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!

More about...Debt

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Petra
Petra

Thank you for this story, too bad love sometimes ends like this. I would imagine your father managed to improve his finances since the divorce, did that happen?

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks Petra. My father felt he got the short end of the stick in the divorce (he really shouldn’t have made me feel guilty for it though since it wasn’t my fault) but his financial situation did start to improve a bit. He was unfortunately hit with a lot of unanticipated expenses caring for his mother in the years that followed, so that set him back a lot. But things seem to be getting better for him now though. And he’s as frugal as ever. Really makes me appreciate how he pays attention to where his money goes and how… Read more »

Kate
Kate

Can i add an eleventh? Know when to walk away. My parents divorced when I was 5. They finally ended their custody and child support battles last year, when I was 28. They fought with one another *in court* for TWENTY THREE YEARS. that’s twenty three years of lawyers’ fees. In the end, they spent about a million dollars combined on a more than twenty year battle– money neither one of them had. Neither one of them won in the end- my mum got less than she wanted, but my dad paid more than he wanted. And a million bucks… Read more »

Untemplater
Untemplater

Oh wow Kate. I’m so sorry to hear about that. 23 years in court, WOW. That must have been so hard on all of you. So yes, I totally agree with your 11th!!!

Holley
Holley

I liked this post. These are very important topics to discuss. Thanks for sharing!

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks for your support Holley!

ChezJulie
ChezJulie

Great post, Sydney. Great lessons learned from a tough situation.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks! It was really hard on me when I was young, but it’s one of those things in life that made me stronger and I learned a lot from it. And thankfully my parents are also much happier now too.

Rob
Rob

If you want to get rich slowly, don’t divorce. It is extremely hard to stay married for the long term, but if you can do it, you will without a doubt be better off financially. Sometimes divorce is the ‘best option’ for a myriad of reasons, but rarely is ever one of them financial.

Anon
Anon

While I didn’t divorce for financial reasons, my financial life is a thousand times better now that I’m not married to someone with an affinity for credit cards, zero self control, a belief in floating checks, and a compulsion to have every expensive toy on the planet–topped off by secrecy and dishonesty about money, especially with his spouse. By the time I knew what was going on, there was a huge second mortgage on the house that I hadn’t known about, over $100k in credit card debt, and business debt that I was liable for even though I didn’t have… Read more »

Untemplater
Untemplater

Yeah it’s unfortunate when things don’t work out and most of the time both people end up hurting financially when things end in divorce. But when staying together becomes miserable, stressful 24/7, or even unsafe it’s best to close that book and start another. We tend to perform much better at work too when we are happy at home.

cynthia
cynthia

that may or may not be true. in my case my ex husband had secret credit cards and spent tens of thousands of dollars a year that he kept hidden from me. I am much better off divorced as I am able to save the money that I earn and to provide for my family without constant worry about the future.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Oh my gosh how awful that must have been. I’m glad you don’t have to deal with that anymore!

Prosper
Prosper

Holy crap are we sisters? Because this sounds an awful lot like my family. My parents were terrible with money and spent years fighting about it before getting divorced. My mom has crazy debt, while I am really close to paying off all my student loans. I’ve learned a lot from my parents relationship with each other and with money. But it’s been hard to communicate that with my boyfriend. His parents are still together and are financially well off. He doesn’t understand why I worry about money because he’s never had to. He tries, but unless you’ve gone through… Read more »

graduateliving
graduateliving

Don’t waste money on junk. This is one I am still working on. I come from a family of people who love to shop (and I used to be one of them!). Though to my knowledge no one in my family has been in credit card debt, that doesn’t justify buying a lot of unnecessary stuff. When I go home, it’s hard to convince the women in my family to spend time other ways than shopping (or Pinteresting, which is just vicarious shopping, right?) While I will never only own 100 items, making a concerted effort to own less and… Read more »

Peach
Peach

Excellent points. I’ve come to see excess shopping (including thrift shopping, believe it or not) as trying to fill an emotional need with stuff. It never fills the void. And life can be so much simpler without it.

