Single mum Shara Owens had a good corporate job with a high salary to match.
Forty per cent of her after-tax earnings went to rent, 30 per cent to childcare and the remainder was for bills and groceries.
After expenses, Shara says she had not a cent to her name – in fact, she was going backwards.
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“I was dropping my son off at day care at 7 every morning and picking him up at 5-6pm every night,” Shara tells 7Life.
Not only was the mum not able to spend quality time with her six-month-old boy Hendrix – but she says working was actually costing her money.
It’s a tale not uncommon among single parents, and one which has become even more widespread and dire as a result of the crippling cost-of-living crisis.
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Shara says that, to try to curb her expenditure, she would leave the heater off – to avoid bumping up electricity costs – and routinely go without food to afford formula for her son.
The stress of her financial situation resulted in a rapid 30kg weight loss and overall health issues.
“I just got to the point where I wondered if this was actually worth it,” she says.
So the NSW woman made the difficult decision to quit her job, move apartments – and apply for Centrelink benefits.
“I’m independent, I’m not a government leech. It was a huge hit to my ego to have to do this,” she says.
“Money is still tight, don’t get me wrong.”
The NSW woman is fighting for better support for single mothers. Credit: Supplied
But the single mum, who is studying to become a marriage celebrant, is now better off.
“There is a whole workforce of single mums out there who want to work, but financially it’s better for them to stay at home,” she says.
When Hendrix was born, Shara hoped to have 12 months maternity leave.
But as he crept closer to six months old, the mum’s savings dwindled.
So she returned to her job as a state manager for a retail company.
The on-the-road job often involved long hours and, she says, posed lots of problems.
Shara says she would regularly use her own car for work, adding increased petrol to her list of expenses.
Alongside her financial woes was her sense of guilt that she was working too hard and wasn’t as present as she wanted to be for her son.
It was not the motherhood of Shara’s dreams.
The single mum is now studying full time and doing odd jobs to provide for her son. Credit: Supplied
With her quarterly electricity bill exceeding $1100, weekly groceries setting her back $250, petrol costing hundreds a month, plus utilities bills, Shara realised “money in” was less than “money out”.
When the government announced further increases to the childcare subsidy, Shara says her day care centre increased its daily fee up to $165.
And with the government subsidy means tested, Shara says her earning capacity meant she was receiving less than $50 a week subsidy.
Her rent also increased by $60 a week.
Shara began to cut corners where she could, including going without food for herself.
“Formula was $30,” she explains of the weekly price of feeding Hendrix, as well as having to buy other baby consumables such as nappies and wipes.
Opting for quick cheap meals such as Up & Go drinks, the mum’s weight rapidly plummeted – along with her mental health.
“With all of my stress, I lost 15kg in three months,” she reveals.
“My skin, my mental state – I had high anxiety and health issues.
“People would ask if I had an eating disorder, I just ate when I could.”
Enough is enough
While she was mired in her financial problems, an old friend reached out.
Jenny Gurry is the founder of Diamond Women, an organisation that helps women who find themselves facing parenting without emotional or practical support.
“I love Jenny and everything she does,” Shara says.
“The funny thing was I was actually donating to Diamond Women when I could afford to.”
Jenny saw Shara struggling and began sending fresh food hampers to her door.
The mum couldn’t be more grateful, and she also took up their offer of counselling and general guidance.
But she had hit rock bottom, and couldn’t sustain even her modest lifestyle.
Ironically, working full time was sending her broke.
So, she quit.
“The best thing I ever did was to stop working,” Shara says.
She sold her furniture, bought second-hand items from Facebook Marketplace and restyled them.
She moved into a unit closer to shops so she could ditch her petrol-guzzling car and walk when she could.
Shara has shared her story. Credit: Supplied
To gain back control of her health, she joined a free mum’s and bub’s fitness bootcamp.
She signed up to Airtasker and began supplementing her welfare payments with odd jobs such as cleaning, mystery shopping and even taking people’s parcels to the post office.
She also ‘catalogue hops’, finding the best discounts at her local stores to cut her grocery bill.
“You need to get thrifty, there is no doubt about that,” she adds.
But, most importantly, Shara is no longer the first and last parent at day care – she is present in Hendrix’s life.
Living on welfare
Shara now receives $1500 a fortnight from Centrelink, with the government covering 85 per cent of Hendrix’s childcare – allowing her to further her education.
She uses the rest of her welfare payment for rent, bills, groceries and school fees.
“I don’t have savings,” she says.
She can’t believe she is in a better financial position this way than she was working full time – and she is stunned how little support she received when she returned to the workforce.
The mum is calling for the government and workplaces to support and uplift mothers in the workplace, particularly as cost-of-living pressures skyrocket.
Shara is forever grateful to Diamond Women for its ongoing support – and can’t wait to be in the financial position to return the favour once again.
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