5 Big Lessons My High-Conflict Divorce Taught Me About Money

Here’s hoping what I’ve learned may help you, too navigating divorce and money.
divorce and money

It’s hard to save money. 

Buy a lottery ticket! 

Here is how to write a check. 

Invest in stocks! 

Such was the financial advice given to me by my mother, the daughter of a widow who struggled to provide for her family. 

My father’s advice was more succinct: Ask Mom. As the son of a well-to-do medical doctor, he vaguely resembled the maligned “Poor Dad” from Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad. 

When I was growing up, money was never discussed. My sisters and I were expected to achieve, create, and excel, but such performance was never linked to money. Money was admired, but never linked to talent or intelligence. And there was no instruction about its necessity. 

Despite the prattle about personal excellence, the real expectation my parents had was for me to marry. In fact, marriage was the unspoken reason for my education—not to discover a career that would help me earn a living. 

Neighbors flush with cash who owned a string of businesses failed to impress my Confucian father, who was steeped in the idea of scholarship untied to practical realities. My homemaker mother acquiesced to these ideals, and the significance of money became an unspoken point of contention between my parents that lasted throughout their lives.

Understanding Money and Divorce

The fairytale ending to this inauspicious beginning would have been my ascent on Wall Street. Instead, it took a divorce rife with conflict for me to work out my money issues. If I’m honest, I’m still working on those issues. I’m challenged by money management, struggle with calculated risk, and I’m not financially conversant in important ways. I grew up affluent, spent most of my adult life financially insecure, and it’s only now, as a single parent, that I’m reckoning with my emotional attitude about money. 

However, I’ve gotten better. I also know that I’m not alone in my effort to learn more about (and talk more about!) money. So, in this spirit, I’m going to share what I have learned along the way.

Related: Worried About the Effects of Your Divorce? Here’s Why It Can Be an Opportunity to Feel More Empowered Than Ever Before

  1. Figure out what your emotions are about money—and then detach.

    We can balance our budget and do excel sheet gymnastics, but until we examine how our personal beliefs affect our money outlook, we’re vulnerable to repeating negative patterns. My own battle with scarcity thinking promoted decisions that seemed like they’d save me money but didn’t align with my values and long-term thinking. Take my indecision about buying a surf rack. It felt like an extravagance. Yet when I did ultimately buy the rack, it prompted me to realize that investing in my healthy habits made me exponentially happier. I now base all my financial decisions on my long-term physical and emotional health. 

Economist, happiness researcher, and board art painter Inessa Love suggests we measure our well-being on a scale from zero to 10, with zero representing the worst possible life situation and 10 the best. Once we start measuring, we start paying more attention to how we’re really doing. It’s only then that we can figure out if the ways we think about our finances and spend our money aligns with our values—and re-focus on what truly matters.

Related: How to Write Your Divorce Story—and Why It’s So Important That You Do

  1. Know the status of your finances individually and as a couple.

    It’s important to remember that marriage is a business agreement. There are no secret accounts in a true marriage. Investment accounts, bills, contracts—both parties must know about the obligations these agreements require. You must be able to access all accounts where your name appears. During my marriage, I was nearly swindled out of my share of the house. My ex-husband went on and on about the benefits of having our jointly owned house transferred to his name only, successfully persuading me that such a move would mean a quicker house sale and would hasten his move to the U.S. Luckily the bank denied this name transfer without a new mortgage. Never forget that you must know the status of your spouse’s finances!

  1. Have both separate and joint accounts with your partner.

    While some claim that joint accounts make for a happier marriage, separate accounts offer security should a relationship sour. Divorce strikes half of all marriages, and there’s been an increase in couples splitting after decades of marriage. Most couples profess complete sharing until their break-up, at which point algebraic calculations bordering on subterfuge appear under the masquerade of fairness. Yet even guru Suze Orman advises an account for each partner and a joint account for bills, which get divided according to income. Even if a partnership stands the test of time, think about it this way: Separate accounts are a great way to save up for a personal item we’ve always wanted or a surprise gift for our beloved. Money and divorce are complicated, separate and joint accounts offer an opportunity for both independent and shared goals. 

  1. Pay someone to help you with your money.

    As mentioned above, money and divorce are complicated. While this may seem unnecessary (especially if money is tight!), I think investing in help when it comes to your finances is the ultimate act of self-care. We pay people to clip our toenails, vacuum our floors, dye our hair, and walk our beloved dogs. Some of us may even manage to convince ourselves that a handbag that costs more than a month’s rent is vital to our happiness. Yet why do we hesitate when it comes to paying people to give us advice about our money situation? Financial advisers, accountants, and/or bookkeepers are qualified to help. Still don’t think you have the money to hire someone to tee you up for a more successful financial situation? Here’s one way to look at it: You hire someone to fix your car when it’s not working, right? And that person helps you get your car going again, correct? So, why not hire someone to help you create a budget or manage your retirement plan? If you do, there’s a very good chance he or she will help you “fix” your money management issues or help you optimize strategies you’re already implementing, teeing you up to have more financial freedom (and even more money!) in the future.

  1. Talk to your friends about money and divorce.

    I know, I know—talking about money is taboo. But I’m convinced that the more we talk about money with our friends and loved ones, the better off we’ll all be. What we disclose or not about money often boils down to shame and the nature of the relationship. Discomfort arises when we believe we have too much or too little, and links to how we negotiate power, vulnerability, and fear with our friends. Friends know about our therapy and drug habits, our in-laws and exes; they weigh in on our messy closets, plastic surgery considerations, and urinary tract infections. And yet, most of us are reluctant to discuss money matters. What can we share to help each other? Historically, Korean immigrant women kickstarted their family’s finances through a kye. Women agreed to contribute a monthly sum into a pot, with individuals taking turns to open a business or buy property. The group would then dissolve when all of the women had taken their turn. These groups continue to operate! If this seems too risky, it still points to a truth: When we gather to share, we can empower and encourage each other to reach our financial goals. Talking is a good way to start.

Related: Is It Time for You to Develop New Passions in Life? Here’s a Great Place to Start

These days, I’m thinking about how money shaped my closest relationships and left me on the receiving end of dishonest behavior because I was reluctant to see it as a type of personal power. In modern life, money is overly emphasized as a way to selfhood, but we cannot dismiss its relevance in how it shapes how we think about ourselves and life. Money is a tool to satisfy needs, and while the desire to acquire and accumulate often leads to deeply unethical behavior, it also can be used to demonstrate respect and caring. The key is to be aware of the feelings and history that shape your perspective on money. The more you know who you are, the more you can appropriately respond to the financial needs of yourself and those around you.

For more information on relationships, click here

Stephanie Han teaches women’s creative writing workshops at drstephaniehan.com. Her fiction collection Swimming in Hong Kong won the Paterson Fiction Prize, and finalist for AWP’s Grace Paley Prize, the Spokane Prize, and the Asian Books Blog Award. A PEN and VONA fellow, she received grants from the LA Department of Cultural Affairs, and was the inaugural English Literature PhD of City Univ. of Hong Kong. Her work-in-progress ‘Break’ details how to write a divorce story. Han lives in Hawai‘i, home of her family since 1904. 

Join the discussion! Have you gone through a divorce? If so, what’s your divorce story? And why do you think it’s so important to write down (and possibly even share!) how the end of your marriage really went down? Sound off here.

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