The Unexpected Costs of Getting Over a Divorce

When your ex-husband’s name is still on your bank account.

Photo credit: LCB, CC0 Public Domain.

Before my divorce, I had been the sort of person who kept a relatively close eye on my bank account. This had more to do with limited income—and a then-husband whose tendency to swipe his card willy-nilly led to endless overdraft fees—than anything else.

After our divorce, I stopped checking my balances as often. I was living relatively comfortably: on my own in an apartment for the first time, with a good job and bills I could afford to pay every month. I might have failed at my marriage, but at least I didn’t have to worry about the overdraft fees that would pile on top of one another until they sometimes doubled the original debt.

Then one day I looked at my bank account, and my balance was in the negative.

It was November of 2012. It had been two years since our divorce, and my depression had been with me for all of it. My life consisted of getting up every morning, going to work, coming home, and watching Netflix all night until it was time to sleep again. The days all blurred together. I had done little more with my life than move into my new apartment. At least half of my belongings were still in boxes, stacked around the mess I had no motivation to clean up. My parents picked me up and drove me to work every day because I didn’t have my own car. I hadn’t even initiated a change back to my legal name, mostly because it involved too much work.

For two years, the simple routine of my bank account had comforted me. Paychecks were automatically deposited bi-weekly. I wrote a check for the rent on the first of the month and paid my other bills in the middle of the month. The money was always there. Until now.

Current balance: -$464.56

I scanned my bank account summary desperately, combing it for information, trying to figure out what had happened.

10/26/12 | Other Debit | WTHDRWL: S&P FEE | -$100.00
10/26/12 | Other Debit | WTHDRWL: NATURAL EXECUTION | -$527.24

I didn’t recognize the amounts or where they came from. I only recognized the purchases that followed them: the daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner purchases made by a person too mentally worn down to cook every day. These were purchases made with the assumption that a certain $627.24 was still in my account. But with that amount gone, my other purchases piled up. On top of that came the service charges and the overdraft fees from my bank.

Balance lost: $997.24

I had not made the two large purchases that had started the avalanche. In the heat of the moment, I assumed someone had taken my identity stolen the money from me. In a way, I was right.

I went to the bank after work and sat down with a representative who clicked and typed away on his computer. Finally, he picked up his phone and made a call. “And that is the name on the withdrawals? Mhm. Thank you.” He set down the phone, looked at me across the desk, and said my ex-husband’s name.

I protested. This was my bank account, after all. It had been a joint account, but after the divorce, my ex-husband had told me he would take his name off the account. He promised he had handled it and I — emotional, depressed, and worn down — had believed him. It turned out he’d never removed himself from the account. According to the bank representative, he would have needed to visit the bank and submit a signed form requesting to remove himself. He never had. When I logged into my online banking account — the only way I ever accessed my account — I only ever saw my own name. I didn’t get paper statements, didn’t look at the electronic ones they sent me, and assumed that it had all been taken care of.

My ex-husband had a lot of debts, and quite a bit of our money (mostly mine) had gone to paying them off. Only because I made the effort, though. He had a tendency to ignore the debts, as if he could turn his head and pretend they didn’t exist and they’d go away. One debt had gotten as far as a court, which had garnished the debt from a bank account under my husband’s name. My account — our former joint account — had been the oldest and, of course, the one with the most money in it. So out the money had come.

In the bank, I worked with the representative to close the account entirely. It was the only thing we could do without my ex-husband present to sign for the removal of his name. Outside in my car, I typed away furiously on my phone, informing my ex-husband via email what had happened and what he needed to do. We need to talk. Please contact me asap. Emotions and adrenaline surged through me, but for the first time in two years, I didn’t cry. Instead, I was angry. I was furious. I was fueled.

In retrospect, it was the first intense emotion I had felt in two years. The situation was terrifying and unpleasant, but the anger I felt shot through the heavy clouds in my mind like red-hot lightning. It galvanized me into movement at last. I borrowed $600 from my parents for rent and promised to pay them back over the next few months. I demanded that my ex-husband pay me back for the money. When he told me he could only afford $100 a month, I made him sign a physical agreement stating just that. I wasn’t going to let someone fleece me again. I even made a spreadsheet, documenting the original debt, and every payment he made.

