What My Divorce At 35 Taught Me About Money

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
A man is not a financial plan.

There’s still the idea that to get ahead financially, we have to lock down a partner — preferably a rich one. I know, I have been there.

Before I got married, I lived on my own in Manhattan, and my father helped me with some of my housing costs. Around the time I turned 30, he stopped with financial help, and I was fully on my own. I was afraid to deal with my reality, so to make up the gap, I started relying on credit cards and seeking, unconsciously, another person to help me.

A few years later, in 2009, I got married. Above all, it was for real love and affection. But there was also a part of me that thought I had now solved, or at least bypassed, the problem of personal financial insecurity by saying “I do.”

Now I had a safety net, a roommate to share bills, and there was someone who enjoyed and could afford to do nice things — eating at Michelin-starred restaurants and traveling to exotic places. While I kept my old money habits — buying things I couldn’t afford on a credit card, barely saving — my lifestyle was a little bit better with a husband in the picture.

There’s still the idea that to get ahead financially, we have to lock it down with a partner — preferably a rich one.

Then it changed. Within two years, the early cracks in the relationship had turned to unbridgeable canyons. I was 35, cash broke, and still deeply afraid to confront my own financial picture as a single-again person.

Like 47% of Americans, I couldn’t even lay claim to an extra $500 after my bills were paid. I had $17,000 in credit card debt, $15,000 in student loans, and I wasn’t exactly acing it in the money-management department. I didn’t have an emergency fund to speak of and not much in a 401(k). My greatest source of stability was the apartment I owned. Even so, I had to borrow money from my mother to pay for the lawyer to get divorced.

It felt particularly shameful because there was no specific reason to have such chaos in my life, except that for years I had refused to live within my means.

As my marriage ended in the summer of 2011, I knew that would be a huge step toward reclaiming a sense of happiness. But I was also beginning a deeply personal financial transformation for the better.

It’s a story that could have easily gone a different way: Divorce is not always kind to women, no matter their background. The most recent census data shows that within a year of divorcing, women earn less and are less likely to be able to afford to live independently compared to men. Women’s (and men’s) economic futures are still tied to being married. Being single just costs more.

So how did I go from that indebted person at a fork in the financial road to where I am today, debt-free, single, and happily living within my means?

In the first year after the split, there was the reality of downsizing into a single life that I actually could afford. While I didn't have to sell my apartment, I had to cut out things like cable TV, all subscription services (yes, even Netflix), the yoga studio membership, extra clothes, dinners at restaurants, and concerts in order to afford monthly housing costs. It was clear that traveling would look a little different, too — subways rather than taxis; buses, not trains and planes; trips to visit friends, rather than adventures to faraway places.

There were nights of waking up panicked, knowing that I alone was responsible for my own financial future. But, as with any recovery process, I took it day by day.

There were nights of waking up panicked, knowing that I alone was responsible for my own financial future.

My financial transformation was not only about how I was spending and saving my money, it was also about how I was earning it. In my early 20s, I had picked a career track in journalism and I had no illusions that it was a lucrative field. But ultimately I was underpaid and I wanted to do better, so I transferred my skills to a job in the technology industry.

I also started attacking my debt, using everything that came my way to pay it down. I used my tax refunds and a lucky $2,000 windfall in "unclaimed funds" in the state of New York. Even after I got a 13% pay raise when changing jobs, I kept my expenses the same so I could continue to pay down the debt and start saving for an emergency fund. In the end, there was a small settlement from the divorce which I used to strike the last of my student loans. Over four years, I paid off $32,000 in debt and saved another $16,000, and repaid my mother for the divorce loan. I learned about investing, saving, and saying "no" to buying stuff I didn’t need.

However, the bigger change went far beyond money. Getting divorced forced me to get real about so many things in a way I never did in my 20s. Things, like: Did I really want to live in New York City forever? Did I want to pursue motherhood on my own or at all? What kind of lifestyle could I afford? What did I really expect from a partner in a long-term relationship?

Last year, I finally took my wedding ring — a platinum band with some diamond flecks — back to 46th Street to sell. The very thing that cost nearly $1,000 six years before, was now only worth $200. It was only material. I put the cash from the sale into a special box with the $100 bills my mother started giving me for Christmas following the divorce, her way of helping me. (If you’re wondering about the engagement ring, I gave that back as part of our divorce settlement.)

With my old debts cleared, I had different plans for the money: It was symbolic seed capital for a new life.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Meanwhile, I started to make good on the things I really wanted, like leaving New York City for California to be closer to family and the cheap thrills of nature. I gave away nearly all my belongings, packed a rented minivan, and drove across the country with my three-legged dog and my dad. I transitioned into a great new job in San Francisco.

My new more frugal mindset prevailed. I wanted a car so I bought a used Honda for $2,500 cash to avoid having monthly car payments; I continued life without TV and Netflix or fancy yoga; all my furniture came from Craigslist or used stores; I got a library card.

While the cost of living in my new city is as expensive as New York City, I like to think the perks are worth a lot more. There is better weather; abundant cheap eats; more living space with my garden, beaches, and hiking within 20 minutes. I am closer to family who can help me with dog care (a major cost savings). I started dating someone, and we split everything 50/50 (pro tip: use Venmo).

The special box, with my saved $100 bills, was still with me. But the bills in the box no longer seemed like the right form for my seed capital. I wanted something that was a more lasting and personal reminder of this transformation.

So on a recent Saturday afternoon this past spring I drove myself to Tiffany’s and asked for the necklace I had been eyeing for months, a gold bean on a chain. To pay for it, I pulled out 13 $100 bills.

Five came from my mom — all those Christmas presents. Two from the wedding band sale. Six I withdrew from the ATM, drawn from my savings account.

I made my purchase and clasped it around my neck. Before I left the mall, I made a slow victory lap, admiring the glimmer of gold in store windows.

It’s one of the biggest purchases I have ever made for myself outside of an airplane ticket, the car, or a computer. But I did it because this is more than a necklace — it’s my “Fuck Yeah, I’m Single and Making it on My Own” amulet.

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