A Conversation With a Single Mom Living on $40,000 a Year

Mike: Why don’t you introduce yourself.

Single Mom: I’m 42 years old, divorced, and a single mom of three elementary school-age kids. I work in the administration of a non-profit. I live in a Maryland suburb of D.C.

M: How much are you currently earning at the non-profit?

SM: I earn $40,000 a year, and that is supplemented with child support that I receive from my children’s dad — about $1,500 a month.

M: Do you also have benefits?

SM: I have health insurance. It was a hard decision to make on whether or not to get insurance for myself. My employer pays two-thirds of the premium, but even the one-third I pay takes a significant bite out of my paycheck. I have it for now, but I may have to drop it. I don’t have any retirement benefits or anything.

M: There aren’t retirement plan options like a 403(b) or anything like that at the non-profit?

SM: No, nothing. I work for a very small non-profit. The budget and staff are both very small so the insurance isn’t even a group plan. I had to find my own insurance and I submit my premium bills to my employer.

M: How long have you worked at this particular job?

SM: I have been there since last August. I was working in the private sector prior to that, earning a bit more in salary and benefits but I was laid off. I was unemployed for just under three months before finding this job.

M: Do you have full custody of your three children?

SM: No, I do share custody of the kids. But I am responsible for paying all the child care costs, which has translated in practice to me paying all school-related costs: lunches, field trips, equipment, as well as the before and after care costs.

M: I’m sure that’s very difficult to do as a single mother living on your salary. How do you make it work?

SM: It is very difficult. I definitely live paycheck-to-paycheck and that’s not an exaggeration. My bank balance by payday is often $0. I have no savings at all. My priorities as far as bills go are rent and childcare. I am lucky that I don’t have a lot of credit card debt, but even without that I can’t always pay all my bills. I have a very strict budget that I stick to. I can’t always pay utility bills in full, but I have figured out how much I have to pay to keep the utility companies from shutting off my service. My gas usage is higher in the winter, but goes way down in the summer so I am able to catch up on that bill by the next winter. I rent a very rundown house in a good school system and pay below market rent. Even then I have negotiated that rent to keep it low — not asking for a lot of work to be done, doing work on the house myself, etc.

I have really learned to negotiate a lot. For the summer, I simply could not afford the cost of full-time care for all three kids — it was more than I earn! So I contacted the child care provider and was very frank about my situation and was able to work out an arrangement for payment that allows me to keep them in child care. Then there are bills that I just can’t pay. I was saddled with a large debt in my divorce and I have just no money to pay that with — I know it will catch up with me eventually but for right now my priority is keeping my kids sheltered, fed and cared for.

I can’t always pay utility bills in full, but I have figured out how much I have to pay to keep the utility companies from shutting off my service.

I stick to a strict budget as far as groceries. I make menus, never shop without a list and rarely have “treats” for the kids. Our big night is when I order pizza and watch a movie on Netflix. My kids are growing so fast and I really can’t keep up with buying clothes for three of them so I have learned to swallow my pride and ask for donations. I belong to a listserv of single mothers and just put it out there that I needed clothes and received a lot of donations which got us through the winter.

I don’t take vacations — alone or with the kids. We rarely go out and when the kids are with their dad, I don’t go out. It’s very isolating because not having any “extra” money means I can’t go out and socialize.

M: Can you break down some of the numbers for us? How much do you allocate toward rent and utility bills, child care, and things like gas and groceries?

SM: I pay $1,480 per month in rent, $1,386 per month in child care, and I usually pay about $75 to gas and electric, though as I said, my bills are often higher than that. I keep my groceries to $400 per month, and that includes things like toiletries and household supplies. One of my children has some medical issues so I pay around $100 in medication for him per month, I do have Internet and phone and basic cable, which is bundled and has recently gone up in price to $130 per month so I will most likely have to cut back that service in some way..

I try not to drive too much — I take the bus and metro, but that can even be expensive during peak hours. I have a prepaid cell phone and only pay $25 per month for that. My phone is very old but I am planning on keeping it for as long as possible because the plan will increase by $10 if I get a newer phone. I pay about $150 per month to credit card debt. One is a card that I have closed and I am paying off the balance. I am almost done paying it. I negotiated with the bank that issued the card to pay a lower monthly amount in but it has taken longer to pay off

M: Do you have student loan debt or other debt besides the credit card?

SM: Well, that’s complicated. I personally do not have actual student loan debt but while I was married, my husband and I consolidated our loans with the Department of Education. Since I had the loan with the DoE, we consolidated in my name. He got his master’s overseas with private loans so he had a lot of debt. In the divorce, that debt landed with me since it was in my name. So there is a $48,000 student loan debt that I have for an education my ex-husband got. I have been able to put it in forbearance and even deferment when I was unemployed but it’s in repayment now. I have not been able to pay one penny of that debt. I have to deal with it but it seems so daunting, I am just incapable of figuring out a solution.

