I'm a Single Foster Mom—Here's How I Budget for Retirement, Meals and More
I'm a single mom by choice who lives in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula. At first, I knew very few single moms in my small town—and then came the pandemic. Luckily, that first awful spring, I was welcomed into a weekly Zoom support group with single foster moms by choice, who have taught me so much—from sleep training to weighing childcare choices to, inevitably, budgeting.
In fact, single foster moms are some of the most extremely financially savvy people out there. After all, they've had to be; they're educators, foster care workers, and social workers raising two to three kids each on a single income—and they often foster additional kids along the way.
Ahead, three of these single foster moms—Amy, Ashlyn, and Denise—share how they've saved for retirement, funded their kids' sports and activities, saved on weekly grocery runs, paid for vacations, and more. They offer tips that any parent can apply to trim their budget, save more for college and retirement, and, most of all, leave financial worries behind to focus on enjoying time with their kids every day.
- Related: Becoming a Single Mom By Choice Increased My Earning Potential
Amy: Foster mom to two kids, ages 4 and 8
Reduce, reuse, recycle—and save.
"I don't produce a lot of trash," Amy tells Parents. "I focus on recycling and composting, so I have about one kitchen-sized trash bag a week." Instead of paying for trash service, she drives her single trash bag over to her parents' condo each week and throws it in with their bins.
Buy in bulk and be choosy about organic.
Growing up, she says, her parents always saved money on snacks by buying in bulk and then divvying it up into small baggies themselves. "I wash out all my Ziploc bags," she says, "and reuse them a million times... I have a lot of smaller Tupperware containers that I use for things that other people might use plastic bags for."
While she mostly buys conventional produce, she pays attention to the EWG's Dirty Dozen list, and usually buys organic the top 12 fruits and vegetables on that list. "A peach you might want organic, because of the thin skin, but you don't need an organic watermelon," she says. "So, I'm more judicious about that."
Shop sales and freeze.
Amy also keeps an eye on grocery sales. One of her kids, she explains, goes through phases with his favorite foods and is very into cheese right now. "So, every so often, Kroger has a great deal on cheese, so I'll just buy 32 ounces or 62 ounces of cheese, or the thing we're using a lot of. If you keep the packages closed, or freeze it, it'll last awhile." She also keeps an eye on what's about to go bad in the fridge, and throws it into the freezer until they're ready to eat it. "Even bananas that go brown," Amy adds, "you can put in the freezer and then take them out later for smoothies."
And when certain foods are in season in Michigan, such as strawberries, Amy will pick a lot, and then lay them out on a pan and freeze them to eat all year; they're "way better than what you get in the grocery store."
Shop secondhand the easy way.
Before buying anything new, Amy checks EBay and Marketplace first, "I don't have time to be thrifting," she says, "but I do have time to do that." She notes that you can often find what you want on these sites new, in unopened packages.
Buy ahead and keep a gift stash.
When buying presents for her kids and their friends' parties, Amy says she always plans ahead. She buys things on sale and then saves them for when they're needed. "I almost never go out and buy something for someone's birthday," Amy explains. "For a party we went to yesterday, I found one of the unopened toys we have in our stash, wrapped it, and brought that."
Get smart about points.
Amy's also a savvy user of credit cards. "I pay my homeowners' insurance and auto insurance all in one lump sum in October," she explains. "I asked my father what kind of credit card I should get to pay off this two thousand dollar bill. I always pay off my credit cards and know I can get rewards. So, he found a credit card that, if you spend 3,000 in the first three months, you get 150,000 points at a hotel chain—which is a lot of nights."
She emphasizes that this only works if you're going to pay off the credit card right away. She's also figured out that if she buys what she spends on Amazon as gift cards from a gas station that offers fuel points when you spend there, she'll get a dollar each off 35 gallons of gas. "The system is made for you to do this," she says, "but nobody has the time and energy to figure it out."
Ashlyn: foster mom to three kids, ages 2, 3, and 5
Seek out sales and secondhand items on social media.
Ashlyn says she relies on Facebook sales groups where "people post sales all day long." She buys all the kids' Christmas and birthday presents there, well ahead of time, so she can spend a bit at a time, and gets everything at a discount.
Her kids are still little, so she gets "a lot of hand-me-down clothes from friends, so I don't spend a ton on clothes."
Spend on simple meal planning.
Since Ashlyn doesn't love to cook, she buys meals from a friend who owns a meal-planning business, and "always [has] simple stuff on hand (mac and cheese, lunch meals, pasta and sauce, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, taco stuff)."
Denise, foster mom to six-year-old twins
Denise describes herself as "very budget-conscious" and has amassed an impressive retirement fund already.
Get out of the restaurant habit, and use what's on hand.
Denise preps meals at the start of the month using illustrated recipes from 5dinners1hour and rarely eats out. "We go to a restaurant maybe once a month," she says. Instead, "I meal-plan with the kids. I have a bunch of recipes, and we put them all out [on the table]. They pick two meals, and I pick one meal. And, I think about what I have in the house. If we have a bunch of chicken, I'll only give them chicken options….If I need to, I'll make a small shopping trip for soup, or seasoning or something."
But since she buys in bulk, she usually has the meat in on hand. "I'll buy 10 pounds of hamburger or chicken at a time." Denise has two extra freezers in the basement—a deep-freezer primarily for meat, and a smaller freezer for the month's prepped frozen meals, along with kid-staples like chicken nuggets, cheese, French fries, "which I also buy in bulk."
Streamline kids activities to cut costs.
To keep their busy lives manageable, Denise says she "has the kids do one activity a season." Right now, the kids are playing flag football together, and this summer, they did basketball camp. Denise explains that since most people don't use sporting equipment heavily, she can usually find necessities like a great pair of cleats used.
Include gift cards in your advance stash.
Like Amy, Denise goes to Marketplace and Ebay to buy new and unopened gifts ahead of time and saves them as occasions come up. Around Black Friday, she says, Target has 10% off their gift cards, "so I'll stock up on those and always have 10- or 15-dollar gift cards around the house and throw those into a card."
Minimize holiday spending.
Every winter, Denise and kids travel to Arizona for vacation—their big annual trip. "Because we do bigger things on Christmas, I don't do a whole lot for the other holidays," she says. "At Easter, they each get a basket with candy, but they don't get big toys or anything like that."
Get smart about credit cards.
Denise, too, uses a credit card that offers benefits. She puts all her bills on her credit card, knowing she'll pay it off every month, and only uses a card that offers cash back. She banks the money, and cashes it out at the end of the year, usually ending up with about $800. "I always plan for that money," she says, "so one year it was plane tickets, the first year I had the kids, I used the money for a huge Christmas. I call it my secret savings because it's my bonus money."
Don't keep up with (or pay heed to) the Joneses.
"Don't listen to other people's nonsense," she says. "Use your money for what you think is important, and prioritize. I pay more than I used to for a car payment because I have three dogs and two kids….Some people want to prioritize going out once a week or once a month and getting a sitter. That's fine, just budget for it."