Society doesn't put a lot of pressure on women to be financially savvy. For every one expert on financial security for women, their must be hundred's on weight loss, wrinkle reduction, cooking, cleaning, crafting and other more 'feminim' pursuits. When I was in school back in the 90's, "home economics class" was baking a cake and sewing. Is that still the curriculum? Home economics is more than managing a tidy house and it's important to be educated on your financial situation - at all times.
I was raised in a turbulent household where my mother divorced my father, we moved across several oceans where she remarried and divorced again. She is now on her forth marriage and things look like they'll last but she still keeps her options open, while nearing 70. Yet, through her multiple divorces, blended marriages where I lived with step, half and ex-step children under my single mother's roof (6 or more at any one time), my amazing tiger of a mother kept all of us clothed and fed, in a home near good schools and eventually sent most of those children to college (thanks to a decent understanding of tax law and ability to secure college loans).
During my childhood, I remember a lot of late nights, my mother, under a single lamp and a tower of bills, cutting coupons on the weekends as a family activity, filing for every bid of financial aid available and just barely getting by. I have strong memories of her crying over bills not paid, support not on time, the thread by which we were hanging outside of poverty and homelessness always a threat. The bitterness and sadness in her heart. It affected me to the core.
The lessons I've learned about money and financial security come mostly from my mother and here are her words of advice over the years. The rest I've picked up along the way.
#1. No one knows the future. You can hope for the best but prepare for the worst:
Hoping he'll be generous is compassionate and a bit naive. Not even looking at your financial position until walking out is willful ignorance. As a woman, we need to be responsibility for our own financial well being not just when divorcing but always. I have friend who became a widow unexpectedly just six months are her son was born. You just never know what happens so be prepared at all times.
#2. Educate yourself on the principles of home mortgages, taxes and retirement plans:
Financial planning should be a course required for high school graduation but it's not. And it's a shame. Simple things like preparing your own taxes, benefiting from credits and deductions, buying a home and saving for old age are really basic and important skills. Not just for you but for your children. So find a consultant, research online or get advice from someone you trust. Don't be clueless. It's irresponsible.
#3. Work and save. Pass the lesson to your children:
Pretty simple advice but not the easiest to implement, depending on your situation. From the time I started working, I stashed 15% of my salary into a retirement account and maxed the employer contribution. I didn't use credit cards. I lived below my means and saved instead of buying into the consumerist trap. My own tough upbringing scared me for life about not having money and saving for a rainy day. It's this bit of savings, investment and unemployment benefits that keep me afloat right now.
#4. Explore all your resources including government programs:
I'm not living in the states right now so perhaps my perspective is unusual but here it is. There is no shame in seeking support from any resource available if it adds security. I am lucky to live in France where unemployment and single household benefits are high, child care is largely state sponsored and social services are means tested for cost and of very high quality. The French believe it's a right, not an entitlement to have health care. Politics aside, get the support you needs from all the resources available so you can provide the best you can for your children. Get help if you need it.
#5. Have a strategy, not a tactic:
This used to apply only to wars but now is often used in a corporate context. In real life, this means plan your long terms goals and how you want to reach them. Once you know your goals, plan your actions as the needs arise and while staying focused on the long term goals. I know a woman who recently separated and went back to school. Great idea but she changed her major several times, had dreams of becoming fluent in German for no apparent reason and now two years later is worse off than she started because she incurred more debt. It's not fun or sexy but it feels good to have financial security. Strategize accordingly.
#6. Stop feeling guilty. Having less money can even benefit your children:
Some of the strongest people I know come from families who faced financial adversity. A friend of mine was raised by a single working mother who received no child support from a fabulously wealthy ex. He had other children afterwards who are in and out of rehab, never had jobs or graduated college...while she has a career she loves and is financial secure on her own. Her mother taught her that. My mother taught me the same and you can teach your kids.
#7. Don't use the court system as punishment:
Or out of principle. Or spite. Go to mediation if it's an option. Lawyers are expensive. Court is expensive. Anyone telling you to fight for every nickle should be ignored. You need to weigh your options and spend your money wisely. Child support orders can be changed at anytime if circumstances change. Preparing battle lines for a drawn out fight needs to be balanced with what money you have and how you'll manage in the future. This was the advice from my lawyer. I trust him more because he'd rather give me good counsel than have a client in debt.
#8. Remember that money really doesn't buy happiness:
Young children don't notice money. Lots of fun things (sheet forts, imagination, libraries, time together in nature, card board boxes) are totally free. Older children can learn from your knowledge and experience about saving, planning, managing your finances and living within your means. Don't get me wrong, having money makes life easier in general. More money means less worry, stress and hardship. Earning a living, especially for a single mother can be hard but don't let that overshadow the most precious thing you can give your child, love and attention.
I'm a child of an immigrant, minority, single mother who raised seven children, mostly on her own. I'm now raising a three year old on my own. Financial security is about chances, choices and opportunity. You can't do anything about the first one but you can take full responsibilty for your choices and be prepared for opportunity.