I’ll admit it: I’m way behind on posting reader questions. I get tons of questions, and can never reply to all of them. I do ask a handful of folks if they’d like to put their problems to the general readership. But even after sifting these through, I still have about a dozen dilemmas to put before you.

I had hoped to write up one “ask the readers” column per week that I’ll be in Europe, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I’ll post one today, and then we’ll tackle the backlog in earnest when I return.

Today’s reader question is a little bit different. Generally I edit the e-mails severely and then chime in with my advice before passing the baton to you. I’m not going to abridge today’s message at all. I’m posting exactly what came in. And I’m not going to lend advice — I’ll leave that all to you.

Here then are the woes of Kim, a single parent who is at her wit’s end.

My life has exploded with craziness. I am 26, a single mom (again) going through a dissolution of marriage from my husband (not my son’s father).

My husband kept everything, the house (currently in foreclosure) and furniture, his paid off car, the pets, etc. I kept my son and his belongings, my second hand dresser (older than me) my bed and books and my new car with a slightly hefty car payment (just under $300/mo). Everything else I own is second hand. I’m happy with this decision. I miss my house (I made it a home) but I’m happy with my 2 bedroom apartment. I removed myself from a very unhappy situation and with the support of my friends and family I’ve found independence and happiness.

My mother is disabled (brings home $800 a month after her medicare cost) I help her out as much as I can and in exchange she gives me free babysitting for various times. My son is 7, is very active (soccer, baseball, cub scouts, etc) has many friends and is the love of my life. I give him an allowance of $10 a month which is split between spending, saving (for college), charity, and saving for a long term goal (currently a vacation next year). He also receives spare change and sometimes dollar bills from my wonderful family which he is awesome about saving for his long term goal or giving to charity.

I’ve taught my son what my parents did not, money management. I’m still trying to teach myself. This year was especially crazy as my sister is getting married. I spent about $1,000 on the wedding (I’m a bridesmaid).

I currently work 2 jobs (1 full time and 1 part time), I coach soccer, I am involved in my sons’ scouting activities (mostly planning/helping at pack mtgs), and I have just started dating a very wonderful, responsible man.

My problem is I feel like I don’t know where to start. I gained a lot of unwanted weight during my marriage, the accumulated debt feels like a dead weight which I’m ALMOST done paying off but can’t seem to get rid of the last little bit, I’ve saved quite a bit but have also spent a majority of my savings due to unexpected expenses, I’ve neglected my mental health (I’m diagnosed bi-polar and depression) because I can’t seem to squeeze time and money for therapy sessions ($25 co-pay per 50 min visit), my teeth are in bad shape due to past bulimia/lack of insurance problems. How would I prioritize my and my sons needs/wants?

My sons teeth are in OK shape, mostly needs 1 cavity filled but the other 2 cavities are in teeth that will fall out very soon (doesn’t make sense to fill them). Otherwise his activities just seem to nickel and dime me to death. My boyfriend and I planned a vacation before we started dating and we were just friends. He gave me the deal of a lifetime and I took it with the support and well wishing of friends and family. We are now dating and he doesn’t understand that I don’t want him to pay for everything, even if I’m struggling. I have a need to accomplish things on my own, I don’t want him to rescue me every time I make a mistake financially.

I have a separate vacation fund with Smarty Pig, a savings account linked to my checking account which is used as a small emergency fund (for expenses I forget about) and am waiting until after my sis’ wedding to start a Smarty Pig emergency fund that I won’t be able to touch as easily. I promised my son we would take another family vacation next year and I feel that I could swing it if I pinched my pennies harder.

I guess my question is how do I prioritize my life? How would a normal (i.e. an individual who doesn’t feel like they are drowning) put their priorities? I’ve always put everyone else first, mostly I had to because I was a young single mom and relied on others to help me out so I felt like I owed them everything.

  • Do I tell my mother (who helped me immensely when I was 17 and pregnant) I can no longer give her a stipend and pay for her cell phone so I can pay off my debts faster?
  • Do I break my promise to my son and not go on vacation?
  • Do I put everything on the back burner except my therapy and see if going back helps me feel better?
  • Do I throw my budget out of whack and get a personal trainer so I can feel better (no self discipline which is a HUGE problem)?
  • I’ve cut a lot out of my spending except cable tv. Do I give up this last thing and hope for the best?
  • I don’t want to put so much of my life and myself first that I forget my son or my boyfriend. Am I being stupid by not wanting help?

I do accept help for certain things that I feel guilty about (my dad pays my car insurance, I don’t pay my dad for babysitting but I pay my mom, etc). I’m intelligent, I’m better off now than I’ve ever been in my life and I’m happy even under all this feeling of helplessness and overwhelmed. Between both jobs and my child support I gross about $36,000 but I can’t really identify where about $8,000 a year goes. I’m currently tracking my spending in Excel to figure it out. (And by the way, I’m considering quitting my second job simply because I miss my kid!)

What advice can you offer me? I need to hear the truth from an objective party, no matter how gruesome it is.

Now do you see why I can’t reply to every e-mail I receive?

Kim’s situation sounds overwhelming. When I try to think of advice I could give her, it all sounds facile or mean. (“Yes, cut the cable TV. Use that money for one of the goals that matters to you!”) Or it sounds like a cop-out. (“Seek the advice of a trained professional!”) Plus, there’s a part of me that wants to offer to contribute money to her Smarty Pig account because I feel like she needs it more than I do.

But none of that is really constructive.

So, dear readers, this week I’m not going to offer my customary response to the “ask the readers” question. Instead, it’s all going to be your advice.

What should Kim do? Where should she set her priorities? How much help should she accept from others? What can she do to solve her problems herself? If you were in her situation, where would you start?

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