By Valencia Higuera GOBankingRates.com.
It can be difficult to make ends meet as a single person; and if you're single with kids, you're faced with even more of a challenge. From buying clothes to putting a roof over your kid's head, it's all on you.
With the end of the year fast approaching, the next few weeks might be an especially difficult time. Maybe your kids are begging for a vacation during their winter breaks from school, or maybe their holiday wish lists get longer each day.
You might not be able to immediately change your income, but with savvy planning you can have fun with your family without sacrificing the essentials. Budgeting is important for everyone, but it's absolutely crucial for single parents.
Here are five steps single parents should take to fortify their finances.
MAKE YOUR BUDGET LESS ABOUT LIMITS AND MORE ABOUT ACHIEVEMENTS Some parents don't involve their children in money discussions, but if a topic isn't too heavy and the kids are old enough to understand, involving them can keep the family's budget on track. Setting goals as a family can keep everyone on the same page and help teach children to view money realistically.
"Talk with kids about the family budgeting process," said Kevin Gallegos, consumer finance expert and vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network. "Even young kids can participate, especially since a good budget starts with family goals. This will guide the budgeting process, making it more about achieving goals than limiting expenses and make it easier to spend smartly. This way, kids can understand the limitations the family faces in a realistic way while getting to participate." It doesn't matter whether you're saving for gifts or a vacation, it's all about setting limits and prioritizing spending.
RELY ON AN EMERGENCY FUND OVER CHILD SUPPORT Your financial priorities might include keeping the lights on, the landlord happy and food in the refrigerator, anything else might be considered a luxury. But you shouldn't downplay the importance of an emergency fund. Even if you're receiving child support, it might not be steady support. And, unfortunately, child support isn't considered late by the courts until it's 30 days overdue. At that point, even filing a motion requires additional time to collect what's owed. Therefore, you need a backup plan, just in case the support doesn't arrive when you need it.
"Savings is critical for everyone, but perhaps especially so for single parents who must rely on one income for all unexpected expenses," Gallegos said. "It is extremely important for single parents to set aside a specific amount (ideally, a percentage of revenue) regularly. Whatever that number is, 10 percent of income, more if possible, less if necessary, the key is to stick to a percent that works."
REACH OUT TO OTHERS FOR HELP SAVING If you set aside 10 percent (or more) of your paycheck, you will eventually hit your financial goals. However, reaching goals takes creativity when you're struggling and can't save a lot of cash. Some might suggest downsizing to free up cash; however, that isn't an easy thing to do. You can't walk away from a lease or mortgage, and you can't always control how much you pay for child care, utilities and insurance.
This is where creative thinking comes into play. Paula Pant, founder of AffordAnything.com, recommends bartering child care services with friends or family.
"If they can watch your child after school on Tuesday and Wednesdays, you'll watch their children every Saturday night."
Not a bad approach if you're paying $35 or more each day for after-school care; that's a weekly savings of $70 or $280 every month.
Also, don't ignore secondhand clothes and toys.
"Find a thrift store near a hospital," said Lewis Harrison, author of "Live Like a Millionaire on $17,000 a Year." "Doctors and their spouses donate children's clothes and toys to these stores and the quality is usually quite high."
Understandably, you want to give your kids the best, but it's the quality that matters. If you're able to find high-quality secondhand goods, your kids won't notice a difference between new and old.
BUDGET FOR YOUR TWO LIVES Your focus might be on paying bills, but entertainment is also important when creating your monthly budget. If you share custody and don't have the kids on certain weekends, you'll need to plan your entertainment budget to encompass two lives: your single life and your time with the children.
First, take a look at your income and expenses to determine how much you can reasonably set aside for entertainment each month. If $100 a month is a workable amount, decide how much to spend each weekend, taking into consideration that you'll probably spend more on weekends when you have the children and less on weekends when they're with the other parent. A budget of $25 per week might not work. Instead, you might plan to spend $35 on the weekends you have the children, and $15 on the remaining two weekends of the month for your entertainment. Also, make sure you research free and low-cost activities to stretch your entertainment budget.
COORDINATE WHO CLAIMS THE CHILDREN AS TAX DEPENDENTS As a single parent, you might look forward to your tax refund each year. But rather than spend this money buying new clothes or electronics, save your refund and use it to pay expenses throughout the year, such as health care costs or child care. You and your ex might share child care costs, and this money can provide some needed flexibility; however, if you're planning on claiming a child to get a bigger refund, make sure you understand tax rules regarding dependents.
The IRS only allows one parent to claim a child, and only that parent can deduct child care expenses. To keep things fair, you and your ex can alternate years. Additionally, you won't be taxed on child support, but spousal support is subject to income tax. Therefore, you'll need to keep records as proof of income and save a percentage of each check for taxes. ___ ABOUT THE WRITER Valencia Higuera writes for GOBankingRates.com (<http://www.gobankingrates.com>), a leading portal for personal finance news and features, offering visitors the latest information on everything from interest rates to strategies on saving money, managing a budget and getting out of debt.