Thermals, debt and paying to work: Welcome to life as a single mum in 2023

thermals, debt and paying to work: welcome to life as a single mum in 2023

(Picture: Getty/

‘I’ve used all of my savings over the past couple of years to cover essentials and I’ve got nothing to fall back on,’ says Sharon, a single parent from north London to twin teenage boys.

This is the harsh reality for many single parent families across the UK.

New research by the single parents charity Gingerbread reveals 76% of single parent families are in debt, with half of those reporting debts of over £2,000.

The findings, released today on Single Parents Day and during National Debt Awareness week, found 59% of single parents are in a worse financial situation now than 12 months ago, and 42% have asked for financial help from family, friends or grant-making organisations in the last year.

The current economic climate presents a unique challenge to women in particular, who make up 90% of the two million single parents in the UK.

Sharon, who works in the education sector and is earning over £40,000, is relying on credit cards to get by – racking up debt.

‘I always thought my income was okay – it’s not in line with the commercial sector, but on paper I don’t earn badly at all,’ she says.

‘But because of the cost of living crisis, we struggle. We’re not poor enough to be entitled to welfare support but we’re not rich enough to get by without using credit.

‘I don’t qualify for any help but we can’t afford to get by.’

The financial stress is ‘always’ on her mind.

‘When I wake up the first thing I think about is what I have to spend that day and how I can cut back,’ she adds.

As a single parent, she has cut back on things for herself, including even going without food. Sharon explains: ‘I need to use my credit card regularly – I’ve never had debt like this before and it worries me but I can’t get by without it.

‘If I didn’t have Klarna I don’t know how I’d afford to clothe two growing teens, they don’t expect a lot and aren’t demanding at all, but they do need clothes.’

Recently she’s been worried about keeping up with repayments on her debts – some of which existed before the cost of living crisis, as she made home improvements at a time she felt confident about paying it all off.

Now, the outlook is very different – ‘it worries me a lot’, she admits. The family has just £100 each week to live on, including food, once housing costs and bills are deducted.

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One of her sons has even set up a microbusiness with the hopes of making enough for the family to have a summer holiday.

Itahisa Gordon, 41, from north London, has similar worries, being the single parent to four children.

She owes her eldest ‘tons’, has credit card debt and is in her overdraft, and says she has ‘loans coming out my ear holes’. Her overall debts are around £6,700.

thermals, debt and paying to work: welcome to life as a single mum in 2023

Itahisa is having to give up her job to avoid adding childcare costs to her debts (Picture: Itahisa Gordon)

She says: ‘Previously money was always tight the last week of the month, but now it’s out of control.

‘After I’ve paid my bills I’m maxed out. I have to really rely on help from my mum and my oldest son to get by.

‘Debt is escalating and collectors are contacting me so it’s very worrying, and it’s time consuming asking them for extensions.

‘I rely on child benefits to feed us weekly, and I’ve accepted help from charities like Home-Start UK, Little Village, and The Butler Trust.’

Charities have provided essential items for her family such as clothes, a buggy, Christmas presents, a laptop, food hampers and food vouchers.

To look after her children she’s had to ‘ask for more and cut back on tons’, relying on secondhand clothing and donations for support.

The family doesn’t go to activities anymore that require payment, such as after school sports clubs.

Itahisa has already taken a sabbatical from her role in a school after going on maternity leave, due to the £1,300 she earns a month ‘not balancing out and the cost of childcare’.

‘I’m now looking at resigning and paying back the contractual maternity pay, which is £4,500, as it would be way cheaper than full time childcare,’ she says.

‘I didn’t realise this would have been such a difficultly with returning to work, otherwise I wouldn’t have taken contractual maternity pay.’

Her options are to return to work for three months, but that would mean paying more in childcare fees, or join the mothers currently paying to work full-time.

In last week’s Budget, chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced plans to extend free childcare provision to all children under the age of five to get ‘one million women back to work’.

But the promise has been met with some criticism, as it won’t be fully implemented until 2025, meaning families currently struggling won’t benefit.

Peter Grigg, chief executive of Home-Start UK, says the cost of childcare is having a ‘huge impact on families,’ at a time when other expenses are already sky-high.

‘The sector remains fragile and it will be vital that funding gets to childcare providers to make a high quality offer available to all families, without having to subsidise it to make it add up,’ he says.

Many single parents were struggling before the cost of living crisis hit, while others are facing financial crisis for the first time. The Gingerbread research found that in the past 12 months, 19% have fallen behind on debt repayments, and 10% of single parent households have had to move in with parents, relatives, or friends.

Three-quarters of single parents have no savings or savings of less than £1,500.

Sharon says: ‘I work hard and, on paper, I earn well, but because I’m a single parent and because of the cost of living crisis I can’t afford to make ends meet.

‘I don’t know what more I can do; it feels as though this government doesn’t understand the real impact of the cost of living crisis. If I’m honest I feel like I’ve been let down.’

Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, says single parents are ‘brilliant at budgeting – they have to be – but they are not miracle workers’.

‘They have been pushed to their financial limits by years of austerity, followed by the covid pandemic and now the deepening cost of living crisis,’ she says.

‘For too many it has gone far beyond choosing between “heating and eating” – we know single parent families are going without both food and warmth, as they simply cannot afford to make ends meet.

‘Debt is a ticking timebomb – we’re seeing a worrying rise in the number of single parents forced to rely on expensive debt and the impact of this will be felt long after the cost of living crisis has ended.’

The charity is calling on the government to act, as the vicious debt cycle is keeping parents trapped.

Carly Newman, a 37-year-old single mum from London with a four-year-old son, says at the end of the month, she replies on her credit card for any large purchases.

‘I then pay a chunk off when I get paid but not in full, so I do accumulate interest and debt, but it’s also a vicious cycle because I often have to rely on it again at the end of the month,’ she says.

thermals, debt and paying to work: welcome to life as a single mum in 2023

Debt is ‘a vicious cycle’ for single parents, says Cathy (Picture: Cathy Newman)

‘I have recently had to ask my energy supplier to reduce my monthly direct debit as they were wanting to take over £250 a month, which is not sustainable.

‘This will inevitably mean I build up a deficit until hopefully my bills reduce a bit once it gets warmer.’

Richard Lane, director of external affairs at StepChange, a debt charity, says: ‘The pandemic and cost of living crisis have swept more and more single parents into hardship and problem debt, with alarming numbers using food banks and even skipping meals in order to feed their children.

‘If we’re to end the debt trap facing so many single parents, the safety net around them must be strengthened.

‘The government’s commitment to better fund childcare is a welcome start, but clearly more targeted protection is needed.

‘Developing affordable credit options to provide no or low interest loans to financially vulnerable households would provide access to sustainable credit that would help single parents cope with larger essential costs that can otherwise lead to problem debt.’

In the meantime, single parents like Sharon are worried how they’ll cope if things get any worse.

‘If energy prices rise again, it will be disastrous for us, she says.

‘We’ve got thermals and onesies and we are really careful – we can’t cut down any more and I can’t afford to spend more. What can you do?’

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The Cost of Being a Woman

You’re reading The Cost of Being a Woman,’s ongoing series investigating how the cost of living crisis is disproportionately impacting women.

For more stories, visit our dedicated Cost of Being a Woman hub.

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