One doesn’t generally associate divorce with great personal finance education.
Most children of divorced parents might argue that divorce is a terrible, emotionally unpleasant time—particularly where money is concerned. And, it is.
While I agree that it usually is a miserable time, both emotionally and financially, I have to credit my parents’ divorce with some of the most important financial lessons of my life, and for making me the financially responsible adult I am today.
My Parent’s Divorce
I come from a very middle-class background. I grew up in a safe suburban neighborhood of Denver, Colorado, where I was raised by two parents with college degrees. I went to excellent (public) schools in a great school district and received a wonderful education. For much of my life, I didn’t have to worry about shopping for school supplies or getting brand new clothes for the new school year. I was always given an allowance. It was all just handed to me. I admit that my sister and I were slightly spoiled. We got more than enough gifts at birthdays and Christmas. We went on one to two vacations a year, including trips to Disney World and cruise ship excursions to the Bahamas and Central America.
And then, at the age of 18, my parents filed bankruptcy, almost lost their house, eventually separated and got divorced. It was a very messy, awfully unpleasant period in our lives.
But as awful as the whole experience was, I consider it one of the best life lessons. Through it, I learned how to be good with finances. While my friends and peers continued to be unconcerned with financial worries, I suddenly had to learn very quickly how to make and manage money.
Here are the three biggest lessons I learned as a result.
Lesson #1: Financial Security and Independence is Everything
Around the time I was 18 and graduating from high school, my dad made a major discovery: My mom had been slowly draining our family’s savings and retirement accounts over many years, and amassing tons of debt. By the time my dad realized what was happening, almost all their money was gone and they were in massive amounts of debt. My mom had been using plastic to pay for everything. All those nice trips to Disney World and the Bahamas had all been put on a credit card, and (probably) never paid for.
And, when she lost her job, everything started coming crashing down.
My mom had also stopped paying the mortgage and the house was headed towards foreclosure. With the help of extended family, their house was saved, but my parents ended up filing bankruptcy.
Through this, I witnessed firsthand one of the most important financial lessons of my life: It is essential for anyone in a relationship to know where your money is and where it is going and to regularly monitor your household finances. Typically, women are more vulnerable, but my situation highlights that men are at risk too. You should never rely on someone else, even a spouse, to manage everything for you. Household finances should be a joint partnership in a marriage with equal control and access.
It has been a slow, hard road for my dad to bounce back financially, but he is doing well. Although, he is 62 now and nowhere near financially able to retire any time soon.
My mother has never bounced back financially after the divorce. She has never been able to keep a stable job. As I have watched her, I realized how important it is for women to be able to support themselves and their families financially, regardless of circumstance (ie. divorce, illness, injury, unemployment, or death).
I realized then that I want to always be able to rely on myself for financial stability and security.
Lesson #2: Budgeting and Managing Money
After everything, my dad was adamant that we (him and my sister and I) stay in the house and school district (my sister is 2 years younger than me and was still in high school at the time). His desire was to make sure we weren’t totally uprooted from our lives, regardless of finances. But this meant that I had to rely on myself for anything financial.
I couldn’t ask my dad for money for anything. Not even $5. The gravy train had derailed.
While my father was concerned with getting food on the table and paying the utility bills, I had to start paying for my own cell phone and gas for my car plus anything else I needed or wanted. I
From gas for my 1999 Honda Civic (a hand-me-down from my Aunt Linda), to movie nights out with friends, I learned how to manage and budget my money, and often learned to do without. I picked up babysitting jobs, worked extra hours during the summer at my part-time, minimum wage job, and developed a side-hustle on eBay for extra cash for both me and my parents. Through this, I was able to learn how to make money, manage it and save it at a young age.
I started reading personal finance books and researching how to be smart with money. I started watching Suze Orman and Clark Howard on the tv religiously.
There were numerous days where I hated everything about our situation. I felt so ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t talk about it or share detials with even my closest friends. It wasn’t fun, but it was certainly character-building.
I soon realized that I had become more independent than many of my peers and friends.
Lesson #3: A College Education is Important and Expensive
Even more importantly, I learned the full value of a college education. Without my parent’s finanical support, I had to learn how to find and obtain scholarship money, grants and financial aid to pay for school.
I have always been intelligent, and a great student with a 4.0 GPA, but I definitely kicked myself into high gear after my parents’ divorce. I knew how important it was to graduate high school, go to college and achieve a bachelor’s degree so that I establish a career for myself and have the ability to support myself.
I ended up graduating with my BSN from the University of Colorado Denver with summa cum laude honors after 5 years of school. However, I still ended up with $35,000 in student loan debt, but due to my excellent personal finance skills, I paid it all off in only 25 months.
While divorce can seem like the worst thing that could happen to a family, what me and my family went through has turned me into a more fiscally responsible adult in the end, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. It has become a great strength of mine that served me wellmwhen I ended up getting a divorce myself after only 4 years of marriage and at only 27 years of age.