Women face several gender-specific obstacles when it comes to money. They may earn less than male peers (and thus have less available to save). Women typically live longer than men (meaning what they do save must stretch further).  And they’re more likely than male counterparts to pause or curb careers to care for children or elders, which can effect their lifetime earnings, retirement planning and, thus, investments.

Women, however, are increasingly becoming the primary breadwinners in the American households, according to Pew Research, which recently estimated that 40% of all households depend on a woman’s earnings. Among the 13.2 million women-led households, Pew estimates, more than 60% include single moms.  Whether never-before-married, divorced, or widowed, single mothers are a significant part of the population—and they face specific financial challenges, planners say.

“There are unique challenges for them,” says Rita Cheng, a financial advisor with Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Maryland. “They want to retire one day, of course, but they also want to help their offspring in every way they can—particularly with college. Moms can over-commit, though.”          

Make retirement saving first priority

“It may seem selfish to tell women to save more for themselves first, but it’s important,” says Cheng.

John Flavin, a financial advisor with Synergy Financial Management in Seattle, echoes the caution that mothers who don’t “put their own oxygen mask on first” when it comes to investment may do a disservice to both themselves and their children. Here are some approaches to financial planning that can help single moms maximize their own retirement while still protecting their kids.

That means it’s important to maximize retirement savings at work, chip away at emergency savings, and take advantage of catch-up contributions—the ability to invest at a higher level—once the kids have left the nest. While single mothers shouldn’t envision working forever in order to retire, they should model what delaying Social Security benefits and working a few extra years can do to make assets grow, both advisors say.

Keep cash reserves plentiful

While stocking away three to six months’ worth of living expenses in cash is standard financial planning advice for most adults, single mothers may want to err on the high end of that spectrum, Cheng says, since kids’ expenses are frequent.

“Things always happen,” Cheng says. “Someone always needs braces, or a car problem.”

If a mother must struggle to choose between stocking long-term savings reserves and retirement accounts, she can discuss with an advisor whether using a Roth IRA might be a good intermediate solution. Roth IRA accounts are designed for retirement and assets invested are subject to the market, however in an emergency situation the funds are accessible, she notes.

Analyze insurance choices carefully

Life insurance is of paramount importance for single parents, Flavin notes. Employer-supplied life insurance doesn’t always travel during a job change, he notes, so owning some supplemental life insurance can often be a good hedge against shifting policies—or investing independently in life insurance may be wise. For mothers in their 20s to 40s, it can cost as little as $30-40 per month, he notes, less than a cable subscription.

On another front, single mothers are wise to double-check disability coverage and, if necessary, invest in supplemental disability insurance or keep a cash cushion for disability. Disability insurance covers living expenses and time away from work due to injury or sustained illness, and can help a household sustain its lifestyle while the employed person recovers and prepares to return to work.

“Standard disability insurance covers 60% of pay. As an example, someone earning a $60,000 salary would receive $36,000,” Cheng says. “However, if part of how you earn money is by receiving a bonus, that isn’t typically included in disability calculations. If you’re earning $40,000 through base salary and $20,000 in bonuses, you’d only get $24,000.”

Stay disciplined about college spending

College spending is a trouble spot for many mothers. Often, both Flavin and Cheng say, single mothers are tempted to dip into their retirement savings to help reduce a child’s potential loan burden or to prevent their child from taking loans. But each mother needs to exercise discipline here—and engage their children in a realistic conversation about what support the mother can provide.

“I tell these mothers, ‘Don’t ever sacrifice your retirement because you haven’t exhausted all the research you could do into financial aid, grants, or scholarships,’” Cheng says, noting that she’s seen mothers dip into retirement savings when loans or scholarships were available.

If a mother has $300 she can put away for college each month for her child, that’s what she can put away, period, end of story,” says Flavin. “From there, the family can look into loans or scholarships or the student can take on loans.”

Understand Social Security benefits

For widowed single mothers, it’s important to know that widows with children under 18 at home can receive Social Security benefits even if they’re not yet retirement age. And if the children have flown the coop, they can receive Social Security survivor benefits starting at 60, Cheng says.

However, widowed mothers may be surprised to see Social Security stop when their children leave the nest, not to resume until the mother in question turns 60. Cheng refers to this as a potential “blackout” period on a woman’s income, which can create a cash crunch at a difficult time — in particular, when the children leave the nest for college or to launch careers.

Single mothers are a growing part of the population, and like all mothers they want to support their children and themselves concurrently.  But prioritizing their own retirement planning above their children’s anticipated major expenses (chief among them, college) may be necessary for mother and kids to succeed as a family.


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Jane Hodges

Jane Hodges

Jane Hodges is the author of Rent Vs. Own (Chronicle Books) and has written about real estate and personal finance for The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Seattle Times, Fortune and many other publications. Follow Jane on Twitter and Google+