Five financial essentials for single parents

  • One of the biggest challenges for single parents is learning to balance competing financial demands.
  • A financial plan protects single-parent households against the unexpected, takes care of kids and lets parents retire.
Father and daughter in kitchen
Westend61 | Westend61 | Getty Images

Single parents, whether by choice or the divorce or death of a spouse or partner, have one thing in common.

The fall-back position of a second income or a safety net is often nonexistent.

All parents love their children, but single parents are particularly heroic, says Ken Moraif, a certified financial planner and senior advisor at Money Matters.

And for some, that devotion can slip into sacrifice, especially when money is tight.

That can be a slippery slope.

"They [sometimes] seem not able to say no to a child," Moraif said.

Always saying "yes" to the latest sneakers or video game can convey a lack of financial discipline to kids.

Another unintended consequence: when single parents put their children ahead of their own retirement needs, says Beth Sweeney, a managing director and wealth manager at Steward Partners.

Breaking the budget puts them at risk of having to retire later than they might have, if they had set more aside.

Designating a guardian, especially for parents who are single by choice, is crucial. So are these five financial moves.

1. An emergency cushion

Moraif compares financial planning to building a house. You start with a good foundation, because everything rests on it.

A solid emergency fund is the first step. You'll need three to nine months' expenses to cover you. "Losing your job or being unable to meet some unusual expense will put you in a dire situation," Moraif said.

Calculate a month of expenses, and go beyond the fixed costs of mortgage, utilities and car payments, says Sweeney. Remember to add whatever costs the kids have each month, which can be sports and activity fees, school lunches and transportation, and clothing or school supplies.

2. Insurance

You'll need insurance for everything that has the potential for financial harm: your car, home, health and life.

"Insurance is even more important than saving for retirement or college," Moraif said.

Ask yourself how your family would cope financially without your income. Life insurance is one way to build an estate when you don't have one, Moraif says.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that insurance given as a workplace benefit is enough. An insurance policy that provides a couple of times your income is most likely inadequate, according to Sweeney.

Your income can also be lost through illness, so disability insurance is worth considering.

3. Specific savings goals

The things you'd like to do for your family — buy a house, pay for college, plan a special vacation — most likely have different timelines. Moraif recommends sorting them into near-, medium and long-term, for distant goals such as retiring. Your looming goals will take place within five years.

"The big picture is how to allocate among these three accounts." -Ken Moraif, CFP, Money Matters

How you invest these three buckets of money depends on the time horizon. If you have decades before you retire or pay tuition for a newborn, you can take on more risk, Moraif says.

"The big picture is how to allocate among these accounts," Moraif said. At a minimum, review them once a year to see if the amounts you're putting in each — and the investment strategies — still match your goals.

4. A set savings percentage

There's no magic number that works for everyone. While the recommendations are to save at least 6 percent of your income, and some experts recommend saving 9 percent, that isn't always possible.

"If you can only save $30 a month, don't be hard on yourself," Moraif said. Forming the actual habit of saving, and how long you save for, is just as important.

Moraif recommends saving even as little $10 a month — but with the idea that you'll increase the amount when your finances permit.

A good rule of thumb is to put away 10 percent of your gross, not take-home, pay, according to Moraif.

"Hopefully, you will get increases in income, and you'll increase your savings with each one," he said. Developing that disciplined habit of saving can help you accomplish a lot of financial goals.

5. A retirement plan

The less someone makes, the less she or he will need in retirement, Sweeney says. The opposite is also true.

Given savings and Social Security, achieving a 50 percent replacement of income, will probably be enough for people with modest salaries. But someone who earns $100,000 will be more likely to want 85 percent to 90 percent of income, according to Sweeney, and they will have to sock away more.

In short, the more you have, the more you need to save because you're used to spending more.

If you have access to a workplace retirement plan, absolutely contribute in order to get the match, Sweeney says. "It's free money."

No workplace plan? Set up an individual retirement account and make the deposits automatic, the way it is in a 401(k) plan or 403(b).

"Scout information on the internet or meet with an advisor to decide between a traditional or a Roth IRA," Moraif said. "But don't agonize over choosing the right one."

Actually saving is more important than the type of account, Moraif said.

More from Personal Finance:
Why ghosting a prospective employer is a big mistake
Your next raise could be bigger. Here's how to get it.
Five ways to make money overseas besides travel writing or teaching