Balance owed: $997.24
12/13/2012 -$125.00
1/28/2013 -$50.00
1/30/2013 -$50.00
2/13/2013 -$25.00
2/20/2013 -$50.00
2/27/2013 -$25.00

I used the money he gave me to pay back my parents when I could, but what I gave them often came out of my own paychecks. This made it even more necessary for me to become financially responsible, and the financial changes I made began to affect the rest of my life.

The money I spent on food every day — breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts, lunch from a drive-thru, and dinner delivered to my front door — added up to far more than I could realistically afford. I realized that I was spending somewhere close to $70 a week just for breakfast and lunch. I began bringing my lunch to work and then trained myself to get up a half hour earlier so that I’d have time to make and eat breakfast. Eventually, I started researching recipes and planning out new fun dinners, and cut out fast food almost entirely, minus a few treats. I was saving $75–85 a week, and I felt more awake and functional than I’d been feeling for years.

Balance owed: $672.24
3/7/2013 -$25.00
3/20/2013 -$25.00
3/21/2013 -$25.00
3/28/2013 -$25.00

That same year I went back to school. I never graduated from college, but found myself working in higher education nonetheless, with free tuition as a job perk. I’d been too apathetic to ever take advantage of it, but now I felt motivated enough to give college another try. In all honesty, my desire to be better than the person who had gotten into this mess fueled me. I didn’t want to be the woman I had been before, the one who was constantly fixing the mistakes of a lazy man and never doing anything for herself.

Balance owed: $572.24
4/11/2013 -$50.00
4/30/2013 -$50.00

In April of 2013, I opened a savings account and set up an automatic transfer of $25 every paycheck. My parents bought a new van for my father and offered to give me his old one — the same van I’d learned to drive in as a teenager — for free. I adjusted my financial planning to factor in gas and car insurance, and found a way to make it work.

Balance owed: $472.24
7/15/2013 -$75.00
9/10/2013 -$16.00
10/7/2013 -$5.00

In the fall of 2013, I earned my associate’s degree. As my finances settled, I upped the amount I was transferring to my savings account to $50, and then to $75. When my old van finally gave up in summer 2015, I had enough money to make a down payment on a replacement car. The 2010 Hyundai Elantra wasn’t new, but it was mine. I had purchased it with my own money.

I had earned it, all on my own, just like I earned my bachelor’s degree in December of that year. It was eight years after I would have graduated if I’d stuck with college as a teenager, and that only made the victory sweeter.

Balance owed: $376.24
4/7/2014 -$25.00
5/31/2014 -$15.00
7/2/2014 -$50.00
7/13/2014 -$25.00

The payments from my ex-husband had slowly dried up over time. I’d go months without hearing from him and then I’d reach out. He’d make a payment or two and vanish again. Once my father actually went to the grocery store where he worked to try and get him to pay. It worked, but only for a short while. My ex-husband remarried, and after a bizarre Facebook argument over my refusal to legally change back my name, the payments stopped entirely.

Current balance owed: $261.24

My mother wanted me to fight to get those last couple hundred dollars. Admittedly, the fact that my ex-husband had drawn her into that Facebook argument was fueling some of her determination. I don’t think she understood why I didn’t want to fight anymore or why it seemed like I had given up.

The truth was that I had given up—but in an entirely different way. This wasn’t the same lack of motivation that had plagued me for two years following my divorce. It wasn’t that I gave up on trying, but that I had given up on the person I had once been. I was no longer the young woman who had spent most of her early 20s keeping a frantically tight eye on her bank account while dealing with overdraft fees, debts, and collector calls. I had an apartment, a new title at my job, two college degrees, and a new car.

Thanks to hard work, budgeting, and a motivation fueled by anger (at least at first), I had become the adult I had always wanted to be.

That was — and is — worth far more than $261.24.

Amy is a higher education professional and freelance writer. She lives in Connecticut, where she has too many books, several cats, and lots of tea. You can find her on Twitter.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Financial Fails series.


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