Empowering single parents towards financial resilience: what we’ve learnt so far

In this blog, Partnerships Director (and dad of two) Matt shares what we’ve learnt from working with the charity Gingerbread to support real single parents, in real life.

As I remind my Shift colleagues on a near daily basis, being a parent is hard. With two young children to bring up, my life feels like a high-stakes plate-spinning competition. This game is played under harsh flood flights and you haven’t slept for three-and-half years. Let a plate fall and you’re lucky to get away without damaging yourself – or your kids. You come to relish the rest and relaxation gifted to you by London’s Underground system during rush hour. Basically, being a dad is fun!

And while I whine a lot about this, frankly, I know I have it easy. I have a supportive employer and a network of doting family and friends who are always there to help when times get tough. I’m lucky enough to be one half of a loving couple who share the emotional and financial strain. Together, we have a lot of the things that help make parenting easier.

So what does solo plate-spinning look like?

For two million single parents spinning plates alone, things are significantly more challenging. Single parents, particularly those with low incomes, can face more complexity, have limited financial resources and deal with the emotional weight of bringing up a family alone. The statistics are sobering. 71% of single parents find managing finances difficult; half of single parents (whether in or out of work) run out of money before the end of the month; more than a third are behind on debt repayments. The roll-out of Universal Credit, which over 90% of single parents are eligible for, is a huge threat to any fragile stability.

[Image: Gingerbread]

In this context, making shrewd decisions about finance is critical. But faced with a fluctuating single income, complex benefit entitlements, high childcare costs and often limited child maintenance payments, many single parents simply lack the time and headspace to be confident in all the financial decision they have to make. When an unexpected financial shock comes along – as happens to 70% of people each year – single parents and their families can quickly find themselves in very sticky situations. Which begs the question:

In times of need, how might single parents get access to advice and information that’s relevant to them, at exactly the right moment?

Gingerbread, the charity supporting single parent families to live secure, happy and fulfilling lives, contacted Shift to help answer this question. Together we carried out a literature review, spoke with a range of experts, and interviewed more than 20 single parents to better understand the issue. What did we find? Three key insights emerged…

1. Single parents are incredibly resourceful

While many single parents face tough challenges every day, it is wrong to think of them as victims. As we heard a variety of stories and journeys during our interviews, a common picture emerged of a group of people who are highly resilient, proactive and creative when it comes to money management. Time and again we came across ingenious and crafty approaches to finances and budgeting, such as a ‘hacked’ Monzo approach that made it more useful for people dealing in cash, through to a jam bartering system another parent developed to help top up their income. When it came to income maximisation opportunities – like using cashback sites or switching energy providers – we found single parents to be highly responsive and quick to change.

2. Single parents trust each other’s advice

We also found that other single parents saw each other as highly trusted sources of tips and tricks, sometimes trusting each other more than they trusted experts. This emerged at several points throughout the project, most notably during our user research workshop. Together we worked with single parents to start developing a concept. We found in this session single parents were most animated and engaged when sharing or receiving tips and tricks on finances, with each other. When faced with an extremely complicated system with little available time or headspace, single parents would rely on each other to get access to the most up-to-date and useful tips.

3. Single parents’ challenges are human challenges

Like all of us, the challenges facing single parents are human ones. Building financial resilience in part relies on making plans and changing habits, and we know that ‘simple ’changes to habits can contribute to better financial wellbeing. However there is often an ‘intention-to-action gap’, created by a range of human behaviours like forgetfulness, being deterred by the burdensomeness of change, slips in self control and changing our mind when it comes to action. We’re all susceptible to very human challenges, but when bandwidth is low and life is complex, they become even harder.

Building directly from these three insights, we co-designed and tested a new concept with 340 single parents, codenamed Tipi, which aims to use behavioural nudges to close the gap between intention and action, and leverage peer-led content.

So what is it?

Tipi is an Android and iOS app designed for single parents who want support to build their financial resilience. Parents will be guided to set specific, measurable debt reduction, income maximisation and savings goals and then receive timely, tailored, behaviourally-informed nudges – designed in partnership with experienced financial coaches and behavioural experts – to support their progress towards these goals.

People using the app will also gain access to a growing community of other single parents with similar goals, sharing their tips and tricks on income maximisation, cost control, financial planning and budgeting. This helps build self-efficacy and sustain commitment by making action feel realistic and achievable.

What next?

Together with Gingerbread, we’re currently raising the investment required for the next phase of development and testing. We’re hopeful that this app will ultimately reduce some of the complexity in single parents’ lives, and keep those plates spinning a little more easily.

If you’d like to hear more about the project, get in touch with me on matt.black@shiftdesign.org.