Single Parents Are Having To Make Impossible Decisions This Winter

Single parents are struggling to heat their homes and afford the food shop as this cost of living crisis grips the nation – and with Christmas just a few weeks away, many have said they are having to make huge cutbacks this year.

There are around 1.8 million single parents in the UK, according to charity Gingerbread, and roughly 90% of them are women. Many of them struggled on in the pandemic, when single parents were more likely to lose their jobs, and  now they’re facing yet another blow as food and energy prices soar to unaffordable levels.

A recent survey by consumer watchdog Which? revealed three in 10 single parents have skipped meals due to rising food prices – compared to one in seven parents in couples.

Ema, is a single mum living in north London with her eight-year-old son. She is already feeling the strain of rising gas and electricity prices and plans to spend more time in libraries and community centres this winter to keep her family warm.

The 51-year-old, who preferred not to share her surname, works 20 hours a week for her local community centre and is also studying art.

She has noticed that her daily shops are shrinking. “I have to shop a lot more carefully,” she says. “I noticed that what I was getting before, I can’t get as much now. I’ve got to be more thoughtful in what I’m purchasing.

“It’s not that they’ve got a little bit higher and stopped, the prices are getting higher still.”

Gone are the days when she’d pop to the shops for something and come away with four or five extra bits. “Now it’s like you go in for a bottle of milk and that’s what you buy,” she adds.

Each week she is following a strict meal plan so she knows exactly what is being eaten on what day – and at what time. Portions are smaller, she notes, and she’ll also try and make one meal stretch to two where she can.

“It’s just making it stretch that little bit further, when we’re already stretched as it is,” she says, likening the situation to her grandmother rationing in wartime. “It’s going back to making sure you’ve got the right rations, which seems crazy for 2022.”

Like many single parents, Ema is worried that things are only going to get worse in the new year and worries how she’ll heat her home.

Regulator Ofgem recently announced the energy price cap will rise again by 20% in January 2023 – however the government will still be subsiding energy bills at this point so there’s hope that households shouldn’t feel the pinch as much.

While she’s always been quite savvy with her heating, Ema says now she’ll put it on for 10 minutes in the morning “to take the chill off” – but that’s as much as she can afford.

“At the moment we’re ok because I’m at work and my son’s at school so we don’t have to heat [the flat] in the day – but the issue’s going to be when we’re both off work and school.”

She suggests they’ll have to “get inventive” over the Christmas holidays and spend time in community centres to stay warm: “We’re going to use the local community centre, we’re going to use the library or go around friends. If there’s two or three single parents we could go to one person’s house and maybe chip in and have the heating on.”

Mother and son draw Christmas holidays decoration painted on window glass.
Mother and son draw Christmas holidays decoration painted on window glass.

Mother and son draw Christmas holidays decoration painted on window glass.

While she tries not to worry her son, she is upfront with him about the price rises. “I don’t say anything to him to worry him but I do, in an educated way, say: well, you know, things need to be paid for so we can’t be frivolous with it.”

Whereas once they wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at eating out, now any little luxuries like that have completely stopped.

“We used to eat out once a week or whatever, but we can’t do that now because it’s just crazy. What we might do is get a portion of chips from the chip shop – and that will be our treat because you’re talking £2 as opposed to going somewhere that will cost us £20,” she says.

Even single parents who consider themselves relatively comfortable are having to cut back. Ben Westwood, who works as an author and university lecturer and is a single dad to his two children aged 15 and 17, has adapted his shopping habits to keep things in line with his budget.

“I used to shop in Tesco and Sainsbury’s and now do most of my shopping in Aldi and sometimes Morrisons,” he says.

“I saw my average supermarket shopping bill go from about £100 to £150 but have managed to keep it closer to what it was by shopping at cheaper supermarkets and buying less organic produce.”

To cut down on electricity and gas, he asked his teens to have quicker showers and fewer baths. He’s also bought a kettle for the hob after reading that electric kettles are “inefficient”.

“I am fortunate to have enough work and also have my parents to help out if things get tough. But for many other single parents, they just don’t have enough to make ends meet,” he adds.

He’s right. In response to Which?’s survey, a 43-year-old woman from the north west of England, said: “I can’t do anything other than pay bills and can barely feed my children some weeks. I walk around the supermarket adding up what I can spend.”

A 34-year-old from Scotland revealed they were not eating properly, so they’d have enough money to feed and clothe their kids and be able to top up their electricity meter.

