How to Budget With Inconsistent Child Support

Quick Answer

To budget with inconsistent child support, consider budgeting solely based on your income or on average income. In addition, you can request modifications to your child support agreement or pursue unpaid child support through your state’s child support enforcement program.

Mother with her baby boy working on her finances

Getting divorced causes disruption in all aspects of life, especially when it comes to parenting and finances. To ease the burden of shifting from a two-household income to one, a divorce decree or child custody agreement often requires the noncustodial parent to pay their ex child support. While it's illegal to defy court orders that require paying child support, some individuals attempt to avoid paying, or paying the required amount.

Budgeting becomes more challenging when child support payments are inconsistent and your monthly income is variable. If you're in that situation, here are some strategies that make it easier to cope with the ups and downs.

What Does Child Support Require?

Exact child support requirements vary by state, but nationwide, it's a court-ordered process that can be legally enforced if not followed. One parent cannot decide to change the process on their own; any adjustments to your divorce decree or other legal arrangements must be formally approved by a judge.

That said, divorces are emotional and can become contentious on the turn of a dime. A parent who receives child support payments may not have a complete understanding of the process—and the ex who pays it may not always be truthful about their obligations.

How Much Is Child Support?

Historically, the noncustodial parent paid child support based on a set percentage of that parent's income. More recently, states have begun to calculate child support based on the parents' combined income, where each party is expected to make contributions based on the child's needs, time spent with each parent and other factors.

What Does Child Support Cover?

Child support aims to help cover expenses related to a child's basic daily needs, including:

  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Housing
  • Medical expenses
  • Child care
  • School tuition
  • Fees for extracurricular activities
  • Transportation associated with getting the child to school, home and activities

In some cases, a court may also order parents to share other child-related costs—over and above child support obligations—such as school tuition or extracurricular expenses. Child support is not meant to cover unnecessary items like vacations or luxury cars, but in some places, it's acceptable for it to go toward a child's entertainment needs (like a computer, trips to movies or camping). If there's confusion on what's covered, talk to your attorney.

Also, note that something is only considered child support if it's received in the form of cash or other similar payment (like a bank transfer). The paying parent claiming that taking the child on a vacation should be accepted in lieu of missing child support payments, for example, is not valid in the eyes of the court.

When Is Child Support Due?

Child support is often paid monthly, but if a parent prefers it to be at a different frequency, like weekly or biweekly, they can request it from a judge (though it may not be approved). Many states issue child support orders directly to the paying parent's employer, so you may receive child support on a weekly basis if that's how your ex is paid, for example.

How Do You Budget for Inconsistent Child Support Payments?

Your child support is supposed to arrive at regular intervals, and in some states, it's deducted directly from your ex's paycheck to ensure you receive it.

Unfortunately, some individuals fail to meet their obligations and don't make child support payments when required (or for the required amount). This may be more likely if your ex is self-employed or unemployed.

Here are some ways to budget with inconsistent child support:

  • Budget solely based on your income. If your ex's child support payments are irregular or minimal, it may be helpful to create a budget that relies solely on your income. While this isn't possible for everyone, you may be able to create a budget even for very low income. This means ensuring all essential expenses are covered with your income; any child support payments that do come in can be used for savings, paying down debt or setting aside for future expenses outside your normal budget (like extracurricular fees or holiday gifts).
  • Budget based on average income. One helpful strategy for anyone living with inconsistent monthly income is to create a budget using an average amount. In this example, you could add up all the child support you received over the past year and divide it by 12. That indicates your monthly average amount of child support, which you can then use as an estimate for budgeting. You may need to make some adjustments as you go, since some months may be higher and some lower. But this can give you some guidance to plan around.
  • Request modifications. While this isn't a budgeting strategy, if your ex is mostly paying child support but it doesn't seem to be enough, you can request a review for a modification from a judge. Contact your state agency that collects child support to find out the process for requesting a review and potential modification.

Regardless of how you budget, it's smart to save receipts and keep records of how much you spend to support your child. This documentation could later help you prove in court that child support is needed, and to what extent.

What Are Your Options for Pursuing Unpaid Child Support?

It's illegal for someone to defy court orders and not pay child support. If a parent becomes delinquent, there are many ways they might be held accountable, both by the state and federal government.

In some cases, the state will become aware of missing payments and pursue action without your intervention. In other situations, you will need to contact a lawyer or your state's child support enforcement program to request they pursue unpaid child support.

Potential enforcement actions the government can take against parents not paying child support include:

  • The state garnishing wages from their income
  • State agencies withholding wages such as pensions, work bonuses and commission income
  • The federal and state government withholding tax refunds
  • The state revoking or suspending their driver's license
  • The state placing a lien on property such as real estate or a vehicle
  • A financial institution freezing bank accounts
  • The federal government revoking their passport or restricting obtaining a new one
  • The government reporting late child support to the credit bureaus, which will hurt their credit score

If nothing helps, you can take the other parent to court, and they may face fines or jail time.

Preserve Your Credit After Divorce

Managing money after a divorce can be challenging, especially if your ex isn't pulling their weight. If you're not able to get child support payments or budget around inconsistent payments, you may fall into debt to make ends meet—which can have a cascade effect that hurts your credit. To help mitigate the impacts, try to pay all your bills on time, keep debt balances low and save when possible. Periodically check your credit report for free on Experian to ensure you're maintaining your financial health in the wake of a divorce.