It was late 2011 and I was eight months pregnant when my husband moved into the guest room. My marriage was over, and I didn’t see it coming.
I didn’t have a job because we’d planned for me to be a stay-at-home mom, and I was living 1,700 miles away from family.
Plans change — that’s no surprise to anyone. And when I spent that first November night alone in bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering what was going to happen in the new year, I knew my plans had to change.
But one thing wasn’t going to change: my commitment to being at home with my baby.
I was losing my marriage and the future I’d counted on, but I wasn’t about to let it cost me precious time with my son.
Determining My Approach to Single Stay-at-Home Mom Status
I’d been working on building a freelance business earlier the same year, but it was nothing more than a side project at the time.
I had long-term plans of making a full-time income from freelancing, but not for years.
As it was, I didn’t have much focus and I earned an average of $300-400 per month — hardly enough to support myself, let alone the baby that was five weeks away from arriving.
But with some determination, a lot of sacrifice and a bit of luck, I was able to ramp up and keep working for myself — even though I was a single mom with no other income.
Two essential factors made it possible for me to work from home with a baby: marketable skills and a low cost of living.
Putting My Journalism Degree to Work
Because I’d been on the freelancing scene, I knew it was theoretically possible to make a decent income working part-time hours.
I’d already begun to develop a personal network of other freelancers, so I had models to follow and people who could answer some of my most basic questions. Between my journalism degree and the work experience I’d picked up in various communications roles since graduation, I had a solid foundation of writing and editing skills.
About a month after the baby was born, it was time to get serious about freelancing. I started with what I knew: academic editing and formatting.
Graduate students often needed help with formatting their theses or dissertations, and it never hurt to have another set of eyes on anything, either. I plumbed my networks for any referrals, which is how I ended up getting a lot of my work.
In the first three months of 2012, I brought in about $300 per month — the same amount of money as the year before — while working about 25% fewer hours. It was a step in the right direction, but not enough.
In the second quarter of 2012, my work fell off. I focused on maintaining my sanity as a new mother navigating a divorce that, in my case, also meant a cross-country move. After the move, in June, I dug right back into work.
After about a year and a half, those opportunities drew me out of academic editing (which I didn’t enjoy) and into freelance writing. I focused on freelance blogging, and once I started landing gigs, I never looked back.
Logistically, “working around the baby” wasn’t easy. I’d moved from Colorado back home to North Carolina for the family support (and a more affordable rent situation). But even with their help, it was challenging to manage my workload on top of home life with a baby.
I soon figured out there needed to be a distinct delineation between work I did when the baby was awake, and work I did when he was asleep or with a grandparent.
I didn’t waste valuable nap times doing things like folding laundry. That’s when I did client work and anything requiring real mental effort — with no exceptions.
Keeping My Expenses Low
As terrible as getting divorced was, I was fortunate to come out of my marriage with no debt and even a tiny cushion of about $3,000, thanks to an old personal injury settlement.
Having no debt gave me a tremendous amount of freedom. As long as I could find safe, low-rent housing, I could keep my overhead low.
For a while, I rented a small garage apartment from a family member in North Carolina. It ended up costing me about a third of what the rental house in Colorado had (where rentals are much more expensive than in North Carolina).
Then, beginning in 2014, I shared a place in the same town with a long-time friend who’d been looking for a roommate.
By that point, I was making about $1,000 a month in freelance income and receiving child support, which wasn’t a lot but covered a good chunk of the rent.
The single most effective thing I did for keeping my expenses low was putting myself on a cash budget.
I used the old-school envelope system, with the white envelopes and everything. It’s absolutely the reason I was able to stay out of debt — even when making less than $12,000 per year, including child support.
With the cash budget came the commitment to sacrifice.
I gulped down every bit of frugal living advice I could find, and did it all: I stopped buying new clothes and getting my hair cut. The library became my source of entertainment. I used discounted gift cards for regular purchases and everything we ate was made from scratch.
And, of course, I kept my 12-year-old car, instead of picking up a car payment.
It wasn’t easy, but it was absolutely worth it.
What Can You Do?
No matter where you are in life, there are things you can learn from my experience.
Get Out of Debt
This is the primary lesson — and do it as quickly as possible.
Debt will strangle any hope you have of succeeding during a long period of lean income, and you never know if or when that time might start.
Because I started out with no debt, I was able to raise a child as a single, stay-at-home mom on a very low income. A car payment, a credit card balance or a student loan would have made it impossible.
Build Your Network
Any time you’re looking for ways to make money or start a business from home, you need three things: a peer group, a mentor and a role model.
I started freelancing in 2010, but it wasn’t until I had all three of these pieces in place in 2014 that I made some real traction and began making decent money.
Look for people who can fill each of those roles, no matter what your business is.
Have a Plan B
Always, always, always have a Plan B (and C, D and E) ready to go in case your current life doesn’t go as expected.
You never know when or how your situation will change, and it’s best to be prepared for the bottom to fall out before it happens.
I didn’t have a Plan B, but my modified long-term plan filled the gap. After my first full year of freelancing, I’d brought in about $8,000 before expenses. It wasn’t easy, but it was enough.
And my story has a happy ending: At the end of 2014 — after three full years as a freelancing single mom — my stint as a broke single mom ended. I had my highest-earning month to date, bringing in more than $3,300… and I remarried.
Your Turn: Have you ever had to find a way to live and work on lean income?
Ashley Gainer is a writer, editor and coach. When she’s not writing for her clients, she’s teaching other at-home freelancers how to be successful. You can find her online at ashleygainer.com or on Twitter @ageditorial.