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The Credit Dangers That Single Parents Face

Gerri Detweiler

If being a parent often feels like a constant juggling act, it can be that much more challenging for single parents. Between work and parenting, it can feel like there’s never enough time, energy or money for the things you want to do. And that feeling may extend to your credit too. You may barely have time to check your credit, much less fix it.

“When you are a single parent you are almost always poorer than when you were a married parent,” warns Emma Johnson, a single mom of two young children and founder of WealthySingleMommy.com. “So the pressure to have good credit is even bigger. Your income is going to be lower for whatever purchase it is going to be.”

The numbers back her up. In 2011 there were 8.6 million single moms a who were primary or sole breadwinners in their families and 2.6 million households headed by single dads, according to Pew Research. Both groups earn less than their married counterparts; the median adjusted income in households headed by married fathers is $70,000, but it drops to $40,000 for single fathers and just $26,000 for a household of three headed by a single mother.

The credit challenges these parents face can feel formidable, if not insurmountable:

  • You have to qualify for mortgages, auto loans and credit cards based on one income. (Keep in mind that creditors can’t discriminate against income from child support or alimony if you choose to provide that information, though they can look at whether payments have been consistent.)
  • If your credit was damaged in a divorce or breakup, it will take time to rebuild a good credit rating and you can’t piggyback on a spouse’s better credit to build your own credit score.
  • If there are still joint accounts left over from when you were a couple, you either have to find the income to pay them or count on your ex to make the payments on time. Any late payments will cause your credit scores to drop.

Johnson points out that you need to be even more diligent about building and maintaining a strong credit score because you’re probably going to need access to credit at some point. Here are some steps that can help you simplify and streamline your credit, while working to make it stronger.

How to Build Credit As a Single Parent

Get your credit reports and credit scores . Pop in a DVD for the kids and while they are watching it, go to AnnualCreditReport.com and get your free credit reports. Then visit Credit.com and sign up for a free account to get your credit scores updated monthly. Review your credit reports and score carefully. If you find mistakes you need to dispute them; here’s a step-by-step guide to fixing credit report mistakes. In addition, you’ll want to look at what areas of your credit need some work. (You’ll get a personalized action plan for your credit along with your scores on Credit.com.)

Consolidate debt . Households that include children under 18 years of age are 15% more likely to be carrying credit card debt than childless household, according to research by Demos. While a consolidation loan doesn’t solve the problem of expenses that exceed income, consolidating multiple debts into one personal loan can help simplify your life and save you money over time. You’ll have one monthly payment to worry about each month, instead of several, and you may even see a boost to your credit scores. (Here are five tips for consolidating credit card debt.) If you can’t qualify for a consolidation loan, consider talking with a credit counseling agency, which may be able to help you achieve the same effect even if you have bad credit.

Use the right card . While using a debit card helps you stay out of debt, it can be more risky than a credit card. If your account is compromised, you’ll have to rely on your financial institution to fix the problem, and in the meantime you may have a few sleepless nights wondering how you will pay your bills with the money left in your account.

If you have the discipline and can qualify for one, use a credit card instead. Consider a rewards card such as a cash-back card (as long as you pay your balance in full every month) and you’ll have the convenience of a card along with a little extra money you can use to treat yourself!

A Financial Upside of the Single Life

While single parents are often at a disadvantage financially, it isn’t always all doom and gloom, says Johnson. She’s experienced her share of ups and downs during and after her divorce, and yet she remains positive and optimistic. “On the upside if you are financially responsible, you have total control over your financial future,” she says. “That’s huge.”

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