Before becoming a single mom 12 years ago, Robin Bergman did everything she could to prepare financially, from saving more than $200 per week to cover the first seven months of day care to cutting back on personal purchases.
"I was used to spending money on myself," recalls Bergman, who lives in Simsbury, Conn. "I went on vacation every year, and I bought artwork, and I bought jewelry, and I bought beautiful furniture, and I ate out a lot."
But nothing prepared the bookkeeper-turned-financial statement analyst for a career shift that forced her to take a $10,000 pay cut seven years ago. Soon after, in 2009, her house went into foreclosure and she was forced to uproot herself and her now 12-year-old daughter, Judy.
Nevertheless, the 52-year-old hails her decision to become a single mom as the "smartest, best and most selfish" one she ever made.
While the number of women who are choosing to become single moms without the help of a partner is increasing, it's likely that the number of women who are considering the lifestyle but scared they'll end up in the poorhouse is on the rise, as well.
While it's important to acknowledge that the decision to have a child on your own involves careful consideration of non-financial factors — in and of itself a highly charged topic — getting a clearer financial picture can help prepare one for the transition. Here is a breakdown of some of the costs to consider from those who have taken the single-motherhood path, not including unforeseen circumstances like salary downgrades.
The cost of getting started
There are many ways to make a family as a single mom.
According to data from Single Mothers by Choice, a New York-based organization founded to support women who are, as the name suggests, single moms by choice, 20 percent of its members choose to go the way of celebs like Sandra Bullock, Sheryl Crow, and Charlize Theron and adopt. But it doesn't come cheap. The average cost of a U.S. adoption is about $30,000, and international adoption can be even costlier, not to mention some countries don't allow single-parent adoption.
About 60 percent of SMC's members (roughly 30,000 since 1981) have chosen to conceive a child through insemination by a sperm donor, says the organization's president and founder Jane Mattes.
And while donor insemination is often less than $1,000 if it works the first time, as it did for Bergman, who at 39 conceived her daughter through one round of unmedicated intrauterine insemination (IUI), that's not always the case. Some need to move onto more aggressive treatments such as IVF, which insurance doesn't always cover.
Alan Penzias, a reproductive endocrinologist and medical director of Boston IVF, says the typical single woman who seeks fertility treatments is usually between 37 and 39 and usually requires a few cycles of IUI to get pregnant. But older women might require IVF because they have fewer eggs or other issues.
"Most of the time, these are women who are healthy and who have used contraception in previous relationships, so it's typically an unmedicated IUI," says Penzias, who estimates that he's seen a 10 percent increase in the number of single women who want to conceive a child on their own over the last couple of years. "For someone 37 or younger with regular cycles and without a past history of conditions that could compromise the fallopian tubes, we check ovarian reserve and if the results are O.K., we might perform three to four IUI cycles before doing additional tests. For someone who's older, the overall timeline of testing and treatment is accelerated."
At Penzias' facility, women who choose the donor insemination route pay $450 plus the cost of the sperm sample for one "cycle" — in which a woman is inseminated while she is ovulating — so several cycles can add up. The cost of one cycle of IVF starts at about $8,700 and has about a 40 percent chance of resulting in a live birth for women under age 35. The rate of success decreases with age, so the sooner a woman can come in for treatment, the better, he adds.
Lissa Palermo, who conceived her sons at age 41 as a single mom through the help of a sperm donor and IVF, says she spent $35,000 in the six months before she conceived her twin boys, Leonardo and Nico. Another big cost to consider: prenatal health care. While many, if not most, women who choose to become moms on their own have health insurance through their employers, insurance premiums and deductibles have been on the rise for years — and a live hospital birth can cost a few thousand dollars.
All of these expenses — which are incurred before you even get to bring the baby home — are even more pronounced when they fall on one income.
The post-birth costs: from day care to college
According to new research culled from real estate broker Redfin, the average cost for a baby's first year comes out to about $26,000 if you upgrade your house with an additional bedroom, use day care, have insurance, and buy the typical things new parents buy.
But that data doesn't necessarily paint a realistic picture. The day care cost is based on nine months, according to the report, and many women in metropolitan areas pay far more.
While day care is usually cheaper than having a nanny, which is no surprise given the economies of scale, some city dwellers have a hard time finding high-quality options.
Brooklyn filmmaker Nina Davenport, who decided to become a single mom at age 41 with the help of a male friend's sperm donation and made a documentary about the experience entitled First Comes Love, says the wait for day care in her neighborhood was one year long, so she relied on babysitters instead. But $15 an hour translated to an extra $600 per week out of her own pocket.
"I think a lot of women in my situation decide not to have kids for financial reasons, and unfortunately that's because our country doesn't do anything to support mothers, and in those first few years you have to spend a lot of money to get help," says Davenport, whose son Jasper is now four and a half. "Those are the years that are the most expensive, not including college."
While child care is the most expensive cost to consider, other major first-year costs may include diapers (about $900 per year), and formula (about $1,300 per year). And that's just for one baby; IVF increases a woman's chances of conceiving twins.
After the first two years, the precollege costs are seemingly endless, and may include braces, camp, dance lessons, soccer lessons, and babysitter fees, says Mattes. That's why some single moms choose to save money by moving closer to their parents.
"Most parents are happy to be grandparents, particularly if it's the first grandchild," she says.
Choosing to live with less
While most women who are members of SMC make a salary of $50,000 or more, all will have to make painful lifestyle cuts that may be more pronounced than if they shared child-care expenses, says SMC founder Mattes, who also happens to be a psychotherapist.
"The sacrifices more are on the luxuries of life," she says. And she's speaking from experience, having become a single mom 33 years ago at age 36. "Your primary goal is to make your family necessities happen so you can pay your bills."
In the mid-2000s, Palermo had found her career stride as a marketing director for a fashion label, her closet always lined with couture garments and her wallet big enough to afford trips across the globe.
Palermo now lives with her 14-month-old boys in a waterfront apartment in Stamford, Conn., minus the Manhattan salary. Instead, she works part-time as a yoga instructor, which she says affords her more time to spend with her young sons.
Though she exudes nothing but gratitude, and even bliss, for a life largely taken up by feeding, changing, and nursing, things are pretty tight, money-wise.
"I was spending a lot of money, I was traveling extensively, I was vacationing all around the world. I was in Paris for a while, I was going to St. Bart's … I had a very nice life at that time," says Palermo. "And I don't do any of those things. I don't really spend money on myself."
But Palermo echoes the sentiments of every other single mom who decided to have a baby on her own — that the price of having a baby yields a far greater return on investment.
"For most people, it's the most wonderful thing they can imagine and more," says Mattes. "When you are 90 and you look back, will you say, 'I wish I had decided to get married' or 'I'm so glad I have my child'?"
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