Beth
Beth

Peach, I can totally see this w/r/t spending a lot at thrift stores. You think “Oh, this shirt is only $2. I’ll get four!” or “This is such a good deal on a TV. I don’t need one, but how can I pass up such a great deal?” You can also get a lot of bang for your buck for $20 and come home with a few bags of stuff you don’t really need, but you picked up just because it was there.

Untemplater
Untemplater

I totally agree with you guys. It took me a while to realize that while the thrill of shopping (especially bargain shopping) was fun, it never lasted. The excitement of purchasing something fades VERY quickly.

But the thrills that DO stay with me for a long, long time are adventures, experiences, and travels. So that’s how I treat myself nowadays instead of shopping and it’s made me so much happier!

Peach
Peach

So true, Beth. Been there, done that!

Peach
Peach

Good for you, Sydney. For me, it’s spending time hanging out with friends and family at our homes. That beats shopping any day.

Megan
Megan

That sounds exactly like what my dad does. I try and explain it’s not really a deal when you don’t need a TV, but he buys it anyway.

Janice
Janice

Great post. glad you learned the lessons. You didn’t mention it, but did your parents (learn the lessons)?

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks Janice and nice question. My dad did very quickly I think because he had the most changes to cope with right from the start. He had to relocate, find a new job, pay child support, and then take care of his mother who got sick. My mother has learned from her mistakes too, but it took her much, much longer. She only started getting serious about her financial situation in the last few years after I pretty much told her she needed to stick to a budget and stop wasting money immediately or I was going to have to… Read more »

Clare
Clare

I love your attitude. You take a story that could have been just plain sad and turn it into something instructive–for you and for us. Way to make lemonade out of lemons.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks Clare! Yeah I like to consider myself an optimist. There are so many things that we all have to be thankful for each day and we really don’t need a lot to be happy. I’ve seen a lot of that in my travels, especially in children from underprivileged homes who have so little yet beam the biggest smiles from ear to ear.

Beth
Beth

“There is absolutely nothing positive or healthy for a child of any age who has to live in a house with two yelling parents.” My parents fought, fought, FOUGHT when I was growing up. They screamed ugly things at each other, pitted me between them, and created such a hostile feeling at home. And yet remained married because they are old-school in their religion and feel you shouldn’t get divorced. So, what I’m saying is, I agree completely with the quote above from this excellent reader story. I know that wasn’t the point of the essay, but I think it’s… Read more »

Untemplater
Untemplater

I’m so sorry you had to go through that Beth and for so long. It’s so awful to be in that type of environment, especially for an extended amount of time. I think seeing my parents anger and even rage towards one another growing up was a big influence on why I internalized a lot of my emotions for so long. I was afraid of confrontation and speaking up for many years because I didn’t want to turn into them. Once I gained more confidence I started to be able to stand up for myself and learned it’s okay to… Read more »

Brett @ wstreetstocks
Brett @ wstreetstocks

I liked your article, numerous important issues were discussed in it. I agree with your point on credit cards, we should avoid credit card debt at all costs.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks Brett. I make it a point to pay off my credit cards in full every month and only have two. If I can’t afford it, I don’t need it!

Bryallen @ The Frugal Graduate
Bryallen @ The Frugal Graduate

My parents don’t argue much, but it is difficult to watch them spending money they don’t have. They live relatively frugally, but they have nothing saved so when the car brakes down, it’s the credit card to the rescue.

I would like to help them out financially when I am employed (currently a postgraduate student).

Untemplater
Untemplater

This is what got my mother especially into so much debt. She thought she deserved to spend all her disposable income and then some for most of her life, so her savings never grew. If she was faced with an emergency right now, sadly she’d still have to put it all on her double digit interest rate credit card. You should consider sitting down with your parents and helping them look at their finances and finding ways to start building some savings. The older we get more and more unexpected expenses come out of the woodwork and having to rely… Read more »

