Dealing with finances is one of the greatest challenges both during and after divorce. In several surveys I’ve conducted in the past few years, finances are the #1 stressor and the biggest burden divorced moms face no matter what the circumstances. (Find more info here.)
If you’ve been a stay-at-home mom or worked part-time for a little extra income, you may receive spousal maintenance for some period of time, but you’ve still got to adjust to living on a budget. You probably need to plan for a return to full-time work to bring in the income you need to support yourself and your kids.
If you’ve been a breadwinner mom before divorce, you may be paying spousal maintenance yourself, along with child support. And even if not, running a household on one income and knowing that as a single mom you’re the primary or sole source of financial support for the family can be a big stressor.
Finances During Divorce
I fall into the “breadwinner” category. I figured finances was one area I didn’t have to worry about since I was the primary financial support for the family for at least five years prior to my divorce. But I was naive!
My attorney pointed out that after divorce we’d be supporting two households on the same income. And that we’d be dividing our assets 50-50 because of how long we'd been married. I chose to stay in the family home after determining it was feasible. I gave up most of our liquid assets to keep the house, but fortunately not all. I’d be starting single life with less, at least financially. I advise other divorcing moms to think carefully about keeping the house; there are hidden pitfalls, and I could have used the extra cash.
Because I was keeping the house, I needed to refinance it under my name. I considered taking out extra money from the equity to finance my kids' college educations and some needed home improvements. (I did neither.) I suggest asking advice and support from objective sources who know about money and finances to look at your options. I had my dad and my financial advisor to draw on, but there are plenty of online resources (including www.divorcedmoms.com) you can access if you don't know someone personally.
Finances After Divorce
I became a true single mom when I got sole custody of my children, and the full financial responsibility as well. Although I was - and still am - in reasonably good financial shape, finances have still been a challenge since my divorce.
Being solely responsible for everything without a backup raised fears I hadn't expected:
- What if there wasn’t enough money?
- What if I didn't have any work?
- What if we had to move?
- What about college?
- What if the kids had to give up their activities?
- What if we became homeless?
As you can see, my fears ranged from the implausible to the ridiculous to the real, and I had (and sometimes still have) periods of worry and sometimes even panic. I had to learn to handle the worry because living in constant stress took its toll on me and the kids. The more I worry, the more afraid I get, and the less likely it is that money will come in.
What works for fear and anxiety: Sharing my fears with someone who understands, then relaxing and letting it go is a big help. The first time I couldn't shake the worry, I shared it with a friend who first acknowledged that it made sense for me to feel afraid. That alone helped. Then she offered to "loan" me her higher power, which made me laugh and lighten up.
Remembering that the Universe knows my needs and will find a way to provide is another help. If I follow the fear all the way to the end and see what would happen if the worst came to pass, I usually find that I would be okay! Another method that helps is to write how I want to feel around money and finances. For this approach, I write something like:
I love the feeling of money flowing to me and building up my bank account. I love the feeling that there is abundance...
I write about how I want to feel until I shift into peace of mind or well-being which usually takes about 3 - 5 minutes.
Another challenge was learning to live within a budget. I was used to buying whatever we needed without worrying about where the money would come from to pay for things. But after divorce I was spending more than I was making, and that wasn’t sustainable. So I created a budget and cut where I could. Though austere, the budget was workable. I shared the basics with the kids, though I tried not to alarm them or make big changes overnight.
I didn't cut out everything fun. For example, we cut way back on eating out and picking up fast food meals on the go. But I still pay someone to clean my house twice a month so I can have some time to get out with the kids or on my own to hike or bike. We haven’t taken any big family vacations, but we did have a long weekend at a ski area after Christmas this year. We stayed at a family member’s house (no charge) and bought lift tickets at a discount (online research and timing).
Managing cash flow and using credit. As a self-employed sole proprietor, my work is not steady, and occasionally a client is late in paying. I also have occasional periods with no work. Despite the conventional financial wisdom, most divorced moms don't have ample reserves for these kinds of situations, and I am no exception. After divorce I had more than a month with no work, which allowed us time to adjust to our new circumstances, but meant running up the credit cards to pay the bills. I wasn't able to pay them off when due for the first time in my adult life. That took some adjustment to not lose sleep over it, but I another divorced mom helped me relax about it. She said that's what most people in my circumstances do, and that helped me relax about the circumstances. I don't want to make a habit of putting everything on credit (and you shouldn't either), but it is a useful tool on occasion. I did eventually pay those cards off, but I've found myself in similar circumstances from time to time, and relaxing about it keeps things in perspective.
Don't let conventional financial wisdom alarm you. My best suggestion for all divorced moms is to do what you need to do to take care of your immediate needs, and your children's needs, first. Relax about the rest. Don't bury your head in the sand and ignore reality, but don't stress about the longer term things you aren't doing right now. Be gentle with yourself as you adjust to your new circumstances and get your financial bearings. The rest will come with time and your willingness to keep working at it.