Surviving the Financial Aftermath of Your Parents’ Divorce
by Leila Nathaniel
Not too long ago, you grew up relatively wealthy in a nice part of town with lots of family around you. When your parents divorced (which you wholeheartedly supported), there were a few things you didn’t get. And part of that is how your old life started to dissolve from the age of 20. For starters, the families who live so close by? Those relatives want to love you, but it will be hard, because the parent you live with is now Enemy Number One. They have shunned her from the community, but no one will admit it. It will feel like a betrayal to her when you visit those relatives. It will be hard not to talk about her. Those relatives will take you and your brother out to eat and discuss “how hard it is, and how they want to support you during this terrible time.” These will be some of the worst meals of your life.
The first big thing you don’t realize when your parents finally start getting divorced is how much it will hurt. Take away the little things you cherished, like how your dad fixes your stuff and gives you rides everywhere, and all you are left with is a huge facade while you cry about the insecurity of your new life. It’s painful and scary as fuck. It hurts especially because your parents don’t understand things like boundaries, and you become privy to all of the crazy that occurs during a divorce. You become particularly well-versed in the divorce laws of your province.
The second major thing that you will not realize is how good your life was (financially and otherwise), since everyone’s money and assets are pretty much frozen until they can come to a separation agreement. All those little things that you were used to required money to maintain, like the way the house was kept, your car privileges, and the feeling of being able to shop freely and often. You thought you were frugal before, but now that all the money (except for funds reserved for your education) is tied up, bit and pieces are eaten up and never come back, as now there are other priorities, like lawyers. Your parents aren’t necessarily subsisting on the bare bones of their incomes, but money they would usually spend on a collective lifestyle has now been allocated to rebuilding their lives.
Three of your friends’ parents are also getting divorced that summer, and you will all start the Lonely Hearts Club, where you go to fancy restaurants for lunch on weekdays (you are students), and eat ridiculous three-course meals for cheap. After, you buy several bottles of cheap wine, sit in the backyard and continue to examine the horrible minutiae of these splits in detail whilst getting drunk. On the days you don’t work, your hangovers start at 6 p.m.
It’s a good thing you have a job that pays well, because you are about to start hemorrhaging bills for your semester abroad. This will be the last summer of your life when your credit card bill is an afterthought. Up to this point, you’ve never really bought groceries with money you’ve earned, or paid rent. Those bills will start, and they won’t stop either.
Things start to really change in the fall, when the divorce heats up. You and your brother choose not to write an affidavit so the parent you live with will not get kicked out of your home. You start school again and prepare for a semester abroad. You continue to work and save like crazy, without realizing that this is the best thing you could possibly do. You do not realize that your previously constant safety net of parental financial aid is slowly being eaten away by divorce and tax lawyers and dirty tricks. Until now, you worked for pocket money, but you start to realize it’s time to make your own money.
During your semester abroad, you will be homesick, but for a life that no longer exists. You will sleep, eat and study in a 150-square-foot box of a room (your bedroom at home is much bigger), and spend your savings on travel. One month, you will spend all of 12 days living in that box, and you take advantage of the duty-free handles of booze. You will include €5 bouquets of fresh-cut flowers in your weekly grocery budget, because “it’s too depressing otherwise.” When you come home, you will feel ripped off when you go to the florist.
You come to understand the financial situation from the strain in your mom’s voice, and how she looks increasingly gaunt during Skype sessions. When you come home, you will hug her small frame and wonder where the rest of her went.
You understand your father’s side from the stern yet desperate tone he takes on the phone, and because he gets mad when you don’t call. Both of them insist on telling you the details of their divorce. Neither of them understand that sharing all this with their child is wildly inappropriate. You spend a ridiculous amount of money on phone bills. You also spend a lot of money in bars. You have strange flings with people you don’t understand. You stay out until eight in the morning like it’s no big deal. One morning, you wake up on a houseboat and don’t understand why. The renters lose their security deposit because of you.
Summer arrives, and you head off for 10 weeks of continuous travel. You have wealthy companions — friends from home who don’t realize that a) you are paying your own way — while their parents are funding their intercontinental rager — and b) you don’t have a parental safety net: your parents cannot simply float you the money. Since they are not particularly concerned about the cost of things, they will insist on eating and drinking at nice places. You will spend €10 on only a fraction of the laundry in your suitcase.
