Asking for a Friend//

I Make Less Money Than Most of My Friends. How Can I Keep Up?

Being a single parent can be stressful, but a Gottman therapist says it’s important to be honest with your kids, and shift your mindset around giving.

AlinaBu Photo/ Shutterstock
AlinaBu Photo/ Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

Q: As a single mother, I’m proud of how I’ve been able to raise my kids, support us, and maintain a career — but I can’t help but always notice that my friends are more comfortable financially than I am. I haven’t had a problem paying for my kids’ tuition or paying rent, but when less important expenses come up, like vacations or new back-to-school clothes, the stress pours in, and I feel like I can’t give my kids what a lot of my friends can. Should I be open with my children about my feelings on this, or would that be putting too heavy a weight on them? And how can I keep up without telling my kids we can’t afford what their friends have?

A: I think very few people, other than single parents and some adults who were raised by them, realize what a difficult journey and an amazing accomplishment being a single parent truly is. I hope you can honor yourself for steadily maintaining your career while raising your kids, and also offer yourself compassion for how tough balancing all of that can be.

In our hypercompetitive, often materialistic culture, it is easy to get swept up in the keeping up, and feel stressed when you can’t give your kids what others can. But although there’s no question that it’s not a level playing field for most single parents, perhaps “How can I keep up?” isn’t the best question to be asking.

First and foremost, I would encourage you to focus on what you can give your kids. Sometimes, a small mindset shift can help you see that providing for your family is about so much more than what’s on the surface. It’s also important to be honest with your kids, and help them shift their values. I turned for some additional advice to Kim Quintal, a college admissions coach who has raised three very successful kids on her own. 

She writes, “It’s been important for me to let the kids know our circumstances — not to the point of having them pay bills with me, but letting them know the broad strokes of our expenses and what’s basically left over. I want my kids to understand their reality and take what they need from the knowledge, so they become adults who do the same. Definitely let people know that as a single mom, you can’t really afford certain things, but then find creative ways to provide what really matters, like outings, maybe a short vacation nearby, and enrichment programs that open doors and expand horizons. I learned to ask if programs offered scholarships or reduced rates, and many did. It is hard not to have what our friends have, but that’s how you grow and find out who is really a true friend.”

As a parent, it can be tempting to protect your kids from knowing about any financial troubles you may be having, but having open and honest discussions about budgeting is important, and will be helpful for them down the line. Teaching your kids how to live within your means is an incredibly valuable lesson in a culture where the average American now has about $38,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgages, according to Northwestern Mutual’s 2018 Planning & Progress Study. 

With all you’ve accomplished, I imagine you have had to get very creative and resourceful on many occasions. By showing your kids that challenges can be faced, you’re able to open their eyes to realistic obstacles, and arm them with lifelong encouragement to overcome their own.

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