for daycare), and that's only if your kid doesn't eat like a hog like mine does.
Internet: $60. This isn't technically a necessity, and it requires a computer to use, which is another thing that is often just beyond many parents' budgets. Many women I know do without and go to the library or a friend's home to utilize their computer and Internet. But I still feel it is something everybody should have access to in their home, especially for single mothers who likely don't get out much, to feel connected to the world and their community. But if you don't feel this is important, feel free to trim the $60 off this budget.
Considering the average single mother makes around $10 an hour, or $400 a week/$1,600 a month, pre-tax, that's pretty much impossible. Factor in hourly wages lost due to a child's illness, or lack of child care, and they've lost their ability to make paycheck-to-paycheck work. Not all single mothers make $10 an hour. Not all single mothers only have one child to provide for. Add up the statistics, and the prospects look pretty austere.
Now, I am fortunate. A cherished family friend donated a car to me while I was pregnant, when my old car tanked, so I don't have a car payment. My health insurance is free, but it is a high-deductible account, with a $2,500 deductible, which is almost as useless as being without. I had a trip to urgent care a few weeks ago for severe chest pains. It cost me over $300, which I won't be able to pay off until I get my tax return). I'm fortunate that I qualified for Medicaid during pregnancy, because there is no way I would have been able to afford $5,000 ($2,500 towards the deductible for each year, because I was pregnant between 2012-2013) while also saving up for my unpaid maternity leave. My daughter qualifies for state health care as well, for her first year of life, so I don't have that expense. Yet. My daughter's formula is (mostly) paid for through WIC, though our formula options were limited, so we had to suffer through a couple weeks while her body learned to tolerate Gentlease, after switching from Similac's gentle formula. Breastfeeding would have also been a better option, but one that was unsustainable for me due to the demands of my work schedule. It breaks my heart that I wasn't able to stay home longer than eight weeks so I could have breast fed my daughter for a longer period of time.
I use an at home child care provider, who (fortunately for me) is very VERY cheap at only $375. This is the cheapest I could find, and I luckily adore the woman who cares for my daughter. She is wonderful. I am so grateful for her. When times get tough, when my car breaks down, when I don't have enough money left for rent, I have a supportive family that is able to assist me, both emotionally and financially. But there have been times I've been too ashamed to turn to them for money, so I've used payday loans, or missed payments instead.
I do not qualify for food stamps or child care assistance. I miss the cut-off by only a couple hundred dollars. Fortunately I'm able to make ends meet without them. I have a very low rent one-bedroom apartment. I share my bedroom with my daughter, which works well for now. I worry what will happen when she gets older and needs her own bedroom. I also live in a city I would rather not reside in. It's a relatively safe area, for which I'm grateful, but it's far away from my close friends and my favorite parts of the larger metro area which offers free museums, beautiful parks to walk and exercise in, and additional support for single mothers like myself. My car has only been broken into once since I moved here. It could be worse.
I also have some 55k in student loans I have to repay. Without the income-based repayment plan that I qualify for, I would be paying over $700 in loans each month, which is absolutely not feasible. My dream is to someday work a salaried job where I will be able to make these payments on a standard repayment plan, but that dream seems so far off. Despite multiple internships where I gained an impressive network of contacts in my field, plenty of hands-on experience, and decent grades, college has turned out to be a poor investment.
Without the little public assistance we receive I would have a difficult time making ends meet. I work a job that I enjoy, in public service helping child victims of domestic violence, but the wages are low, even for somebody like me with a college degree. Still, I know and work with women who live on much less than I make. They take the bus, they use government phones, they feed multiple children on $300 worth of food stamps each month, and the state pays for their children's care while they work dead end jobs or go to school. They struggle to make ends meet like I do. We struggle between being a whole and present family for our children, and being a sole bread winner. We can't pick up the tab when we go out with friends, and we can't drop $200 on designer jeans or a new purse, though sometimes we receive them as gifts. These gifts are appreciated, but I've had to turn around and sell a beautiful Coach purse I received from a close friend as a gift in order to make ends meet one month. Our kids wear second hand clothes, and store brand diapers, and we shop at Walmart, instead of Babies R Us. We follow extreme couponing blogs, and know which store has the cheapest produce, and which pharmacy has the cheapest prescriptions.
And still, we struggle. But we are mothers. We recognize that our struggle extends beyond us into two parent households. We know we are not alone, even though we aren't paired up and don't necessarily have the additional support that some women are blessed with. It's a bittersweet comfort knowing we're struggling the same as families with two incomes and twice as many mouths to feed. We daydream about being stay-at-home wives and mothers with time to exercise and cook full meals and play with our children and maybe even take a bubble bath. We find cheap sources of entertainment, through a $5 bottle of wine shared with a visiting friend, or a good book, or wasting an hour on Pinterest after the baby has gone to sleep. We show up. We shower our children with all the love we have to give. And we get by.
There has been a lot of criticism lately of entitlement programs, and public assistance programs, and drug testing of welfare recipients. People like to think that poor and working class people really don't need all the help we get, or that we squander what we have on petty things that people without public assistance can't afford. I won't deny that this occurs, but when it does it's the exception, not the rule. We know that society expects us to work two jobs and go to school and do everything we possibly can to better our situation, but it's never so easy as "just work harder." Most of us are already maxed out physically and emotionally. Some of us don't have the internal dialogue that says we're capable of doing better, or that we deserve better. Some of us take Celexa and Xanax just to be able to breathe through the opening the bills and face what so often feels like a bleak future. Some of us drink wine or smoke blunts. We try not to focus on how much better things could be, because we've all had our hopes dashed before. We instead focus on how thankful we are that our situation is what it is. And we cling to the notion that it could always be worse.
Taylor's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.
Have a similar story you'd like to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at (408) 508-4833, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.