“I don’t know what I will do once it gets cold,” they said. “I worry about this daily while trying to make sure my kids are eating as healthy as possible, which is hard when you’re on a budget.”

Single parent households are experiencing a particularly high ‘lived’ inflation rate compared to other families, because they spend a greater proportion of their budget on food, energy and fuel, which have all seen massive price increases.

This means for many families, the focus this Christmas will be on affording the basics.

Shar, a single mum in Manchester who runs the MGTYouth group, says she doesn’t know anyone who’s looking forward to Christmas because “in every conversation, the money side comes up”.

The 43-year-old, who lives with her 18-year-old son, also works with teenagers in the community, so sees first hand how many single parents are struggling.

A lot of her friends are cutting back on Christmas decorations, she says, and not turning their tree lights on as much, to keep bills down.

“For single parent families, these little things are really joyful and they’re not getting it as much because the electric and gas is so expensive – and they haven’t even started to think about the presents and the food that we have to buy,” she says.

“I hate being inside my house now because you’re always looking at the electric and gas going up.”

Shar and her son, who is 18.
Shar and her son, who is 18.

Shar and her son, who is 18.

She’s noticed that not only have prices increased in shops, but in her local smaller convenience stores “the cheaper stuff isn’t even there” and “the packs of stuff are smaller”.

Buying that Christmas staple, a tub of chocolates, for instance, is now a luxury many single parent families will do without this festive season. “And people might think it’s nothing but it isn’t nothing to these kids – and it’s horrible when you can’t do it as a parent,” she says.

Nearly eight in 10 single parents (79%) have made at least one financial adjustment – such as cutting back on essentials, selling items or dipping into savings – to cover essential spending, according to the Which? survey.

“As a single parent, you go through the shop and you see others with their big shop and you think: I wish I could put more in mine,” adds Shar.

Like Ema, she is worried about the rate at which everything is increasing in price, while wages remain stagnant. “I’m extremely scared,” says the youth worker.

“I’m scared every time I go to the shops because before you’d know what to buy and how much it was going to cost, but now you don’t know how much it’s going to be tomorrow.”

She suggests she won’t really be buying gifts at Christmas this year – including for her son, but acknowledges they’re not even in the worst position.

Discussing the impact on some of the teens she works with at her youth group, she adds: “I’m not saying all children, but I do know it’s getting them a bit low at home. From lockdown I think kids have been really aware of the finances anyway so don’t think they’ll be expecting much this year.

“It’s still not fair though, is it? The kids are not supposed to look back in 10 years time and think: ah remember that year, we didn’t even have anything.”

She continues: “I know next year there’s gonna be a lot of upset kids when they go back and see certain friends wearing new clothes. And if you do find that money for new clothes, those parents are going to be feeling that for a good few months.”

Seven in 10 UK adults are concerned about the cost of Christmas this year – and for single parents, the financial hit can be huge. As a result, some are expecting to do Christmas away from home this year, so they don’t have to contend with soaring heating bills.

“Everybody usually has Christmas at home, but even this year I’m thinking about going to my friend’s house,” Shar says.

Ema still isn’t 100% decided on where they’ll spend Christmas, but knows for sure it won’t be at her flat.

“It’ll be at someone else’s so we can all chip in and not heat separate houses and we’ll do a bring and share,” she says. “As far as presents go, my son is getting a bit older now, although he does still believe in Santa, and I think he thinks that Santa can buy anything so it’s sort of reigning that in.”

She says this year she’ll also be doing ‘want, need, wear, read’, which is about thoughtful gifting as opposed to buying in excess. The premise is simple, you buy just four gifts: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and then something to read.

“He doesn’t expect anything too much,” she adds of her son. “He’s not a spoilt child and is grateful if he gets anything. I try and play it down a lot more if I can, so if he gets a bit extra, he’s pleasantly surprised.”

She adds: “I feel like if the child is loved and being looked after – and he is fed and clothed and everything – then really the materialistic things shouldn’t matter.

“I think we’ve got into a society where we just have so much stuff anyway. Maybe I’m trying to make a silver lining out of it, but maybe it will make us realise we don’t need as much as we have.”

Lots of single parents she knows are turning to charity shops or sites like Facebook marketplace to find underused toys to gift to their kids.

As she puts it: “For a single parent, it’s not the materialistic things we worry about, it’s not having the money for the basic things.”