Why It's Important to Pay Yourself First as a Single Parent

These are the top four reasons experts say it's important to pay yourself first as a single parent—and tips to make those self-payments happen.

As a single parent, it may seem selfish to prioritize yourself over your child or children, especially financially. In my experience as a financial coach, feelings of guilt and anxiety are not uncommon when clients can't afford to get the things their kids want or need—or maybe they have more than enough money and feel tempted to overcompensate for being the only parent present in their child's household. But although it may sound counterintuitive, paying yourself first as a single parent is actually one of the more selfless things you can do for your children—when you do it strategically and consistently.

Why? Ensuring your own financial wellbeing relieves your kids of the potential future burden that comes with caring financially for an aging parent. That said, the idea of paying yourself first is not to say you should shirk the other financial responsibilities that come with parenting; it just means you prioritize making room for your own financial wellness—today and into the future.

Financial coach Steven Stack, CFEI, tells Parents that he pays himself first "because there are no scholarships, grants, or loans for retirement. As a parent, my goal is to be a source of aid and support to my children instead of a burden in my advanced years."

Even if you aren't planning for a lavish retirement, paying yourself first can be the difference between making ends meet or struggling to accomplish the most basic of financial tasks.

"Life looks a lot different when little people are depending on you," Tiffany Grant, a financial wellness facilitator and host of the podcast Money Talk With Tiff, tells Parents. "Be sure to keep them top of mind with any decision that you make, financial or otherwise. You are the main financial role model your kids have, and paying yourself first sets a good example for when they find themselves in your shoes later on."

An image of a close-up of money in a pocket.
Getty Images.

Ahead, the top four reasons experts say it's important to pay yourself first as a single parent—and tips to make those self-payments happen.

Retirement planning falls on you alone

As a single parent, retirement might be the furthest thing from your mind today—which makes it very easy to fall into the trap of trying to save what's left after spending, and ultimately ending up playing catch-up in your later years. As Stack shared, your lack of savings for yourself can eventually become a burden on your children, who likely will have to balance the responsibilities of their own retirement planning and child-rearing in addition to wanting to help their eventually-elderly parent.

By establishing the discipline of paying yourself first, you can start tucking money away for your own future by saving before spending on expenses; both your and your children's future selves will thank you for being forward-thinking. A popular way to do this is using automation in your direct deposit to send a predetermined amount or percentage of your income into a separate account that is solely for this purpose.

It creates boundaries and sets an example

As a single parent, the burden for you to fulfill the every need of your child may come at the expense of your personal happiness and fulfillment. I've worked with parents who simply don't feel like they can afford to invest in the things that make them happy because of their financial obligations, largely including childcare.

The act of paying yourself first not only establishes a financial boundary, but a mental one. It's one that says: You deserve to take care of yourself, too—even if only in order to be more present and equipped to care for your children.

It also demonstrates a behavior that can be an early lesson in personal finance for your children, who will also benefit from being taught to pay themselves first. They will likely pick up behaviors they witness you exhibit; seeing you establish financial boundaries can jump-start their understanding of what those boundaries are, as well as how to establish their own.

Your self-savings can help in the event of an emergency

A problem many single parents face is that supporting a household on a single income only increases the amount of financial pressure, compared to parents in dual-income households. According to MIT's Living Wage calculator data, single parents face the greatest struggle to make ends meet, and financial pressures vary by state; a single parent with just one child needs at least $62K to make it work in California.

So it's no surprise that added emergency expenses, if not properly planned for in advance, can interfere with said single parent's day-to-day budget—and can put additional stress on not only the single parent, but the children as well. Paying yourself first can ensure you build a healthy emergency fund in addition to retirement planning and recreational spending—all within a budget that also accounts for the recurring expenses needed to maintain the household (after money is set aside for you, that is).

  • Related: I'm the Sandwich Generation: Here's How I Care for My Toddler and Mom With Dementia

You can help pay for your child's education (if you want)

After all of your financial boxes are checked off (i.e. emergency fund, retirement, etc.) you may want to aid your child in covering costs associated with higher education. Paying yourself first is the personal finance gift that keeps on giving; that is, if your savings earn you compound interest. Not all savings accounts pay interest on savings balances and those that do may pay a low rate.

Learning about ways to invest your savings in a way that aligns to your risk tolerance is something a financial planner or advisor can help you with. While it certainly isn't your responsibility or obligation to cover costs associated with college, it's a bonus to know you can help if you want to.

Paying yourself first is an important part of discipline in managing your personal finances for anyone; as a single parent, it's paramount. You want to have something to show for all your hard work, and the sacrifices you make for your children. Paying yourself first is the easiest and most effective way to achieve that.

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