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Q: I’m a 30-year-old woman and I don’t know how to budget my money. My abuser used to control our finances, but I need to pay bills on my own now—I left him a year ago. There never seems to be enough left in my bank account at the end of the month. I also have a young son I need to support. It’s starting to feel hopeless. – M.
Making a budget and sticking to it aren’t easy tasks, especially when you don’t have unlimited funds rolling in (let’s face it—none of us are Beyoncé). So, don’t be too hard on yourself. Focus on what you have been able to do—leave an abusive partner and start a safer, healthier life for you and your son. It’s been a year and you’ve managed to do life all on your own, so take a moment to celebrate that fact.
Now, let’s talk budgets. I consulted with Emma Johnson, former MSN Money columnist, founder of WealthySingleMommy.com and author of The Kickass Single Mom. She started her site after getting out of what she called “an oppressive marriage” and wanted to build a fuller, more successful life on her own. Johnson says it can be scary to examine your finances at first—many people, including herself at one point, choose to ignore money problems, hoping they might magically go away on their own.
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“If you’re coming out of a precarious situation, you may want to avoid your money situation,” says Johnson. “There were times in my life when I didn’t have any money. But once you get a grip on it, it can feel so good. It will give you such a sense of power.”
Granted, usually the word “power” is used in a negative connotation in regards to abusers, but in this instance, power over your finances is a great thing. Johnson says becoming financially stable will have a ripple effect in other areas of your life.
“When you have money in your pocket or bank account you’re making better decisions in your life. You’re making spending decisions from a place of confidence instead of fear, and you’re making career and relationship decisions for the same reason,” says Johnson.
To Create a Budget: In its most basic form, a budget compares what you bring in to what you send out. You can get out a pen and paper and start there, writing down your income and expenses and comparing the two. Simplistically put, “You want to bring in as much as possible and spend as little as possible so you can have some cushion,” says Johnson.
Johnson herself uses the free budgeting services on Mint.com to create and manage her household budget. The service pulls in data from all of one’s financial accounts, credit cards and bills and helps map out where money is going. It can also help find ways to save money by making recommendations and providing tips based on spending and income.
Other free automated budget services include the EveryDollar app from financial guru Dave Ramsey, PocketGuard and this free budget calculator from Quicken. You may also want to check out this super helpful free online learning module about budgeting your money from the Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse product.
To Stick to a Budget: OK, so now you’ve made your budget but you’re still struggling to make ends meet. Johnson’s advice is to review your income strategy. What matters most right now is that money is just coming in. No job is too small. Can you take on a second job? Or, get creative and monetize your skills—can you pet sit, create homemade crafts or baked goods to sell at a farmer’s market, design a website for a local small business, tutor students or hold a rummage sale? Find 103 more ways to make money from home here.
If you can up your income, says Johnson, even by a little bit, “you can start being more strategic because you’re going to be in a more powerful mindset,” she says.
Spend Smartly: Johnson says now is not the time to go back to school if you can’t afford it.
“The last thing I want people to do is go back to school and start racking up debt if they don’t have a clear vision for it. That’s a big mistake people make,” she says.
When it comes to spending money, Johnson says consider spending in ways that will make you money. For example, paying for childcare will allow you to take a job where advancement may be possible. Hiring a yard service means you can use that time saved to build a business. Even something like investing in a dishwasher means you’ll have extra time to complete a work-from-home job or spend quality time with your son.
At least once a month, review your budget to make sure you’re on track. Is your housing less than 30 percent of your income? Are you overspending on your car? “A car should just be a reliable ride. People get crazy about their cars,” says Johnson. “Right now, it’s about getting on your feet. Later, you can finance the car of your dreams when the numbers say you can.”
And, try to quiet the voices that say you need, need, need.
“We live in a culture where we say, ‘I need those shoes.’ You need some food and a roof over your head,” says Johnson. “You don’t need an iPhone. You don’t need cable. Money is power, and if you don’t have your own money, you don’t have control of your own life.”
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