One of the main things I have learned since becoming a single parent is how to manage my money better. At the time when my husband left 6 years ago I had been the main earner in the home for several years, so I knew we could manage on my salary. What I didn't account for was that working such long hours to earn this good salary suddenly became much more difficult for a number of reasons.
First of all, I didn't get to see my girls as much as I would have liked and this had been an issue for a while before becoming a single parent, but as I was the main earner it was necessary for me to keep going. Secondly, finding extra childcare solutions was becoming costly and difficult. Instead of my now-ex husband picking the girls up from school or even taking them in the morning if I had an early start, it became more and more difficult to find ways of having them cared for by people I both trusted and could afford.
Finally, I was completely exhausted! Working full-time, caring for my two small girls (then aged 3 and 6) and running a home was just getting to be too much for me. Accepting that you can't Do It All is hard for someone who is used to being in control. But something had to give, and it took me a while to accept that things just couldn't continue as they were. My lovely girls, who had been so devastated by their Daddy moving out, had always been my first priority but here I was in a situation where I hardly saw them and was letting other people take care of them. So I decided that it had to stop.
Along with all the emotional fallout from the breakdown of our marriage, and the physical exhaustion of trying to keep everything going, I made a tough decision but one which I still stand by. I decided to ask for voluntary redundancy at work and take a career break to decide which way to go.
I had a small financial settlement which kept body and soul together for the next few months while I looked at my options. In the meantime I decided to volunteer at my girls' primary school and helped teachers out with lessons, listening to children read and photocopying. Lots of photocopying. But I really enjoyed it.
After 6 months I learned about a job for a part-time teaching assistant at another local school. I applied and amazed myself by getting the job. I've been there for 4 years now and it has been - for the most part - the happiest time of my working life. I love working with children and helping them to learn. Not only that but the hours are convenient, it's a local job so the commute is only 8 minutes door to door, and I get 13 weeks holiday a year. Yeah thirteen, count 'em.
Of course there is a downside. The wages are low, and for the first 3 years of being a single mum I didn't receive a penny of maintenance from my ex-husband, so as you can imagine, money was very tight. I'd always thought I was pretty good managing money, and was usually able to keep within a budget but this was something else. This was a change of gear, a lifestyle change and one I had to embrace - fast.
I was now earning a quarter of what I was earning previously, and had no second income from a partner to supplement it. I claimed some Working Tax Credits and Child Tax Credit (which is always worth checking out - you would be surprised how many people would qualify for them).
I started working out monthly budgets for essentials, and being brutally realistic about it. There was only so much money to go round and I had to make it work. And I did make it work, but I had to adopt some new money stretching habits to do so. Such as:
I worked out a monthly budget and stuck to it. Sounds so simple but it can be very hard to start off with. I made shopping lists and kept to them. I was always looking for special offers and discounts. Whenever I was tempted to buy something that was non-essential I asked myself these questions: Do I really need it? Will it mean forgoing something more necessary if I buy it? What would happen if I didn't buy it? More often than not I would walk away with my money still intact. Most impulse buys are non-essential, and you can usually figure out a way of living without it. The real problem is when you have to decide between putting petrol in the car and buying a new pair of school shoes for your daughter, and believe me I've been there.
I bought a set of screwdrivers! Seriously. I have a fully stocked toolbox with screwdrivers, hammers, a wrench and all sorts of spanners. And I'm not afraid to use them! It means I can do the odd little job around the house without paying exorbitant fees to someone else, and it also teaches my girls that women can do manual things too, in addition to saving the world.
The Teenager-in-waiting is now a dab hand at using a screwdriver and an allan key due to the numerous flat-pack items we have assembled over the years. Even though flat-pack is a pain in the backside, it's far cheaper than buying assembled furniture. It's also strangely satisfying to start with a few pieces of wood, a bag of screws and an instruction sheet and finish up with a functional piece of furniture. Don't be put off by it, it's worth it in the end!
I looked for cheaper ways of doing things. For instance, I had been longing to have a feature wall in my bedroom and had been storing some beautiful Laura Ashley wallpaper under my bed for two years for that very reason. I just couldn't justify paying a decorator to do it (and I can't wallpaper - I've tried, I can paint whatever you like but I can't hang paper). A few months ago I noticed that one of my friendly neighbours had a team of decorators in, so I had a quick word with one of the men. What would he charge to do this quick job for me? In the end he said he would do it during the two hours he had to wait for the paint to dry in my neighbour's house, and would only charge me £30. Bargain!
I learned to haggle . Now, I like a good haggle but I can imagine that some people would shy away from it. But if you have the cash for something, you can often get a good deal. I've haggled on electrical goods, carpets, furniture and even theatre tickets would you believe? I asked for their Single Parent concession, they didn't have one but gave me a discount anyway.
I did my research. Before I buy any household goods, shoes, books, or any major items I do some research. This is a buyers' market and once you have acknowledged that you only need to buy the things that suit your budget and meet your needs, then you can take your time looking for the right deal. I recently decided to buy a new TV but took 2 months looking for the best deal. After checking out different shops and websites I eventually found what I wanted online, and asked for free delivery - and got it.
All of these things worked for me, and although things are a little easier now these are still good rules for when I have too much month left at the end of my money.
For tips on healthy eating on limited budget: The Frugal Cook
For general money saving tips on almost everything: Moneysavingexpert.com
For discount voucher codes look at: Myvouchercodes.co.uk
For 50 money saving ideas try: Thisismoney.co.uk