Evangeline
Evangeline

It is essential to be on the same financial page before getting married but,unfortunately, that is not always the case and when things turn ugly it turns ugly really fast. Your post is insightful and wise. I hope readers take it to heart and learn from your own experience.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks Evangeline. Yeah it’s unfortunate a lot of people don’t start thinking about personal finance until they are in a jam and need to dig themselves out of a mountain of debt. This reminds me of a post I wrote last year about how I think the average wedding cost is crazy. It blows my mind that so many couples spend 5-6 figures just on getting married without thinking about the consequences on their relationship and future together. http://untemplater.com/personal-finance/the-average-wedding-cost-is-crazy-why-do-people-spend-so-much-money/

Evangeline
Evangeline

My story: Althrough dating and the engagement my boyfriend/fiance was the epitome of finacial responsibility. We talked,planned and dreamed of the future and made wise money decisions. Then we got married and the burden of carrying a facade was too much for him. Within days, I cleary saw not only were we not on the same page, we never would be. Mistrust combined with differen money philosphies makes for a difficult marriage. My only addition to your observant and wise post would be that once you’ve gotten to know your future spouse, get to know them a little more.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Sorry to hear that. How frustrating that must have been to find out things weren’t as you expected, especially since you two talked about money before getting married. People and relationships sure can be incredibly complicated.

Pauline
Pauline

Amazing how money is so often the root of relationships breakups. I couldn’t be with someone like your mum, from the start. Having my own money and the ability to walk away from my relationship whenever I want is very important to me, as I know that every day I am choosing to be in that relationship and not staying because I can’t afford to go.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Yes, being financially independent is so important to me too. That’s one of the reasons I studied so hard in school and in my career. I wanted to have the skills and the means to stand on my own no matter what would happen in my love life. It makes me cringe when I hear some women say they just want to marry a rich guy so they never have to work and can just spend all his money. I’m glad that more and more women are learning about personal finance and taking charge of their own money matters.

Keith and Kinsey's Real Estate Update
Keith and Kinsey's Real Estate Update

It’s sad how many marriage can’t withstand money struggles. Before a person ever even gets engaged, they should have serious money talks with their significant other. I’m a big fan of Dave Ramsey’s view of marriage and money. It’s a joint venture for life, plan for it.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Yep. If a couple is too uncomfortable to talk about money before getting engaged they will be in for a nasty awakening after tying the knot. A successful marriage does require a lot of planning and open communication.

Peach
Peach

Great post, Sydney. You made some excellent points. It’s totally toxic to fight in front of kids, they end up feeling like hostages. I grew up that way, and sometimes it seemed like I was the only parent in the room. I learned a lot about what NOT to do. It’s great that you became thrifty, mature in your relationships, and self supporting. I’d call that a big success! You could have chosen to go the other way. Has your mother changed for the better after the divorce? Have they learned anything from YOU?

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks Peach! Yeah my mom is better now but she still struggles and it’s taken a lot to get her to where she is now. She used to get so mad at me when I’d start talking to her about her financial situation. I didn’t realize how scared she was to look at her numbers and that facing her finances made her feel really depressed. So I had to be really patient, supportive of her, and persistent. I had to help her find fun in saving, and talk her through a lot of things. What she learned from me through… Read more »

Rail
Rail

Great story, Sydney. Its been almost 30 yrs since my folks got divorced. Alot of what you wrote hits the mark with me. Thank God for the sanity of my grandparents. 🙂 I know exactly whats its like to be 15 and be the only adult in the room.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks Rail. Yes, my grandparents were a big positive influence on me as well. I didn’t get to see them very often, but it was nice knowing that not everyone in my family was constantly fighting.

Cindy Brick
Cindy Brick

…and Sydney, what’s happened to your mom since then?

Untemplater
Untemplater

As I mentioned in some of the above comments she’s doing better but it took a long time and a lot of patience to get her where she is now. She lived most of her life depending on other people to sort out the finances and facing her responsibilities has been really tough.

