7 Ways Single Parents Can Plan and Save for Retirement

Reviewed by Molly Moorhead, CFP®
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Your children are your top priority when you’re a single parent.

You work hard to give them all your time, love, energy — and money.

It’s natural to put your own financial needs on the back burner, especially when it comes to saving for retirement.

According to a research study published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, having multiple children in a single-parent household was associated with lower motivation to save for retirement — especially for single moms. Single moms are also less likely to contribute to a 401(k) plan at work.

About 68% of married women between the ages of 25 and 44 with one child said they have a defined contribution retirement plan — like a 401(K) — at work. In contrast, just 39% of single moms with one child had a 401(K).

It makes sense: Single parents have substantially fewer resources than childless adults or married couples. They also bear enormous financial responsibility that falls entirely on their shoulders.

But planning for your own future is just as important as securing your child’s future.

Here are seven things single parents can do to plan for retirement on any budget.

 1. Create an Emergency Fund and Get Your Debt Under Control

Before you start saving for retirement, create an emergency fund. This should be your top priority.

Most experts recommend saving at least three to six months worth of living expenses in a savings account.

Any money you save for retirement should be separate from your emergency fund. Think of your retirement money as untouchable and your emergency fund as a safety net.

Next, get your debt under control.

It’s easy to run up credit card debt when you’re a single parent. If you’re struggling to afford monthly payments, it doesn’t make sense to start saving for retirement.

“Debt that you can’t afford can be a huge hurdle as a single parent,” said Ann James, an accredited financial counselor and founder of Financial Freedom Battle Buddies. “You don’t want to have to pay for debt on top of all these other obligations you have.”

Trying to get your debt in check? Here are five strategies you can use to consolidate and pay off your credit card debt.

2. Make the Most Out of Your 401(k)

Putting money in a retirement account is the easiest way to save for your future.

Contributing to a 401(k) at work helps reduce your taxable income, which can lower your bill at tax time or even boost your refund.

A 401(k) is an investment account, not a savings account, so your money will grow over time.

If your job matches employee 401(k) contributions, then make sure to contribute enough to get that match.

“That’s free money,” James told The Penny Hoarder. “And the earlier in life you can start saving, the better. Time is your friend when it comes to long-term investing.”

If you’re not sure how to set up a 401(k), speak with your boss or HR department.

Or Set Up an IRA

Not everyone works at a job that offers a 401(k) plan.

If that’s your situation, look into opening an individual retirement account (IRA).

A traditional IRA works similarly to a 401(k) — the money grows tax-deferred and your contributions help you out at tax time.

The big difference is you can only open a 401(k) at work and you can only open an IRA on your own.

You can open an IRA at major brokerage firms, like TD Ameritrade, Vanguard, Charles Schwab and others.

Or you can use a robo-advisor like Betterment or Wealthfront. These online platforms automatically create a diversified IRA portfolio for you, based on your age and risk tolerance.

3. Set Your Savings to Auto-Pilot

You’ve probably heard the phrase “set it and forget it.” It’s a golden rule in retirement planning.

Life will hand you plenty of distractions, including financial pressures and responsibilities.

You’re more likely to reach your financial goals if you set up automatic, regular contributions to a retirement account.

This way, you don’t have to think about whether or not to save for retirement. It just happens automatically.

Any 401(k) contributions are automatically deducted from your paycheck. You can also easily set up recurring contributions with any IRA provider.

4. Only Save What You Can Afford Not to Spend

Your retirement fund isn’t your emergency fund. Any money you put in should be money you won’t touch for the next 20 or 30 years.

Only contributing what you can afford is the best way to avoid tapping your retirement fund ahead of schedule.

Experts say you should allocate 10%, 15% or even 20% of your income to retirement. But that’s not realistic for many people, especially single parents.

“It’s important to start where you are,” James said. “Even if it’s just $25 or $50 a paycheck, it’s OK to start small.”

It’s better to start small now and never access your retirement account funds than to contribute a big amount at first, only to draw down the money in a couple years.

Remember: Set it and forget it.

You want to avoid accessing that money because IRAs and 401(k)s come with early withdrawal penalties from the IRS.

With a few exceptions, you’ll face a 10% tax penalty if you withdraw money from a traditional retirement account before the age of 59.5. You’ll also owe income tax on the withdrawal.

You want to keep as much of your money as possible — not hand it over to the government. So be honest about what you can afford to contribute and stick to it.

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5. Explore Your Insurance Options at Work

Many employers offer health insurance and life insurance to their employees.