M: Your ex-husband is not making an attempt to pay off that loan?

SM: No, he is quite happy that he doesn’t have to pay it!

M: That’s terrible. Is the loan sitting there accruing interest?

SM: Interest and late payments. I have been getting calls from the company recently and they offer to “help” me figure out a payment, but the reality is that I don’t have anything to give them. You’ll be happy to hear that the master’s my ex got has allowed him to earn a great salary, though!

M: It’s really unbelievable. Have you looked into legal help with it?

SM: I am in the process of looking into that. I have been trying to find the a copy of the original paperwork I submitted to consolidate, which would list the loans and prove that they are not mine. I no longer have that paperwork and the loan has been sold so it’s hard to figure out where that record is. I’ve also looked into Chapter 7 bankruptcy because I’ve recently read that in spite of popular belief, it can be possible to dispatch student loans through Chapter 7. But as I said, it’s so stressful and daunting — I’ve ignored it for too long. I’ll add that I only have a B.A. from a state school.

M: I’m glad to hear there’s some hope of getting that loan discharged. What did you study, and how much was your college education?

SM: I have a degree in theater — very useful, I know. But I started college at 17 and wasn’t ready so I dropped out. By the time I figured I better get a degree, I was so close to the theater degree and, since I was paying my own way, I figured that was better than nothing. I don’t really remember how much my education cost. I got a combination of grants and loans but it wasn’t much, as I said, it was a state school and I had in-state tuition.

M: You’re living paycheck-to-paycheck now, but has it always been like that?

SM: When I was married, things were definitely better. We were pretty solidly middle class. We had our financial struggles, but were doing fairly well. I used to have a savings and a small retirement fund, but I had to cash out and spend it during the divorce.

M: And I’m sure you’re really caught up living in the day-to-day, but do you also think about things like retirement? Do you no longer believe that’s an option, or are you figuring out a way to do it?

SM: I just can’t think about it. I know that I will be one of those people who works until they drop dead. It’s just not my reality. My priority is my kids and making sure they have a better future than I have. I feel like I’ve kind of just given up any thoughts of having a better life for myself, and really just try to focus on my kids.

M: What kind of life did you have growing up?

My priority is my kids and making sure they have a better future than I have. I feel like I’ve kind of just given up any thoughts of having a better life for myself, and really just try to focus on my kids.

SM: I was raised in a pretty typically middle class environment. My siblings and I weren’t spoiled but we never really wanted for much. I have learned in my adulthood that my father was not very good with money. He spent what he had and was no good at saving, which has left my mom in a less than great place since his death. I worry that I have inherited that trait. I mean, sometimes I wonder if I should be making my finances work better — if it’s not that I have a low salary and high expenses, but if it’s also that I am just no good with money.

M: But I think raising three children on what you are earning is quite an accomplishment and deserves recognition. Do you not agree?

SM: I do feel a sense of pride that my kids don’t know the struggles I go through. I am particularly proud of the fact that they never knew I was unemployed — nothing about their lives changed.

M: After your father passed, your mom was left in less of a great place because he wasn’t good with money. How is your mother now?

SM: I mean, he always managed to pay the bills, but he was a very generous guy too — he just didn’t plan and save for retirement. So my mother, who is in her early 70s is still working.

M: Are you close with your mother? Do you talk about money with her?

SM: I am very close to my mom (though not physically — she is in the Midwest with the rest of my family). I try very hard not to discuss my financial situation with her, though it comes up because I am not able to take the kids to visit, etc. We do discuss her finances a little and I know she’s not in a horrible place but just not in great place. I don’t like to discuss the extent of my financial struggles with her because I don’t want her to worry, and I don’t want her to feel the need to give me what little she has and needs.

M: Do you also worry about her? Since she’s still working?

SM: I worry, but see some of her problems as solvable, she is just hesitant to do things like sell her house and move in closer to my sister. That would be a big help for her. She is fairly good with money. I think she just never took charge while my dad was alive, and she seems to be doing OK. I do think she would prefer to stop working and she is trying to figure out a way to make that happen.

M: You said something pretty bleak before in that you have given up on having a better life for yourself, but talking with you so far, you seem like a very resilient person. I know that your income is the biggest barrier at the moment. Are you thinking about ways to earn more money? Do you have the spare time to look for a better-paying job?

