Getting a Handle on Finances for Single Parents
In ten years of marriage, I never paid a single bill.
Prior to getting married, handling my finances included rolling out my tiny hanging file system, and writing actual paper checks for all expenses, folding them with accompanying stubs into an envelope, and posting them with an actual stamp. In the handful of years following college graduation, I’d paid off nearly all of my college loans, had no debt including my used Honda, and lived on my own in a trendy North Dallas apartment. I saved for any vacations and cooked at home during the week to save money for The Future.
So the part of the here’s what’s mine and here’s what’s yours conversation with my soon to be ex went nothing like I’d planned.
I knew we’d opened college savings accounts for the kids when they were born and paid attention when we purchased two houses. I knew what we generally spent in a month, that we had life insurance policies in the event of a tragedy, and that we planned to drive our cars until the wheels fell off since cars are depreciating assets….
I knew nothing.
He handed me a file folder approximately the thickness of the Yellow Pages and said, “Here’s your half of the debt.”
Did he say debt?
We have debt?
My half was in my name and landed in the nether regions of five figures. Five encroaching on six.
If the impending divorce was the right hook, the financial blow was the upper cut that sent me to the floor of the ring with the referee counting.
The reality of my situation settled quickly. I knew I had two choices: freak out or find a solution. Freaking out promised to solve nothing, so I rallied the troops in a large hurry. I called two friends who knew a thing or two about finance and my mom. All gave me the same advice–protect your credit, get a handle on spending and expenses, and pay off the highest interest first.
That’s what I did.
Surveying the Damage
Before I could attack the problem, I needed to understand exactly what I was handed. I audited our expenses, looked at what I was spending on managing our home, and what expenses I could eliminate. I stopped shopping for myself completely. I had clothes and shoes and didn’t need more. I looked at my utilities and shopped for lower rates for everything and made quick changes. I quit buying books and got a library card. We almost never ate out, except on special occasions or to places where sharing made sense. (Think pizza…) I paid every bill the day it arrived, which meant I always knew where we were in terms of our monthly budget. And yes, I joined the banking future and opened online banking and savings accounts to pay my bills online. Within one month, I had a strict budget, a savings plan, and had decreased our monthly cost of living to a degree that would allow me to pay off all credit card debt in four years.
I did it in just over three.
In the process, I found that I entertained my kids in different ways. We didn’t go to Chuck E Cheese, we packed picnic baskets and explored new places. We spent more time with extended family and helping them with tasks at their houses like raking leaves and planting flowers in their flower beds. We went camping and hiking on Spring Break instead of skiing. And in a few short years, our financial situation looked very different.
Rebuilding the Financial House
In this time, we also sold our house. I could not afford it on my own, so moving became imminent. We moved in with my mom for a few short months that ended up being some of the most fun times of their childhood. I read them all of the Little House on the Prairie books in three months every night before bed. (Grandma too) I also sold my truck because I needed the equity and gas and insurance were killing me. I ended up leasing a gas-friendly car with a low insurance premium and low payment which ended up costing me less per month than Bertha the Gas Guzzler.
That spring, I worked with a realtor to find the perfect house. This friend understood my situation, knew my limitations, and also appreciated my goals for finding a home I could afford in a neighborhood suitable for raising kids. I looked at four homes and made an offer on what is now one of my proudest accomplishments. This investment radically changed my financial future and enabled me to check so many boxes. I invested in a place we could make a home in an area that embraced us in community with positive equity as the cherry on top.
These days, my financial question marks include thinking about retirement, sending my kids to college, and honestly making decisions about investing in our quality of life. I’m in a position to loosen the belt a bit so we go to lots of movies, shop a bit more, and completely splurge on ice cream, but I still keep a handle on spending and saving. I never want to be a financial burden on my children, so working with a financial planner helps me navigate making decisions about my financial future.
In the end, the life lessons learned forced me to grow up financially. Faced with financial disaster, I could walk the plank or take responsibility for my situation. Those times were challenging and scary. I lost lots of sleep worrying about days ahead and how I could manage them. What I discovered in the process of cleaning up the mess was that I could overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in areas where I had no real depth of knowledge.
Planning for an Army of One
Looking ahead, I wonder what my future looks like from time to time. Would it be easier if I shared my life with someone? Sure, probably. But I know better than to throw the chips to the wind, put it all on red, and hope for the best. If the day comes when I hitch my horse to someone else’s wagon, I want to enter that chapter of my life as an asset and not a liability. More than one divorcee has looked to marry into a situation where they are “taken care of,” but that doesn’t sit right with me. I’ve learned too much and value what I bring to the table separate from my finances. I’m proud of my accomplishments and any wagon hitching will be to someone who values the same.
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