I was so damn….tired. All the arguing, negotiation, and uncertainty was a brilliant opportunity for avoidance.
After 18 years of marriage mostly as a stay-at-home mom, I ended up divorced. I didn’t think about what might happen if my ex and I divorced. Who does?
I stuck my head in the sand after my divorce. My lawyer had negotiated a fair agreement; I was able to keep the house and could meet the mortgage. There was no indication my ex-husband would not meet his obligation. I was wrong.
My daughters were in high school when my divorce became final. Reviewing the family expenses was something I viewed as a challenge. I eliminated countless monthly bills that I thought were unnecessary. Gone was the landscaper, I’d mow my own lawn. Adios land line. Bye-bye magazine subscriptions to publications I never read. Farewell hiring an exterminator for the mouse infestation–I learned to use mousetraps. Saving money felt powerful.
It took some time, but eventually my confidence in doing things I had once paid others to do grew. I even became annoyed when someone offered help, thinking, “Can’t they see, I can do this by myself?”
When it was time to sell my Wayland home and buy a new place in Colorado, I felt prepared. I met with my tax preparer and we determined what was affordable all the way down to expenses.
I wanted to live below my means without credit card debt which was a great goal, but I still hadn’t addressed my finances in a big picture, long-range planning way. I wasn’t prepared for a worst-case scenario. Fortunately, just before the proverbial shit hit the fan I had found an incredible financial advisor, Magali Lutz at Edward Jones. I met Magali at a Boulder Chamber breakfast shortly after I moved to Boulder, and when I discovered she was also a neighbor, I felt like the universe was in alignment.
Magali taught me so much about money management over the long term in addition to caring for my financial planning. Thanks to her, I began contributing to my portfolio and Roth IRA’s. Those things ended up saving my life and thankfully, I had a cushion when the carpet was pulled from under me.
My ex decided to renegotiate our divorce agreement to take advantage of a change in legal viewpoint with regards to alimony in Massachusetts. He told me via email that he was ceasing alimony effective immediately. My business as a merchandising consultant at that time was not yet providing a livable wage. I was a mess, financially and emotionally. We met with a mediator (which I can’t recommend when things are adversarial) and ‘agreed’ on a lump sum. I was not in agreement, but felt powerless, frightened, and angry. My ex husband argued his case around a table in a beautiful conference room surrounded by a number of his attorneys. I was relegated to waiting in the lobby alone while my fate was determined. My attorney eventually came to me and said, “Look, if you want to fight, you might win, but I think it’s going to cost you more in the long run.” She was right. The cost of fighting, especially when you are already vulnerable, is high both emotionally and financially.
I had to sell my condo and was down to my last $600 when that sale went through. One day Rob said, “Look, I know it isn’t fair, but maybe it’s time to let it go so we can just enjoy our new life.” We were planning on getting married and he was right.
And so I moved on.
I recently spoke with Boulder’s Mandy Walker, divorce coach and mediator, about women and financial health post divorce. I asked, “What are the most important things a woman over 50 should consider in her financial future as she navigates an agreement?” She said the following two points are critical:
- The ability to own her own home and to qualify for a mortgage. Owning a home gives you housing stability and potential investment gain. Understanding what you need in terms of a down payment and qualifying income going into negotiations is critical. Again, working with a CDFA (Certified Divorce Financial Analyst) and a mortgage lender will help you.
- Probably not a popular one, but if you have children headed to college, and you were planning on paying for college, you have to reassess that. Your children can borrow to go to college – you can’t borrow for your retirement. If your children borrow for college and then later on you are in a position to help pay off those loans, great! But don’t pay the tuition up front – if you pay the tuition, you can’t invest that money and earn a return on that. The compounding effect of the loss of investment earnings snowballs.
Mandy helps her clients reduce the pain, stress and overwhelm of ending a marriage, which divorce supplies in spades. I was particularly curious about how women in long term marriages, especially those of us who spent a good part of those years at home with our children or working a reduced schedule to care for our families fare in the courts. According to Mandy, “The reality is that in most cases, spousal support/alimony/maintenance is considered “rehabilitative” – it is temporary and intended to help the recipient transition to supporting themselves.” Which makes sense for women who do not still have children at home. Women often bear the majority of child care post divorce, and have lost time in the work force. Minimum wage jobs might be all many have to look forward to. That salary is not sustainable as one enter retirement age.
I came across an article that put the annual salary of the average stay-at-home mother at $162,581 by comparing the tasks a woman who remains home has in common with other professionals like bookkeepers, administrative assistants, cooks, and taxi drivers since these are all in a mom’s job description. According to Gawain Kripke, the policy director at Oxfam America, “We undervalue women’s choices and their happiness and even their health,” he added, “all of these things that, again, economists wouldn’t measure but are so important.”
The possibility of being so financially vulnerable because I had remained home had not occurred to me until the end. And I paid the price for that.
If you find yourself with a marriage that is ending, even if everything is amicable, even if you feel you can make ends meet with your settlement (and this is for those of you, like me, who don’t have a skilled profession to fall back on or who remained home to care for the family), make a meeting with a financial advisor your priority. Do it immediately. Mandy said “Working with a CDFA to help you understand the financial impact of divorce and to help develop possible settlement scenarios, working alongside your attorney, if there is one, can help shield against negotiation fatigue. And if difficult conversations create clinical anxiety for you …. That’s what attorneys are for.”
Mandy also suggests women get educated about the process and the financials, “Sometimes I hear people say that they feel they’re going behind their spouse’s back doing this. I say, absolutely not. You are making a life-changing decision and you need to be informed so that every choice you make is intentional.”
I know I was so overwhelmed that I was unable to advocate for myself as we began proceedings. I was so damn….tired. All the arguing, negotiation, and uncertainty was a brilliant opportunity for avoidance.
“During the negotiation phase I see negotiation fatigue and sometimes it doesn’t take very long to get there. It can come from a fear of confrontation, discomfort with difficult conversations. When this happens, people become willing to settle for less just to be done with it. That’s a mistake. Generally speaking, once your divorce is final, you can’t go back and reopen the settlement,” Mandy added.
One of the most devastating things was feeling ashamed when I had to let go of my home. How could I have left myself so vulnerable? Worse, during the time period between the absence of alimony and the sale of my condo, I relied on my credit card again. Coming clean to Rob about this debt was painful and I was embarrassed. But he did not judge me. He wanted me to move on, wanted me to heal. And as the astounding partner he is, he stood beside me.
In order to move forward, I had to place my trust in Rob and become vulnerable once again.
But, I was lucky. Very lucky.
Do your best not to let your terror, anger and grief over the unfairness of divorce paralyze you. Take charge. Get help.
There is great power in meeting a frightening financial situation head on and finding you are still standing when it’s over.
But you have to walk through the fire of divorce and financial planning first.