SM: Yeah, I guess I am resilient. I feel like I have to be for my kids. I am always thinking of ways to earn extra income. I have often in my working life worked a part-time job in addition to my full-time work, but that was while I was married. It’s tougher to find the time now that I have blocks of time without another parent around. I would be working just to pay for babysitting. I would love a better paying job but have concerns about my tenure at jobs. I was not at my previous job very long (about 12 months) before I was laid off, and I haven’t been at my current job for a year yet, I want to build experience and a bit of longevity because I think in the longer term, that would help me get a better job or advance my career.

M: Do you have the sense that the situation you are now is not permanent? That you believe that there will be a time when you are no longer living paycheck to paycheck?

SM: Honestly, I don’t. I think about where other people my age are financially — home owners, retirement accounts, college funds — and the amount of catching up I would have to do just seems impossible. I do tend to think of my situation as just the way things are for me — not in a “victimy” way, I take responsibility for the life choices I have made that have put me here — but I think I am just too far behind in terms of financial health to ever be in a significantly better place.

M: You mentioned that things were easier when you had another parent around to help with parenting duties. Do you think having another partner to help out in the future is something that could happen?

SM: No, I don’t. For a variety of reasons. One of which is my financial state. I feel that I would be bringing someone down if I partnered with them, financially I mean, and I don’t want to do that. I mean, there are other reasons I’m not really looking for another marriage or partner, but the financial reasons are something I definitely think about.

M: What is your social life like? Are you able to do simple things like meet a friend for coffee?

SM: I don’t have much of a social life to be honest. It is a struggle to do even little things like meet for coffee or lunch and definitely no money for a night out. I live in the suburbs and my single friends live in the city and among my friends who are parents, I am really the only single person. So I’m kind of in a gray area in terms of friends and not having the means to go out doesn’t help.

I don’t have much of a social life to be honest. It is a struggle to do even little things like meet for coffee or lunch and definitely no money for a night out.

M: Because of this gray area, does that mean you’re lacking a support system that could help you do certain things? For example, having a friend who could look after the kids while you went on an interview or a networking event?

SM: For the most part, that is the case. I do have some neighbors and friends who have helped out on rare occasions, but really no one who could help on a regular basis. I don’t have any family in the area, as I said before.

M: Do you ever consider moving back to the Midwest to have a better support system of friends and family around?

SM: I would love to! I want to! But, because of custody laws, I am not able to relocate unless I gave up custody of my kids, which I would never even consider. I would love to be in the Midwest. It’s much cheaper to live there and I would love to be closer to my family.

M: That sounds like it would be ideal for you — to be able to move to the Midwest where things are cheaper and to have a family support system and your children with you. Is there no legal pathway to make this a possibility?

SM: Unfortunately, no. And I spent a lot of time and money trying to make this happen when my husband initiated a divorce. But the laws are such that unless my ex consented, I cannot take the kids out of the area to live. And my ex will not consent so I have to stay in the D.C. area.

M: So if your ex wanted to move, he’d have to get your consent as well?

SM: Yes, that’s correct.

M: I imagine it’d be difficult to convince him that moving would be good because it’d mean providing your children with a better situation?

SM: I really tried that approach during the separation/divorce process, but he was adamant that he wanted the children to remain in close proximity to him. And I do think it is important for the kids to have regular time with both parents, so I can see the point. But it was very difficult because I didn’t want to move to this area, but did because he got a job here. I mean that while we were married he got a job in D.C., I had no desire to move here, but did so to support him.

M: It just seems totally unfair that it appears like he gets to have things the way he wants them to be (though I know you already know this).

SM: Yeah, it was an eye-opening experience for sure. I try really hard not to be bitter about it.

M: I know you have to go pick up your children soon, but I would love to know if you see some tiny bit of light at the end of the tunnel — because I do think you are resilient and resilient people figure out how to get to a better place, even if there’s a bunch of hard tiny things you have to do along the way to eventually get there.

SM: Well, I guess the light is that my kids are fantastic and I really believe that they will have great lives and do the things they want to do. I struggle a lot, I do, and I think about what might have been or what I could have done but I guess at the end of the day if all I manage to do with my life is raise great, good people, then that’s a pretty big accomplishment.

M: I’d love to follow up with you maybe a few months or a year from now to see how you are doing if you are open to that.

SM: Yeah, that would be cool. I tend to hope for the best but expect the worse — so you never know, things could be better in a few months or a year. I’m sorry that this was so bleak.

M: Not everybody’s story comes with a tidy, happy ending. This is the reality of things, and I think it’s important that we can show that. So thank you for being so open and taking the time to talk to me.

Previously: Living on $15,000 a Year

Interested in having a conversation about what you do, how much you earn, and how you make it work? Get in touch.

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