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When happily ever after gets cut short

Secrets of single parent success

tips for single dads

Recently, I had lunch with a former co-worker, Mark. Although our employer is in another state and our areas of responsibility were mostly
unconnected, Mark and I ironically only live a few miles apart, have a few mutual friends, and occasionally see one another at a store or at some activity that involve our kids. After I'd told him in more detail about my life including my late wife, Lori's, cancer and being a single dad, he rather incredulously asked, "How did you do it?"

He wasn't the first to ask.

Don't get me wrong, I am pretty far from being the perfect parent, single or otherwise. Still, considering making financial and emotional ends meet isn't always easy for anyone, I've been able to get by for more than a dozen years as the full-time father of three beautiful, independent,
incredible children.

Here are just a few of the secrets of my success:

1. Proactively hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Long before we learned Lori was sick, she and I talked about "what if's." We considered whole life insurance and graduate school, both of which are costly. We chose the latter believing education would benefit us and our children in any case. If the two of us lived long lives, M.B.A.'s would increase our earning power both in the short term and the long term. If something happened to one of us, then that degree would help to make either one of us more employable and give us a better chance to make sound business decisions in the context of partner-less parenting.

2. Do what you can. Lori's wake was held at Baue Funeral Home at St. Charles Memorial Gardens in Missouri. My dad's older first cousin, Bobby Wade, arrived to pay his respect. Bobby was in poor health and physically unable to wait in the greeting line. So, when I had a minute, I went out to see Bobby in the foyer. He understood I only had a few moments, so he got right down to it. He said, "You're not the first man to lose his wife. Don't feel sorry for yourself. You will be overwhelmed. There will be dozens of things that need to get done on any given day. Do what you can and don't feel bad about what you can't."

READ MORE: A story of single dad. His courage after grief.

3. Grieve in your own way.
This isn't the first time I've referred to my friend, Steve White, who had lost his wife suddenly a couple of years before I lost mine. "Whitey" said to me, "Most folks will have your best interest at heart, not many people understand what you're dealing with. Few will be able to provide perspective or practical help. Remember this; there is no wrong way to grieve."

4. Buy a multi-family home. A single-family home is a huge expense and a drain on the family finances. A multi-family investment property is likely to increase in value and provide some passive income. It is a lifestyle choice, but given your circumstances, if possible, invest in a multi-family property, move in, and rent the other space to defray the mortgage, taxes and insurance.

5. Start a small business.
Obtain a DBA, incorporate or form a limited liability corporation. Keep a record of your sales and expenses. In just about all cases, owning and operating a small business can be done simultaneously to a full-time job. Not only can a small business both provide an income and have an intrinsic value, but it will also allow you to dictate your hours, keep you close to home and to your children and provide you with the ability to consider some of your other items as business expenses.

6. When it comes to new romance, measure twice, cut once.
I don't think it's anyone's dream to fall in love, marry, have children, and then, whether through divorce or loss, become a single parent. Lori and I planned to build a life, raise our kids. We hoped to enjoy one another, our children and our grandchildren happily ever after. Plans change. Commitments are, by definition, not supposed to be broken. Still, they often are broken. When it comes to making another commitment, take Smoky Robinson's advice: shop around.

READ MORE: The struggles of step-parenting

7. Don’t buy a “prestige” car just yet. For me, it didn't make sense to buy a Mercedes, BMW or Cadillac for $75,000 when I didn't have my children's college savings fully funded. My personal definition of "fully funded college savings" is $200,000 per child, or $50,000 per child per year. That level of college saving would pretty much guarantee my children could attend almost any college, private or public, that they wanted to.

If you're fortunate enough to have earned $75,000, why not use it to buy an asset, like real estate, that is likely to appreciate and provide passive income?

8. Take some (guilt-free) time for yourself. When I take the time to relax or have fun or cut loose or whatever, I'm a better person for my children. Considering that the life of a single parent is often tremendously stressful, particularly for parents who have sole custody, take the time you need for yourself. If you're not feeling well, allow yourself to sleep a little later or take a nap. A day of rest may prevent a week in bed with a cold or worse. If you need to get away for a night or a weekend alone or with a friend, then get a sitter and get away.

I won't tell you that the application of a few of my secrets will make life all marshmallows and lollipops. Parenting is tough. There is more to it, but creating a safe, consistent environment is absolutely an important part to your children's success and, frankly, a single parent's emotional and physical health.

For the record, I haven't yet bought a Mercedes, BMW, or Cadillac. I drive a 2014 Volkswagon TDI Diesel Passat. After the kids have their education and I have created the passive income I'll need to enjoy my grandchildren, I'll finally get my car. It will likely be an onyx black Volvo S90 with the amber perforated leather interior.

Thomas Mattingly is a local single dad and author. He lives in Warwick.