A Single Mother Struggling to Budget Weighs the Balance Between Just Surviving and Really Living

UPDATED: June 8, 2023
PUBLISHED: November 15, 2022
Small Splurges

I never expected to be a single mom, but when my husband died while I was in my 30s, that became my reality, instantly reshaping not only my mental and emotional lives but my financial one as well. No longer part of a double-income family, I was left alone to juggle a career and two small children. We had been responsible with money, but I still wasn’t fiscally prepared for this loss. I wanted to ensure that my kids and I could stay in the neighborhood and home where we’d always lived—something that was hard enough when my husband and I were both working. It was almost impossible on my own. So, I had to learn to stick to my budget, which wasn’t easy, especially for someone who’d had to repeat a year of high school math.

I spent my first year of widowhood keeping obsessive watch over all our spending in what—in retrospect—was a futile attempt to control a life that felt uncontrollable. While my kids slept, I’d agonize over how much extra we could spend and still make all our bills. I quickly learned that with small children, every moment you are away from them costs money. If I wanted them picked up from school, or to go for a quick after-work run, I had to pay a sitter. For years, my life felt like an endless stream of paying teens in my building for a few minutes of alone time. It added up. But if I didn’t shell out the cash, I felt trapped. I quickly realized that paying for a few extra hours each week to exercise or go grocery shopping alone was worth the sanity it gave me. This was the start of my small splurges.

How did I rationalize spending money that put me slightly over budget? Somewhat strangely, I recalled a brief period in my teens when I joined Weight Watchers. I was 15 years old, and my body had changed and could no longer partake in my previously indulgent little kid diet, so I decided to take control of my eating habits. There, I’d heard about a woman who wouldn’t eat a slice of her anniversary cake because she was on a diet, but later, went into her kitchen and finished what was left of the entire cake, which was apparently quite large. This was something the meeting leader claimed wouldn’t have happened if she’d just allowed herself a little dessert. What I took from this is that, if we don’t deny ourselves small pleasures, we have a better chance of sticking to our main goal.

This advice stuck with me as I entered my second year of single motherhood. I soon began to apply it to other aspects of my life. After all, I reasoned, if I denied myself a run for budgeting purposes, I might wind up doing something like “binge” on an overpriced stationary bike that I’d never use and would clutter my small apartment.

That’s not to say I didn’t feel guilty about breaking the budget on a “running” sitter when I could have just worked out in my apartment while my kids played. But the greater part of me knew I was making healthy, balanced decisions. And not only did those runs make me more patient and productive, they also led me to run the New York City Marathon—an experience that taught me crucial lessons about endurance and self-reliance.

Even once my kids were older, I found other “small splurge” uses for the cash I’d once spent on babysitting. For instance, I was drawn to a scent a friend was wearing. When I went to buy it myself, I was a little taken aback to learn it cost over $200 for a little more than an ounce. I was someone who used inexpensive body mists, but when I sprayed the perfume on, I surprisingly felt different: happier. Even more confident. Was I so deprived that a simple spritz of perfume changed my sense of self? Maybe. Regardless, it’s still one of my favorite scents, and it’s a splurge I don’t regret.

Another example: A few years ago, I signed up for a meditation workshop. The one thought that kept distracting me from mindfulness—don’t judge—was that I needed high-thread sheets and a bright comforter. Right after the workshop, I purchased Egyptian cotton sheets and a duvet cover. Once I placed them on my bed, I found my room a bit brighter and my sleep much healthier. I know I probably should have had a more esoteric revelation during my meditation. But, like the perfume, this small, earthly investment satiated me.

These days, my biggest “little” indulgence is the way I use my credit card reward points. Friends—usually fellow single moms—have asked me why I don’t use these on sensible necessities such as school supplies or winter coats. I tell them the truth: that I love to blow all my accumulated points on luxury hotel rooms with my kids. Even if we spend the bulk of a vacation at a modest rental or motel, I believe this brief stint in five-star luxury nourishes my family. Of course, I never let them order breakfast there, because one breakfast for three could cost as much as a one-night stay at the budget accommodations we’ll move over to for the rest of our trip. But, for a brief period, we get to feel like VIPs. Well, OK, maybe more like Cinderella at the ball who must be out by midnight. But we get to live out our little fantasy until noon checkout.

And fantasy, I’ve learned, is important, especially when your default setting is a fiscally stressful reality and “hobbies” that include devouring articles on finance, budgeting, inflation and retirement. I have a Roth IRA and bonds; I refinanced my mortgage when the rates were low; I try to never carry credit debt; and I still drive a car I bought in 2006. I’ve tried to sock away the recommended six months’ worth of emergency savings, so far without success. I do have retirement accounts and 529s, though both have tanked, while my grocery bill (like everyone else’s) has crept up. I suppose there are a lot of lessons to be learned from these financial ebbs and flows. Maybe the most important one, though, is that money comes and goes from all of our lives, and we need to take pleasure where we can.

It’s a mindset I’ve worked hard to nurture, even while dealing with college tuition as inflation continues climbing. I still don’t indulge in these “mini luxuries” very often. But when I do, I no longer get upset that I went off budget. I’ve learned that small indulgences are as important as savings—that living is as important as surviving. 

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos by Boyloso/Shutterstock

Alison Lowenstein

Alison Lowenstein is the author of children’s books, guidebooks, and plays. She’s written for The Washington Post, Newsday, The Daily News, Huffington Post, Narratively, Lilith, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other publications and websites. You can find her at brooklynbaby.com and on Twitter @cityweekendsnyc