Fitness costs of signalling are essential in order for reliable sexual signalling to prevail when the interests of the sexes conflict. This means that signalling can be subjected to a life history trade–off between present and future signalling effort. Here, I show that three–spined stickleback males (Gasterosteus aculeatus), who have a single breeding season during which they breed repeatedly, change their red nuptial coloration over the season depending on their body size at the start of breeding. Large males that completed several breeding cycles increased their red coloration over the season, whereas small males, who completed only a few cycles, did not. The increase in coloration was accompanied by an increase in parental success when males were energy constrained, but not when they had access to an unlimited food supply. Red coloration was thus an honest signal of male parental ability despite changes in signal expression when both signalling and parental care were costly and the investments in them changed simultaneously over the reproductive lifetime. However, the honesty of the signal varied over a lifetime. At the penultimate cycle, bright males cannibalized some of their eggs, probably to increase survival to the last cycle, whereas males cared for their offspring independent of coloration at the ultimate cycle.