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5 winning money strategies for single parents

Life has a funny way of not turning out exactly how we planned.

If you recently became a single parent because of divorce or death of a spouse or partner, you may feel like your whole life is spiraling out of control, including your finances. But going through it solo doesn't have to result in financial free fall.

Here are five tips to help you regain and maintain control of your money:

Know your budget

Identify your new household income and recurring expenses, like rent, utilities and child care.

"Single parents often face even greater pressures when it comes to prioritizing because they are often working off a single income and stretching themselves even thinner," said financial journalist Kimberly Palmer, author of "SmartMom, Rich Mom."

"You can't manage your savings account if you first don't know where all your money is and where it is going."

Set up automatic bill pay to help you stay current with recurring payments and avoid late fees. Check out online tools like Mint and Level Money that can help you track your income, expenses and manage your savings.

Build emergency savings

You, more than others, never know what the future may hold, and what curve balls and unanticipated expenses may come your way. Try to have enough money stashed to cover six months of living expenses. Keep the money in an account that is separate from you regular checking account so you're not as tempted to dip into it for nonemergencies.

Taking advantage of benefits that may be available through your employer, including wellness plans and flexible spending accounts, could also save your family hundreds of dollars a year, freeing up extra cash that can go into your savings account.

Create an estate plan

Making sure you have adequate life insurance, having a will and trusts, and naming guardians for your children are critical when you are a single parent.

"It's something people don't consider because they just think about covering the basics," said financial advisor Ivory Johnson, founder of Delancey Wealth Management in Washington.

"It's important to make sure that the people you want to manage your child[ren's] money are able to do that. That may involve setting up a trust. If you have young children, make the trust the beneficiary of your life insurance policy," he said.

Johnson, a single father of an 18-year-old son, says disability insurance also becomes even more important when you are the sole breadwinner.

Don't forget your own security

If you need to make a choice between saving for retirement and paying for college, choose retirement unless you are willing to work longer. Your kids can get grants, scholarships and loans for college.

"Even though our instinct is to always put our kids first, with money we really have to prioritize getting our own finances in order before we can even think about saving for our kids' future college tuition," Palmer said.

Ask a pro

Find a nonprofit credit counseling agency that will help you for free or at a low cost. Consult with a financial advisor, too. Websites for the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors and Financial Planning Association can help you find advisors in your area with specific experience dealing with family finances or single parents. Your employer also may provide access to financial professionals as part of your benefits package.

And have a real conversation with your kids about what you can afford and what your financial goals are now.

"Don't kid yourself thinking you can do everything if the numbers aren't there," said Johnson, whose son will be a college freshman this fall.

Your children will likely understand more than you think about the choices your family now has to make.