I just moved into a new house. It’s an old 3-bedroom cottage, very small, but perfectly adequate to shelter me and my two daughters. I put 25% down so my interest rate is low. My mortgage payment, including taxes and insurance, is under $800 per month.
The reason I bought this new little house is because my ex and I recently sold our family home as part of our divorce. My new house is much smaller than the brick colonial we shared as a family, and the yard is almost nonexistent. It’s not very impressive, honestly. It is one of the many ways in which I have had to adjust to doing with less.
This doesn’t feel like an adjustment for me, at least, not financially. I don’t feel that I have “less.” I feel rich. I feel rich because I finally get to live my truth as an out gay woman. I even feel materially rich, money rich, the kind of rich we usually think of when we use the word “rich.” Because when my ex-husband and I split up, there was a decent-sized pile of money between us that got split up too. And another pile of money when we sold the house. So now I have this modest house with low monthly expenses, and I still have a retirement account.
I feel equal parts grateful and guilty about this.
I’m grateful because, for a long time, when I tried to picture life on my own as an out gay woman, I assumed… well, honestly, I assumed I wouldn’t ever be able to have a life on my own. Not for a very long time anyway. I thought I was trapped in my heterosexual marriage even though I’d been certain for years that I was gay. I’d been a stay-at-home-mom for over a decade, with modest income earned in the spaces between maintaining a house and caring for two children, and no savings in my own name. I knew the laws in my state divided marital property in half, and I knew all the work I’d done for my family had value, but for some reason I imagined that none of that would apply to me. I imagined that if I were to leave, I would leave with nothing.
I’d looked at apartments and knew I couldn’t afford to rent—at $1,500 per month for a run down three-bedroom, my meager and inconsistent freelancer income couldn’t be trusted to cover rent plus bills every month. But I couldn’t afford to buy a home either, because what bank would give a loan to a freelancer who didn’t have a down payment? I would need to save up. A lot. It would be years before I could get out and feel financially stable.
It wasn’t until I jokingly brought up the topic with a recently divorced friend that I learned I had a way out. “Um,” she said, “that’s not actually how things work.”
So, when my husband and I divorced, I left with enough cash that I could put money down on a new house. Yes, it is a small house, with Formica countertops and outdated avocado-green bathrooms, nowhere near as nice as the house my ex and I sold as part of our divorce settlement. But it is a place for me to be with my daughters, a place where we can be comfortable and safe, a place where I can start over as an authentic version of myself. I am free.
I feel guilty about this freedom. I can’t stop thinking of all the stay-at-home parents trapped in marriages for financial reasons or left near penniless after a breakup. Last year, desperate for advice on how to help my daughters through this stressful time, I joined a divorcing moms support group on Facebook. But instead of advice for how to help my daughters, what I found were thousands of women frantic for advice on how to make ends meet as they clawed their way out of broken marriages.
And that is in a group of women who are already divorced or separated. I know I’m not seeing the thousands upon thousands who are simply trapped, who believe they have no way out. Financially, even with 50/50 laws in so many states, many partners are unable to leave their spouses even though they know the marriage is over. For many couples, 50/50 is irrelevant because there simply isn’t anything to split. They may have been on a tight budget, living paycheck to paycheck, for years. Their spouse may have been irresponsible with money, spending frivolously, wasting the safety net that might have been.
For stay-at-home parents who have been out of the job market because they agreed with their spouse that staying home would be best for the family, their employment prospects are grim. They look at the job market, at the low-paying jobs where they have a chance of being hired, and they do the math. For what they’d need monthly to survive, even if they received child support, there isn’t any way to make the money stretch. They’re stuck.
I know I am incredibly lucky. It has been a hard year, but I am grateful every day that I had the financial means to free myself. And I’m fortunate that I possess a skill that allows me to bring in money despite having been out of the job market for so long. Living frugally allows me some freedom, but even with cutting corners everywhere I can, money is still incredibly tight. But I couldn’t have made this move without the money I walked away with from my marriage. I know I am the exception, not the rule.
If you know someone going through divorce, offer to help. Odds are, they are struggling financially. Offer to carpool, invite them for dinner. And remember that emotional support is needed as much as financial support.
And for those of you financially trapped in your marriage, please know there are ways out even with little to no money. I’ve witnessed women in my support group fight their way out of toxic marriages and make it on their own and thrive. Happier with less because they are free and independent. This is the harder way though, no doubt—those who manage this are climbing an invisible mountain. Just please know that I see you, I see the mountain you are climbing, and I am amazed by your strength.