How I found my financial footing after getting divorced

The mind-money connection

No one ever hopes to go through a divorce. But there are steps you can take to feel more confident navigating this difficult experience—and to help secure a stable and happy future.

After her divorce, Kimberlee encountered some tough financial and emotional challenges. She overcame them by growing her personal confidence, rebuilding her professional career, and taking more control of her money. Today, she’s a wealth manager and certified divorce financial analyst, and she started The Fiscal Feminist blog and podcast to help other women achieve financial resilience in good times and in bad.

In retrospect, my divorce was one of the best things that ever happened to me. At the time? I was paralyzed by fear. After 23 years, my marriage ended. I incurred credit card debt while paying legal fees and funding my family’s living expenses and my three daughters’ education. I didn’t know what was going to happen.

I don’t want any woman to feel the fear that I felt.

Going through a “gray divorce”

Before I share advice that can help you take more control of your money, let me tell you my story. I worked as a Wall Street corporate lawyer before transitioning into investment banking and wealth management. But I stepped out of the workforce after having kids and after my then-husband’s career took us overseas.

I was in my early 50s when we got divorced, and reestablishing my career was a real—and urgent—challenge. My divorce was expensive, and our finances were totally commingled. Alimony payments weren’t guaranteed, and I needed money to pay for living expenses, health insurance, and my children’s education.

When I was married, I didn’t think I needed to focus on my own financial situation. Working in the home meant I didn’t earn any income during the marriage. (As with many divorce decrees, I wasn’t compensated for child care, cooking, cleaning, and managing the household.) Plus, there was the career development I missed and all those years when I wasn’t contributing to a 401(k) or Social Security. Because my divorce happened when I was in my 50s—which is known as a “gray divorce”—I had less time to recoup lost earnings, establish a career, and save for retirement.

I told my kids, “OK, we’re going to move into the smallest house possible and cut back on everything,” because I wanted to put all my resources toward keeping a roof over our heads, paying for health insurance, and paying for their education.  They had already been through enough emotional upheaval, and I didn’t want to change their schools and disrupt their college plans. We had to cut back and get really serious about budgeting. I was selling everything I could to generate cash, including my jewelry.

I must have applied for 100 different jobs, everything from business development to selling perfume at department stores. I had lived outside the U.S. for a long time, and my career trajectory was seriously disrupted. Plus, I was constantly struggling with debt. One career advisor told me to take all my legal experience off my resume because I was over-qualified for too many jobs at my age. I refused to disrespect myself by making my professional accomplishments smaller. 

Finally, I threw up my hands and said, “I cannot be afraid anymore. I am going to make it my job to get a job that is right for me, and whatever opportunities are in front of me, I’m going to capitalize on them.”

Securing my financial future

After many job applications, eventually I found my job in wealth management. (I was fortunate to have my past career experience, which isn’t the case for every woman following a divorce.) Even then, for more than a year I was still living paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet. Luckily, wealth management was the perfect job for my skill set and personality, and I knew I had to be relentless and work hard, because failure was absolutely not an option.

With that mindset shift, I had the mental stamina and positive attitude I needed to get on track. It also took hard work and some careful financial planning as well as a committed debt repayment strategy. I built a solid book of business within the advisory group I joined, which ultimately became an independent wealth advisory group. I am now a partner and managing director in the group.

I paid down my debt and paid for my kids’ education—which was extremely important to me—and hit a place where I was feeling financially confident. I bought a house after many years of renting and did some things I never thought were possible during my divorce.

I’m still playing catch-up for my retirement, but I love the work I do and feel like I’m just getting started in a field that allows me to live in line with my values. After everything I learned from my experience, I wrote a book and launched my blog and podcast with the goal of empowering women to achieve solid financial footing in both calm and turbulent times.

How you can prepare for any contingency in marriage

Hopefully you never have to go through a difficult divorce like I did. But with careful planning, you can handle whatever financial and emotional challenges you might face. I’ve learned there are many practical things you can do to feel more in control:

  • Get a prenuptial agreement. Prenups aren’t just for wealthy people or second marriages. Everyone should consider one. It’s not just to protect your assets or to preserve future income for your children—many millennials get prenups because of their student debt. I recommend that prenups include provisions for compensating a spouse who leaves the workforce to be a stay-at-home parent.
  • Keep separate accounts and assets. Get your paychecks deposited into separate accounts and have a joint account that you intentionally commingle for shared expenses. Do the same thing with your assets. Before a marriage, set up a separate property trust for any real estate, investments, cars, or other property you own.
  • Build up your knowledge and keep a paper trail. Both you and your partner should have a complete and clear understanding of your overall financial picture, including your joint and separate bank accounts, taxes, stocks and bonds, incomes, retirement plans, and so on. Keep notes and copies of all that documentation—it can be difficult to obtain in a contentious divorce.
  • Don’t move out of your house. If you think you and your partner are heading toward divorce and you feel safe staying at home, don’t be so quick to leave the house. If you do, you may lose rights to it over time.
  • Put together a professional team. If a divorce is inevitable, make sure you go into it with plenty of support. Even in an amicable divorce, negotiating things like child support and the division of property can be extremely complex and unique to your situation. You’ll need a divorce lawyer and, if you have the resources, a certified divorce financial analyst to address specific money issues. A therapist can also help you deal with what may be some of the hardest emotional moments of your life. Do your due diligence to get people you trust.

3 tips to change your mindset and get your priorities straight

My divorce caused me to change the way I thought about marriage and money. If you’re thinking about the role that money plays in relationships, keep in mind these three tips that can help you shift your mindset to secure your financial future:

1.      Focus on yourself.

Women often put others’ needs before their own. But if you prioritize your needs, it follows that you’ll do things like get a prenup, plan for different contingencies, and track your family’s financial situation instead of leaving it solely to your partner. Ultimately, that will help you better support both yourself and the people you care about.

2.      Don’t fear uncomfortable conversations.

Many people don’t want to talk about money because they think it’s not romantic. But talking about money with your partner can potentially strengthen your relationship. Be transparent with each other about your financial situation and your respective relationships with money. Ask each other questions: “What do you want to save for? Do you tend to splurge on certain things?”

3.      Remember: You’re in control of your future.

Your partner should not be your plan. There is no Prince or Princess Charming—there is you. It doesn’t mean that you love your partner any less. But you have to take responsibility for yourself and be the CEO and CFO of your life.

I know that my story could have had a very different ending, which is why it’s so important to me that I help women get their finances in order. Whether you’re married, single, or divorced, you’re in charge of your destiny.

This content does not constitute legal, tax, accounting, financial, investment, or mental health advice. You are encouraged to consult with competent legal, tax, accounting, financial, investment, or mental health professionals based on your specific circumstances. We do not make any warranties as to accuracy or completeness of this information, do not endorse any third-party companies, products, or services described here, and take no liability for your use of this information.