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thirty and counting

Valerie Strawberry, centre, at home in Red Deer with her children. From left, Layken, 14, Jyris, 11, Jayven, 11, Celisity, 16, and Jehren, 8.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

When her common-law marriage unexpectedly broke up two years ago, Valerie Strawberry found herself in a desperate situation.

She was mired in debt and was left without child support. The breakup alienated her from her in-laws and other members of her First Nations community in west-central Alberta. Overnight she became a single mother facing a life of poverty.

Her own father had passed away when she was 12, and her mother was in no position to offer assistance.

"I was struggling so much," Ms. Strawberry, 36, says. "I just kept wondering how I would feed my kids."

Being the sole caregiver of a family of five youngsters isn't something Ms. Strawberry expected for her thirties. But she's learned how to remain debt-free on a single income – and keep her family together in the process.

Her children range in age from 8 to 16. All are boys, save for the first-born, a daughter. The brood also includes 11-year-old twins.

For their sake, Ms. Strawberry sought professional help to manage her debt load of $20,000, and curb some expensive habits she had developed during the course of her 16-year marriage.

"I used to shop all the time," Ms. Strawberry says. "I used to think it was important to be trendy, and I spent a lot on credit cards."

She also used to spend lavishly on her children, renting bowling alleys for birthday parties, for instance, and meals in restaurants. All that changed after she attended a debt management session in nearby Red Deer.

"I had seen an ad," Ms. Strawberry recalls. "And it looked like a good idea."

The firm, Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada, Inc., tailor-made a program to help Ms. Strawberry pay down her debt.

The credit counsellor itemized all her expenses – how much she paid for rent, transportation and groceries – and provided a plan. Ms. Strawberry followed it to the letter, and 24 months after starting the program emerged debt-free.

"I ended up with low monthly payments and that really took the stress off me," says Ms. Strawberry.

"The fact of the matter is no one starts out a marriage thinking it will end up in divorce, however, many Canadians are and will be faced with this reality," says Jeffrey Schwartz, executive director of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada.

"The breakup of a marriage results in many stressors, not the least of which is a new financial truth. While there may be a few families that have a structure in place to handle this change, many others will have to find new ways to manage a reduction in income and to create a new financial identity."

Ms. Strawberry's new identity involved moving off the reserve to the city to find better schools for her children. Her own education included enrolling in a community college program to upgrade her skills. After graduating in June, she landed a $50,000-a-year job in the finance sector.

Her future certainly looks brighter than it did two years ago. "It's been quite the journey," Ms. Strawberry says.

Since climbing out of debt, she has adopted a new set of personal practices aimed at keeping her debt-free into the future.

They include bulk shopping at Costco every two weeks and cooking all family meals instead of eating out. The children now all take packed lunches to school, another huge saving. "I've cut back on buying on demand," she says.

In Red Deer, Ms. Strawberry recently qualified for low-income housing. Today, her monthly rent payment is $585, compared with $2,100 she used to pay when married. Her band gives her an annual stipend of $700 for the children's hockey lessons.

To get around, she bought a used car – a 2005 Chrysler Pacifica – fuelled with gas also purchased at Costco, where she gets a 2-per-cent cash-back on her gas purchases. Last year, that kickback added up to a $300 rebate, which she then spent on groceries.

Ms. Strawberry also collects Air Miles and uses them to make miscellaneous purchases.

Now planning for the future instead of worrying about her past, Ms. Strawberry would like to make monthly payments to RESPs for her children and postsecondary education. Her priority lies with the oldest, ages 16 and 15.

Through her new job, she also makes automatic monthly contributions to a pension plan.

"I don't owe anybody now," Ms. Strawberry says. "It feels really good."

Debt-free on single income

Single parents often struggle financially when rearing a family.

Dilys D'Cruz, a single mom herself, and vice-president of community banking at Meridian, Canada's fourth largest credit union, says the trick to staying debt-free on a single income requires foresight, planning and a coin jar.

Here are more of her tips:

Pay off credit cards

Pay them off right away, as you don't want to pay high interest charges on the balance. But the reality for many single parents is that there may be times when credit-card debt is higher than it should be.

Debt consolidation loans

If you have found yourself in a situation where your credit cards are not being paid off, look at getting a debt consolidation loan to lower your interest rate and payments. But be careful to put away the cards so that you don't run them up again because this can lead to a vicious cycle of debt.

Workplace savings plans

If your employer has a savings plan, use this to save money for the short or longer term. Taking money right off your paycheque is a painless way to save.

Automatic transfers on multiple accounts

Set up an automatic transfer from your chequing account to a savings account and make it coincide with payday. I have two savings accounts, one for larger children's expenses, such as hockey, dance and school fees, and a second I use for family vacations, and which serves as a buffer for other expenses.

Paying into RESPs

Contributing to an RESP for your children is important but don't feel guilty if you have to skip it for a period, as you can always make up contributions and receive the government grant when you do.

Create a coin jar

This is an easy way to save money and it's always a surprise how much you have saved once the jar is full. My hairstylist told me she saved $1,800 this way.

Establish a budget

There are great budget apps that you can download for free that help you manage expenses. Two of my favourites are Flipp, an awesome app that lets you find the best prices on products, whether they are groceries or toys – it consolidates coupons, and advertised sale prices in weekly flyers – and Goodbudget, a great budgeting app, which I have used as well. But there are lots of others out there. Find one that works for you.

Don't be afraid to ask for help

There will be times when you will be stretched financially and you will not always be able to do all the right things. This is when it is important to go in to talk to a caring financial adviser who will work with your personal situation and provide you with sound advice and a plan to help you with the present and plan for the future.

Alyssa Gowing is a 27-year-old homeowner who follows a strict budget and finds creative ways to save money in order to afford her mortgage

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