Mother and child holding hands

Fabulous financial tips for single moms

May 4, 2021
Empower Insights

For Shelly Wilkerson, being a single mom for eight years was one of the single proudest experiences of her life.

During that “busy but memorable” chapter, Wilkerson raised her oldest son by herself while also leaning on her close-knit family for extra guidance, support and inspiration along the way. There were ups and downs. There were highs and lows. And there were plenty of “I can do this” moments mixed in between.

From learning the ropes as a new parent to living off an individual salary, Wilkerson conquered every challenge.

“It’s all about making sacrifices,” says Wilkerson, who is set to get married this fall. “For me, it was well worth it.”

Wilkerson isn’t alone, of course.

There are nearly 16 million kids in the U.S. who are being raised without a father. In fact, more than 80% of one-parent families with children under the age of 18 are headed by mothers. On average, the median income for such households is less than half of what a married couple typically earns on an annual basis.1,2,3

“Was it tough sometimes? Absolutely,” says Wilkerson, an executive assistant at a higher education institution in Denver. “But it’s also very rewarding. You just have to keep moving forward and have a positive mindset.”

In Wilkerson’s case, staying strong started with taking pivotal steps to gain control of her financial situation.

Earning around $45,000 for most of her solo parenting stage while renting a two-bedroom unit at an apartment complex, Wilkerson focused on implementing multiple minor changes that would end up having a major impact on her budget. She rode the bus to the office. She packed her lunch Monday through Friday. She clipped coupons and searched sales. “I had to get creative,” she says. “I thought small.”

What else did she do?

If you’re ready to become a super-great single-saving mom, follow these thrifty financial tips from Wilkerson:


Parks, pools and perks.

In addition to enjoying the neighborhood playground and swimming hole with her son all summer long, both zero-dollar activities, Wilkerson took advantage of every bargain and discount she could find in her community. That included signing up for the promotional “free days” at the city zoo and the children’s museum and frequenting the public library to check out educational books, games and puzzles.

“Having fun doesn’t always have to cost a pretty penny,” says Wilkerson, who is now a mother of two boys. “Keep your eyes open.”

Boy selecting book at library. On image text, Having fun doesn't always have to cost a pretty penny.


It’s been said that “another person’s old stuff is another person’s treasure.” Wilkerson certainly was — and still is — on the lookout for used outfits, coats and shoes that could help put more money back in her pocket.

“Ask around,” she says.

Overall, parents in the U.S. can drop more than $1,000 per year on clothing for their kids.5 So, for Wilkerson, whenever her older sister was eager to unload large bags of hand-me-down clothes and toys that could benefit her son, she wouldn’t hesitate to accept. In her view, those items were as good as new.

“I never turned down anything,” Wilkerson says. “If something didn’t fit him, I knew that he would eventually grow into it.”


Every paycheck, every time.

For as long as she can remember, Wilkerson has automatically deposited $50 each pay period into a high-interest savings account for potential emergencies and future obligations. “It doesn’t seem like much, but it adds up,” she says. “I don’t even see those funds come out.” When her son was a toddler, she also began contributing to a flex spending account through her employer to help cover any medical bills.

“Kids get sick,” Wilkerson says. “It’s nice to have money available so you don’t have to worry about every copay or prescription.”


To Wilkerson, who currently owns a house with her soon-to-be husband, working out on a regular basis has always been a top priority. Prior to the birth of her first son in 2008, she would shell out at least $60 per month for a regular membership at a premier fitness chain — which is right around the national amount.4

After he was born, though, she traded in her yearly commitment at the trendy gym for a cheaper deal at a local recreation center, which also offered free daycare so she could break a sweat without breaking the bank.  

“It wasn’t as fancy, but it did the trick at half the price,” Wilkerson says. “Plus, it also provided a lot more flexibility.”


When it came to buying holiday gifts to put under the tree, waiting until the last minute was, well, a last resort. “I started in August,” Wilkerson says. “I didn’t want to feel that pressure of paying for everything all at once.”

To conserve cash, Wilkerson applied a slow and steady strategy for rounding up presents for her son, who is almost a teenager. One present here, another package there. The drawn-out approach allowed her to avoid relying on a credit card for impulse purchases and racking up new debt each winter season.

“I wouldn’t go overboard with my shopping and I wouldn’t get stressed out,” Wilkerson says. “That was a win-win for me.”

Start saving today with an Empower Investment Account

1 U.S. Census Bureau, 2019.

2 Gretchen Livingston, Pew Research Center, “The Changing Profile of Unmarried Parents,” April 2019.

3 Single Mother Guide,, August 2019.

4 Alyssa Oursler, USA Today, “Is your gym membership a good investment?” April 2016.

5 Mark Lino, U.S. Department of Agriculture, “The cost of raising a child,” February 2020.

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