How to Break the Always-Broke Cycle as a Single Dad

When I became a single dad, I struggled to make ends meet. These steps helped me break the cycle and get my finances in order—for me, and for my son.

Happy father carrying girl on shoulder while standing at home
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For me, becoming a single dad made it difficult to manage my money. I was no longer a dual-income household, and it felt like I'd never be able to get my head above water. From paying all the bills to providing food, toys, and clothes for my son, plus child support, it felt impossible to even consider any type of saving or investing plan. And I'm not alone: According to Kids Count Data Center, single-father families in my state made considerably less than the median income for dual-parent families, about $46,000 per year in 2012-2016. Personally, I was making far less.

In 2012, I was able to get sober from drugs and alcohol, and I was extremely broke during those first few years of sobriety. Not only was I doing my grocery shopping at the local dollar store, but I had no savings—and terrible credit.

Today, I'm financially secure, have a savings account, and my credit has improved so much that I was able to buy a car and actually get approved for a nice apartment. The process wasn't easy, but I took the following steps to break the always-broke cycle as a single dad—and maybe you can, too.

Patience and stress management are key.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was my own lack of patience. I wanted to fix my financial life instantly, and when it wasn't going as fast as I wanted it to, it made me want to give up. It felt like my experiences trying to diet; I'd do everything right, not see the results quickly enough, and then fall off the wagon and start eating junk food again. I noticed this same cycle start to happen when repairing my financial life. I had to step back and realize that each small step would compound over time.

Aside from patience, the other psychological battle I had to grapple with was stress. On a regular basis, I could barely afford to get by; I struggled to pay the bills, and this was undeniably stressful. I knew that I wasn't the only person with stress, but what I didn't know was that stress can actually make people make worse financial decisions.

The American Psychological Association published a fact sheet titled The Psychology of Scarcity that shows stress caused by scarcity can make us make poor money choices such as overspending and over-borrowing. For me, starting to incorporate de-stressing techniques such as yoga and meditation helped me avoid making more bad decisions.

Know your worth—and find a side hustle.

My goal has always been to get a job that was fulfilling and made me happy. But when trying to get on my feet financially, I needed to take whatever I could get. Regardless of the job I had, I needed to work hard—and overcome my fear of asking for a raise when it made sense. Far too many people stay at jobs for years and are too afraid to ask to get paid their worth. So even if it was a dead-end job that I didn't plan on staying at for years, I worked hard and let them know when I felt higher compensation was due.

Sure, I had some jobs that refused to pay me what I was worth, and in these instances, it was often a sign to start looking for a new job. But working hard and maintaining good relationships gave me a better chance of then transitioning to said new job with a good recommendation. Sometimes, of course, I didn't have that option—and that's when I realized there's never been a better time for a side hustle.

According to a Zapier survey published in January of 2021, about one in three Americans have a side hustle. As for me, I had an internet connection, so I knew there had to be a way I could bring in some extra income from home. I was working full-time, but I'd come home on days when I didn't have my son and do a few hours of freelance writing. This easily brought in an extra few hundred dollars each month, and sometimes more.

Live below your means and start saving

Aside from a lack of patience, the next big mistake I made for a long time was living above my means—from spending on things I wanted but didn't need to seeking some fleeting sense of happiness via a splurge. Eventually, I started to assess my buying decisions and why I was really purchasing certain things. Once that became habit, I was able to be smarter with my money.

For years, I'd only drive beater cars off of Craigslist that I bought for less than $1,000—and I'd drive them until they fell apart. I also lived in a tiny apartment for $450 a month, stopped eating out, and learned to cook.

With the money I was saving, I had to start setting it aside. Research shows that many Americans today would struggle to come up with $400 in the case of an emergency, and I didn't want to be in that position. But since so many Americans say that their lack of savings is due to debt, by making that switch to living below my means (ie with money left over rather than overspent), I was able to set a small monthly goal to put into savings. Even if I was only putting $100 or $20 per month into savings, it started to add up over time, which I appreciated. After all, I was learning patience.

Pay down debt and fix that credit.

It took me far too long to start saving, but it took me even longer to start paying down my debt and fixing my credit. With the money I was putting away in savings, I took a small portion to start paying down some debt. It was far from straightforward; there were times I thought I'd "made it" because I was making more money and had some savings—but then I'd go to apply for a new place just to find out that I had some $50 power bill in collections.

Finally, I decided to use free credit check sites such as to see what my credit score was and what was in collections. Whether it was an open line of credit or a collections agency, I could call them to see if I could haggle and work something out. What learned is that these places really dislike people who dodge them, and are a lot nicer when you reach out to them directly. I was amazed at how many collections I could pay off for a fraction of the price.

All of these strategies can feel overwhelming at first, but once I developed some good habits, they became second nature. If you would have told me five or six years ago that I'd end up with my bank accounts set up on automatic bill pay, I would have told you you were nuts. I was so broke I was always one purchase away from an overdraft. But not any more.

It was a long, difficult road, but it was worth it. So if you're a single parent—and, yes, even if your financial situation is as bad as mine was—don't give up. It will definitely take some time, but you can succeed in breaking the always-broke cycle with some hard work and discipline.

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