10 financial lessons I learned from my parents’ divorce
This guest post from Sydney is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Sydney blogs about personal finance, entrepreneurship, self improvement, travel and lots of other fun stuff on Untemplater.com. Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income.
It's hard to believe it's been about 20 years since my parents first separated, and it's actually a blessing it happened when it did. No parent ever wants to put his or her child through the nastiness, heartache and sadness that comes with divorce, but having lived through my parents' split, I can tell you that it actually can be the best option.
When I was a kid, I didn't understand why my parents couldn't get along. Neither one of them was mean or evil; they didn't cheat on each other. They had jobs, loved me, supported my interests and activities, and they didn't seem that different from my friends' parents. Well, except for the arguing. It got really nasty toward the end of their marriage. There is absolutely nothing positive or healthy for a child of any age who has to live in a house with two yelling parents.
Money and debt drove my parents apart
I tried to avoid them when they were angry at each other, but it was hard not to listen to them even from down the hall with my door closed. What was the No. 1 thing they would always fight about? Money. Their finances were terrible. It wasn't until I became an adult that I learned just how bad they were with money. Even though both my parents worked full time, they had low-paying jobs and a staggering amount of debt.
I'm convinced that my parents' radically different views on money were main reasons they were incompatible as a couple. My mom loved to spend money that she didn't have. She probably had about 20 different credit cards. My dad was pretty much the complete opposite. He was extremely frugal and did everything he could to save money by fixing things around the house on his own. He always found ways to reuse things, hated shopping, and could stretch a dollar in so many different ways. Every time he tried to talk to her about bills and budgeting, she'd try to brush off the ugly stuff and then they'd both end up blowing up.
Here are 10 things I want to share with you that my parents inadvertently taught me about love, work and money.
1. Don't rush into marriage. Don't tell them I told you, but my parents had a shotgun wedding and they started things out rushed and frazzled. They were lucky to be in love at the time, but they had no savings, and didn't really know what they were getting themselves into. I didn't want the same thing to happen to me, so I took my time finding and getting to know my soul mate. We openly talked about our relationship, goals and desires before deciding to settle down, and things have been incredible!
2. Talk about money while you're dating. Being on the same page with your partner about money and financial goals is so important. I'm not saying you need to talk budgeting and financial goals in the first few months of dating someone, but if you want to take things to the next level, you owe it to yourselves to talk about money way before tying the knot. If you have drastically different thoughts on budgeting and saving, be forewarned this will bring a lot of stress and tension over time, and things could get very, very ugly.
3. Go to college and don't expect your parents to pay 100 percent. My parents didn't graduate from college, and this put a limit on their career paths and eligibility for promotions and raises. They were incredibly supportive of me going to college, and I was lucky to have paid for half of my tuition through financial aid and grants. Having to foot the other half of the bill myself taught me to be disciplined and work hard for good grades and internships. Paying for some or all of your schooling yourself is incredibly motivating and makes you really appreciate your education and the opportunities it presents.
4. Become financially independent. The fact that my parents didn't have a lot of money was a big reason why I studied and worked so hard. I'm saving as much as I can and fighting hard to get paid what I'm worth. Being financially independent is an incredible feeling and gives you so many freedoms. I love the quote from Mary Schmich's essay “Wear Sunscreen”: “Don't expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you'll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.”
5. Avoid credit card debt. Credit card debt is bad. Just don't do it. If you can't afford something, just leave it in the store. I wish my mom learned this when she was young. Credit card debt has put both of my parents through hell. I shudder to think about how much money they threw away over the years in interest, fees and penalties.
6. Update your budget at least twice a year. My parents never made a budget when they were married. I, on the other hand, am crazy about budgets. I love tracking my savings and looking at my short- and long-term financial goals. The markets are always changing, so I also recommend diversifying your income streams and monitoring all of your investments regularly.
7. Don't waste money on junk. I couldn't even count how many car loads of clothes, books, household goods and junk I've donated to Goodwill over the years. A lot of it was from things my mom bought for me over the years, as well as stuff I accumulated in my 20s that I really didn't need. I've adopted a moderate minimalist lifestyle now, and I'm happy not shopping. Instead, I take care of my things so they last. I have absolutely no interest in designer jeans, handbags or shoes. The money I do spend is on traveling, activities, helping my family and saving for an early retirement.
8. Have difficult conversations. My parents had a lot of problems communicating with each other and it brought so much stress and unhappiness into their marriage. I've learned that relationships build on trust and deep conversations. Relationships can also grow stronger through having difficult conversations and facing the awkward, scary, uncomfortable and unpleasant things head on.
9. Don't quit your job without a plan. There were several times that my dad quit his job on the spot without anything else lined up; that really put our family between a rock and a hard place. I learned never to quit a job without a plan in place and another job waiting. It's easy to take our jobs and benefits for granted until we lose them, and then we desperately need income and coverage. My advice is to calculate your cost of living and make sure you have at least 12 months' worth in savings before making any radical career or life changes.
10. Think positively and help others. Keep a positive attitude whenever you can. You'll be surprised how much better your life will become! We don't need a lot to be happy. Look around you and be thankful for what you do have. I'm very grateful that my parents taught me to look on the bright side of things and help others. They weren't always happy or trouble-free themselves, but they always took care of me and reminded me that even when things are bad, there are always other people out there who need help much more than we do.
Sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if my parents didn't have all those money problems and stayed happily together. I know one thing, the holidays and visits would have been so much easier without having to shuttle back and forth! But I think their struggles led me to become the motivated, patient and independent person I am today. It's what we learn from our experiences that make us better!