But if you’re a single parent, there are other types of insurance you should also consider.

Many workplaces also offer critical illness, disability and/or accident insurance. These low-cost policies can help cover you if you get hurt or need to take a leave of absence from work.

This is huge. Facing unexpected medical bills or losing your job can completely derail your careful retirement planning — and the rest of your life.

The good news is these supplemental insurance policies often cost just a few bucks each per pay period and the money is automatically deducted from your paycheck.

Plus, unlike some life insurance policies, these policies are usually guaranteed Issue, which means you don’t need to undergo medical questions or tests to qualify for coverage.

  • Critical Illness Insurance: This type of policy pays a lump-sum benefit if you are diagnosed with a covered illness, such as cancer, stroke or coronary failure. Many critical illness insurance policies cost $4 to $5 a paycheck while providing $20,000 or more of coverage.
  • Accident Insurance: This insurance pays you benefits for specific injuries resulting from a covered accident outside of work. You can use accident insurance benefits to pay medical costs, everyday expenses like utilities and replace your income if you need to take time off work.
  • Disability Insurance: Many employers offer short-term and/or long-term disability insurance at no cost. Enrollment may not be automatic, so make sure you select this type of coverage during open enrollment. These policies pay out a weekly or monthly benefit to help replace your income if you become disabled.

Each policy differs, so find out the rules and stipulation of the specific policy your workplace offers. For example, some disability insurance policies have a waiting period before benefits start paying out.

6. Do Everything You Can to Make More Money

Saving for retirement is going to be nearly impossible if you’re barely making enough money to survive.

Being frugal is important. But so is making more money.

Single parents already face an economic disadvantage because they can’t split the bills, pool resources or save as much money as a two-parent household.

The situation is even more challenging for single mothers because women — still, on average — earn less than men.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in 2020, women’s annual earnings were 82.3% of men’s. The gap is even wider for many women of color.

The easiest way to make more money long-term is to get a raise at work. The second easiest way to make more money is to get a different, higher-paying job.

Learning how to ask for a raise at work is important.

“No matter how long you’re at a job, you should always be open to learning new things,” James said. “Be OK with stepping outside your comfort zone, and don’t get complacent.”

Exploring educational opportunities is also important. See what certifications your company will pay for or check out free online classes.

“Always look for things that make you more competitive, no matter how small it may seem,” James said.

Re-entering the workforce? Check out these six tips from career coaches about how women can rejoin the workforce.

If you’ve been at your current job for a while and a promotion seems unlikely, start exploring other options.

You can also explore side hustles and part-time jobs.

“You can turn your passion or hobby into something that brings in income,” James said. “Especially now, there’s a lot of ways to make money online.”

Even bringing in an extra $100 to $300 a month can make a huge difference in how much money you can save for retirement.

You don’t want to hustle at a side job only to put that money toward babysitting. Here are 11 side gigs you can do from home.

7. Learn to Prioritize Yourself — Your Kids Will Understand

Many single parents want to save for their children’s college education.

But depending on your budget, it may be impossible to save for their future as well as your own.

It’s always smarter to prioritize your retirement over your kid’s education. It may sound harsh, but think of it this way.

If you don’t have any money set aside by the time you hit retirement age, you must either keep working (which may not be possible if you’re in poor health) or live off your Social Security benefits.

Those benefits might not be much, especially if you had employment gaps during your working years. You might be forced to live on $1,200 or less a month.

It’s extremely difficult to survive on that amount of money. You’d likely need to lean on your kids for help — move in with them or ask them for money.

Your kids may have less student loan debt if you save for their education — but you may become a financial burden on them if you don’t save for your own retirement.

Don’t feel guilty about prioritizing yourself. Be honest with your kids about how expensive college is and how you probably can’t afford to pay for it. Plenty of other parents are in the same boat.

You may not be able to help them out financially with college, but you can set them up for success in other ways.

  • Talk to your kids about how student loans work.
  • Explore grant, scholarship and work-study opportunities together.
  • Help them research affordable colleges and write their cover letters.
  • Look for free SAT/ACT prep courses in your community.
  • Stay in touch with their teachers and play an active role in their academic life.
  • Encourage them to take Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or dual enrollment classes in high school so they can start earning college credits. This helps cut the final cost of college tuition.
  • Not everyone needs to be college bound. Explore technical schools and trade programs, too. Many of these certifications provide pathways to lucrative careers.

If you’re saving enough for retirement and have extra money to save, then you can start building savings for your kids’ college. Speaking with a financial advisor who can help you design a strategy to save for both financial goals is a smart idea.

Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.