Five weeks in, you are concerned about the health of your accounts. When you started, they seemed overwhelmingly full, but now you will need to eke out another five weeks from the measly amount remaining. When they leave, you learn to eat cheaply and don’t drink much. You stop shopping. You make friends with some frugal people and share supplies with them. You spend whole days in places with free entry with a refillable water bottle and a pastry. You visit relatives for two weeks. You befriend people who live in squats. You didn’t know that clean people lived in squats. But the electricity is dodgy, and you have no desire to find out about the bathroom situation.
When you come back home, you are pretty broke. You start school again and it’s lonely — not many people realize you are back in town. You spend nights cultivating an Internet addiction and ignoring your dad. Once you come home it will be even harder to “not choose sides.” All the boundaries you thought you had put into place come crashing down, and you find yourself screaming at your mom in the middle of the street because she doesn’t understand the word “enough!” and won’t shut up about the divorce. She will suggest counseling but you won’t be ready to go. A few years later, you will end up paying for it yourself.
The few friends who do know you are back in town will not understand that you are B-R-O-K-E. Their attempts to socialize with you include trips to bars in the city, where you will spend $100 on drinks that night — even though you are a lightweight. And then you split a $30 cab back to suburbia. Even when you say “I can’t spend more than X dollars tonight,” they will insist you drink more, cover the rest of your tab and you will need to pay them back another time. It’s shameful to have to borrow money, but you don’t want to be the one to kill the night out. You will do this most weekends until your bank balance reaches an alarmingly low number. You take up babysitting, an occupation you haven’t held in years, to avoid overdrawing your accounts.
In an attempt to save money to see your best friend, you will take Craigslist rideshares to her city. It’s not much cheaper, but you get to ride in a Porsche one time. Your dad flips out and pays for your bus ticket on the way back. You get a lot of nice presents from him, but your brother does not. It’s really weird explaining these new things: a new winter coat, an iPad, some jewelry — things you couldn’t justify spending on yourself. It’s also hard to refuse these presents, because it’s nice to pretend that you’re still kind of rich.
When your parents settle that winter, your mom has ownership of the house where you continue to live with her and your brother. Your father is entitled to certain belongings, and he has them removed. Your home seems pretty empty without it, but you make it work, because now you are staging the house. It’s much too expensive to live there on one income, so you help out as best you can to get that sucker sold ASAP. It sells in a week, which is a huge relief. Then you sell almost all of the furniture on Craigslist. It barely covers the costs of movers.
The three of you move to a 3-bedroom apartment that has less square footage than your old basement. It’s nice and centrally located, but still being renovated when you move in. You take a part-time job that allows you to supervise the workers in the mornings, and work in the afternoons when your mom comes home. You make less money than you have in several years, so you keep up the babysitting. You will scratch the car badly in the underground garage and everyone’s premiums will go up.
That summer, you date a guy with a great job for two weeks, and blow all of your pay with him on dumb shit like taxis. When you break up, it’s a relief on your wallet. You get back together with your European boyfriend, who lives in the Midwest. You see each other twice in four months (going halfway), and realize that the relationship is too expensive to sustain. Your suitcase with your textbooks, laptop charger, eyeglasses and new boots get stolen on the way back. You arrive the next day at school in tears, unable to participate in an important project. Somehow you still manage to get an A- in that class, and the suitcase is returned a few days later.
Life goes on and you graduate and continue to date inappropriate people. Eventually, you learn to drop the friends who cannot respect your new status, and become closer to the friends whom you can have fun with for free. You make new friends who know and understand your current life. You develop healthier and cheaper hobbies like running and bicycling. You are not poor, but you still live with your mom, because you haven’t found stable employment and can’t necessarily afford to move out (even though you have no debt — knock on wood). But you know that before this, you belonged to the kind of people whose parents can contribute to or outright buy their kids apartments in the city now.
Now you have a regular office job and work like anyone else, and you find it so strange. Your whole life you were told and expected to have some fabulous career — no one really explained about the hustle to the top, you were just expected to be there. It’s a bizarre struggle to be striving to regain your old life at the age of 25. While you are proud that you know how to get your own job and work hard, you still feel the old pressures to live and spend like you used to, and wonder if they will ever go away.
Leila reads like she should get paid for it, and compulsively maintains a series of lists on a daily basis. Usually she writes in the first person here and here, but you can catch it all on Twitter @walkinonby. She currently lives in Montreal.