Emma Johnson thrived, both financially and professionally, after enduring a complex, costly and painful divorce in 2009.
Johnson, now 40, a journalist and founder of WealthySingleMommy.com, an online community of professional single mothers, was at that time pregnant with her second child, working just 12 hours a week and living paycheck to paycheck. The fear of not being able to support her children on her own drove her to juggle multiple jobs and painstakingly manage her finances.
Today she’s an entrepreneur with a successful digital marketing business, which includes her blog and podcast targeting professional single mothers, along with a new book, “The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children.” In the book, which debuted Tuesday, Oct. 17, Johnson tells her personal journey as an entrepreneur and mom. She also maps out financial management strategies she hopes other single mothers can use, both to improve their finances and to establish a career they love.
“Money is power and money is control,” Johnson tells MagnifyMoney. “Men have been very comfortable with that since a long time. And women are never going to have equality in the world, we’ll never have control of our life individually … until we have our money and just as much as men.”
We spoke with Johnson about the three mantras of her daily life.
1.Create a lifestyle that you can afford now.
Johnson lived a comfortable life, largely dependent on her ex-husband’s income and benefits while she worked part time. She found that separating from her husband also meant learning to recalibrate her money mindset.
Legal expenses from the divorce quickly piled up, and she decided to return to full-time freelance work, which meant shelling out $2,000 a month for child care. She knew she had to live frugally in order to make ends meet. Some of the immediate changes she made: Stop buying new clothing for herself. And find as many useful secondhand items for her children as she could.
“You absolutely have to go frugal,” she says. “I don’t care how rich you were before you were divorced or your kids’s dad is. … Your lifestyle is determined by how much money you have coming in the bank right now.”
For other single mothers looking to cut spending, she has suggestions both big and small — downsizing to a smaller home, for instance, or just getting rid of unnecessary expenses like a cable subscription or a rarely used gym membership.
When you are successfully living beneath your means, especially as a breadwinning single mother, Johnson says you can finally start to feel as though you’ve got control over your life again. “You have no control of your life,” she says, “if you are worrying about paying your rent.”
2. Focus on earning more — unapologetically.
Single mothers shouldn’t just focus on saving more. They should also be unashamed about taking steps to earn more, Johnson says.
The median income for families led by a single mother in 2014 was about $24,000, far below the $88,000 median for married-parent families in which Mom was the higher earner and the $84,500 median for households where Dad was the principal earner, according to a Pew Research Center report.
The surprising upside of her divorce, Johnson found, was that she realized she had unintentionally suppressed her own financial and professional goals during her marriage to preserve the status quo.
“Our society definitely values monogamous partnerships and marriage, and women genuinely do want that, but it often comes at a price for reaching our own potential,” she says.
For Johnson, embracing her ambition wasn’t just a matter of choice. She was granted only one year of child support from her ex-husband, and the clock was ticking. She set about beefing up her income from freelance assignments, taking on everything from corporate blog posts to journalistic articles.
By the time child support ended, she felt financially stable enough to refinance the apartment in Queens, N.Y., that she and her ex-husband had bought in her own name. Roughly half a year later, she says, she had lined up enough consistent writing work to confidently support her family independently for the first time.
Something else happened when she re-entered the labor force full time. She found she had bigger career ambitions than simply writing. She started WealthySingleMommy.com in 2012 as a hobby and slowly grew a loyal audience. (She reports 100,000 unique monthly visitors and 190,000 monthly page views.)
A few years later, she experimented with monetizing the effort, snagging a mix of brand partnerships, speaking engagements and eventually, a book deal. While she worked on building the WSM brand, she continued to work as a freelancer (her primary income source).
Finally, in 2016, Johnson says, she made an “internal shift” to focus on her business full time because she saw in it a better financial opportunity.
“I really feel like it was an important internal shift I had to make because all the freelance writers I knew were [complaining] about not making money,” she says.
This year, she expects to bring in $400,000 in revenue.
3. Outsource labor — time is money.
Efficiency is the centerpiece of Johnson’s finance management philosophy. She quickly learned the value of paying professionals to take on some tasks in order to free up hours she could use to work, spend time with her children or focus on her personal needs.
“You have to be very diligent with how you use all of these things — your time, your money, your energy, your headspace and your emotions,” she says.
Johnson says that over the years she has invested heavily in child care, housekeeping and outsourcing chores (like laundry) that that take time away from work and her children and aren’t enjoyable. In her book, she writes that she has a handyman on call.
To be sure, not all single mothers earn enough to outsource, a fact Johnson acknowledges. But she still encourages women not to feel guilt over delegating some household duties in pursuit of that extra quality time. She argues that it’s a worthy investment for peace of mind and efficiency.
The bottom line: ‘You have to go bigger’
An advocate for gender equality, Johnson says her ultimate goal with the new book is to empower women across society — not just single mothers — to pursue their passions and become role models for a next generation with increasingly abundant resources and opportunities available.
She hopes single moms will stop taking pity on themselves or viewing their situations as detrimental. “I want women to start seeing themselves as more than they are, and that their family status can be an an asset,” she says.
For women living in small communities, Johnson’s advice is that maybe they should consider relocating for better job opportunities or finding work that they could be doing virtually.
The fear of being on one’s own, Johnson says, can become the biggest motivator for pursuing a big goal, be it starting a business or returning to school. And she is convinced that the risks women take and sacrifices they make along the way will eventually pay off.
“You have to go bigger,” she says. “You have to go bigger because there is less security.”