Q&A with author Emma Johnson on protecting credit as a single parent

Emma Johnson

Q&A: Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson, founder of the WealthySingleMommy blog and Like A Mother podcast, shares her insights on how to be a happy, healthy and wealthy single parent in her new book, "The Kickass Single Mom."

At the WealthySingleMommy blog, Emma Johnson offers advice on finances, career and life, as well as community, to single moms who are also professionals. Her upcoming book, “The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children,” comes out October 17.

Here, she offers advice on how moms can build good credit, use cards wisely and stay financially savvy while raising children singlehandedly:

Q: When you became a single mom, you didn’t have a book like yours to turn to. How will your book help newly single moms?

There’s really nothing out there like [my book.] The message is always, “Here’s how you can get by as a single mom,” and it’s always coming from a place of poverty, of literal poverty and a poverty mindset.

I was raised by a single mom, and she’s an educated, professional person. But we were always broke, and it was really stressful. Like everybody does when they grow up, I swore I was going to do better and different for my family. And then I found myself as a single mom.

I went through an unexpected divorce. It happened very suddenly in the midst of a lot of chaos, and I was worried I was going to be living out of my car with my kids. That is a very common fear of women, including professional women. I made up my mind it wasn’t going to be my story.

The world has changed and women’s opportunities are incredible today. The first thing you have to do is recognize and embrace those opportunities.

Q: How have things changed for single moms in recent years, especially from a financial perspective?

A generation ago, when my mom became a single mother, she barely had the right to have a credit card in her own name. But today, 57 percent of millennial moms are unmarried and we are kicking butt in every single economic measurement, in business, in education, in politics, and we can raise children on our own without a second income. There are still a lot of strides to be made, and I’m not diminishing the struggle. But the struggle is, in some ways, as much as you want to make it.

Q: You’ve written that during and after your divorce, you watched your credit like a hawk. Why was that so important to you at a time when credit might be the last thing on a person’s mind?

First of all, I never just talk about divorce because the majority of young moms are not married, so let’s just talk about a big breakup or a life change. At that time, you’re worried about your kids, you’re worried about money in the bank – how much is coming in and how much is going out. But when you have [good] credit you have options.

When you’re going through a big life change, that is when your credit is the most vulnerable and also when you need it the most. You might be needing to find a new apartment or refinance your mortgage or buy a new home, get a new car or find a new job where employers are checking your credit. The better credit you have, the more you can make decisions from a place of confidence rather than a place of fear.

But unfortunately, because life is so crazy, credit is often the last thing people are watching.

Q: Why is your credit so vulnerable when you’re going through a big life change?

When you break up, if you have shared bank accounts, credit cards and a mortgage, one ex-partner can take the money and run or go on a spending spree and rack up a lot of debt. There’s also financial fraud – your partner likely knows your birthdate, your Social Security number and all the information you need to get a credit card or a line of credit. That’s very common.

Also, because you are opening and closing accounts so much, you’re also [generally more] vulnerable to financial fraud by a stranger at that time.

Q: What do you recommend single moms do to prevent or catch those problems early? Does it begin with checking their credit reports often?

I’m a big fan of Mint.com. They have my credit score really big on my homepage when I log in. Or you might get your score from your bank or credit card provider. I bank with Chase, and they give me a free credit score. So I’m just on there all the time, checking all of my accounts.

[Tracking credit and accounts] is boring, it’s tedious, but thankfully there are a lot of great tools online to make it easier. It’s just something people have to put on their priority list.

Q: Say you’re talking to a single mom who has great credit now. What would you tell her about the steps she should take to keep it that way?

Pay your bills on time. Keep watching your credit ratio, the amount of credit you’re using versus the amount you have. You might find yourself carrying a credit card balance, which you should try to keep to a minimum for so many reasons, but make sure it stays below 30 percent of your available credit. That just shows you’re being responsible and not going into a huge amount of debt.

Don’t open a lot of new credit cards. Maybe that means if you need more credit, you ask your current card issuer to increase your credit limit or find other ways to manage finances.

What if a single mom does have an issue in which, say, her partner took money and ran, or she had to pay a lot for a divorce lawyer, and her credit has suffered and she is feeling discouraged? What would you say to her?

The awesome thing about credit is that, even though it’s easily dinged, it’s also easily repaired. I find that women I work with who come into single motherhood with really lousy credit feel so excited and powerful as they watch it rebuild. At a time when you often feel completely out of control in your life, this is something you can control and it’s so important.

Q: Some people use credit card rewards as a way to live a little richer of a lifestyle than what their bank account reflects. What do you think about single moms using rewards as a way to go on trips with their kids that they might not otherwise be able to take? 

My own practice with rewards is, I get the card that has the richest amount of cash back and requires the least amount of mental energy and effort. I have a card that once it reaches $50 in rewards, it automatically credits my account. If you are in financial straits and you get a free or discounted airline ticket, you also have to pay for a hotel and a rental car. That’s not a deal because you’re spending money to reap the rewards.

Now if you’ve got cash in the bank, you can afford the trip because you budgeted smartly over a year, and it’s fun for you because you like to play the rewards game, knock yourself out. There are plenty of affluent single moms who play that game, and I’m not dismissing them. But if you’re not one of them, don’t kid yourself. Just be smart about it. And it’s not just about money, it’s about the energy and time you’re spending. If it’s a part-time job to get this stuff, don’t do it.

Q: In your book, you give single moms advice on looking beyond money and family to build a happy life. Can you talk about why this is important?

There’s all this pressure for women to have work-life balance. Life means kids, and work is career and money. That’s not enough. We have a physical body that needs care. We are social people who need community and friendship, and we have romantic and sexual needs. We’re spiritual people, creative people who have hobbies. If you’re reducing all your focus to just your kids and money, then you’re not embracing your full life.

See related: What millennials can teach us about credit, “Rich Bitch” author Nicole Lapin shakes up traditional financial advice


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Updated: 11-23-2017