My Financial Independence Journey
My Financial Independence Journey

There’s a lot of sage advice in that list. Here’s my commentary on some of the points. 2. The older I’ve gotten the more I pay attention to how a girl behaves financially. Debt, impulse spending, and no respect for or understanding of savings rapidly get you dumped into the friend zone. 3. Try to get through college with as few loans as possible. Scholarships, part time jobs, parental help. Whatever it takes, try to avoid debt. 4 & 5. Yes. Just yes. 7. I have some relatives that buy all kinds of junk. Well, junk isn’t the right word,… Read more »

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks for the long comment! That’s nice you got some of the giveaways before they went to Goodwill! Oh man I’ve donated so much stuff to Goodwill over the last several years it’s crazy. Especially the multiple car loads out of my mom’s house. I think all the time I spent cleaning out her house really helped her realize how out of control her spending was for so long.

Karen
Karen

Sydney,

This is one of the most well-written posts I have read on this site. Thank you for sharing your views.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Wow thanks so much Karen!!

Maryanne
Maryanne

Sydney,I don’t mean for this to sound harsh but I’m surprised you don’t resent your mother. It seems like your mother is the cause of the divorce as she was willing to spend money she didn’t have, cause instability in the family esp. the children’s present and future, and disrupt her relationship with your father. Your father is portrayed as someone who tried to keep the stability for your family. I feel sorry for your father that he doesn’t have financial stability because of the circumstances of the marriage and then had to pay for a divorce and a divorce… Read more »

tansy
tansy

Well, she did say her father quit his job without anything lined up “several times.” That is financially irresponsible and also hints at some other possible issues (he could have been a hothead, or easily frustrated, or unwilling to compromise/work with others, none of which bode well for a happy marriage).

I agree that her mother needed to learn to be mature and responsible with money, but it takes two people to make a marriage (good or bad).

Untemplater
Untemplater

Believe me I’ve had my fair share of frustrating conversations with my mom, but I don’t resent her. She raised me on a small salary and sacrificed a lot of things to give me a good life. I actually feel bad for not being more sensitive as a kid and wish I had gotten involved in helping her sort out her finances sooner. My dad had his own faults too like quitting jobs without having something else lined up and not being able to control his anger. In any case, there’s always a decent amount of sadness and unfortunate circumstances… Read more »

One Day At A Time
One Day At A Time

Excellent post. My husband and I have had some pretty serious issues in the past due to my profligate ways, thank goodness we are mostly on the same page now!! There were times as he was figuring out 0% transfers when he wondered if out marriage was going to work (while I was blissfully unaware and clueless of how much my spending was damaging our relationship).

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks! That’s good that you’ve learned from your mistakes and are much more on the same page with your husband now. We all have the chance to get out of debt and get in control of our finances if we put our minds to it. Every little bit counts!

WebGirlPA
WebGirlPA

I got divorced after almost 20 years of marriage when my 3 children where in high school (a senior, a jr., and an freshman.) The reason was not money – in fact my ex- and I were very compatible financially. We didn’t fight – but we had a very cold, businesslike relationship. Now, 5 years later, all 3 kids have told me that they are glad we divorced. We have since both found someone more suitable. The model of marriage we were giving our kids when we were together was cold and loveless. We did them no favors by staying… Read more »

Untemplater
Untemplater

I’m glad you’re happier now and that’s fantastic to hear that you found someone new in your life!

KSR
KSR

There is no shame in a Prenup or Postnup. As a retired attorney, there is only respect, decency, and rational forethought implied. The sooner, as a society, we get over it…the better off we (and any dependents) will be. If you don’t have the forethought of a Prenup (so much easier), then seek a Postnup (a little more complicated due to entwined assets/liabilities/taxes). And go ahead and download the $19.95 version on the internet and fill it out prior to the appointment with an attorney. We appreciate (and acknowledge) that. We just alter it to suit the guidelines of the… Read more »

Untemplater
Untemplater

You’re right that finances really do get complicated and entwined after marriage. It will be interesting to see if society’s views on prenups change at all in 5-10-15 years. I think a lot of people feel offended when the word prenup comes up.

KSR
KSR

You’re right. It may take another 10 years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a shaken up spouse feeling guilty for signing on the dotted line! But, that same person wouldn’t think twice of paying the extra warranty add-on of 49.95 for the purchase of an Ipad. I guess I think of things very differently.

momo
momo

KSR: I completely concur, society as a whole needs to accept prenups and postnups. I would like to hear your ideas, what are positive ways to raise such a delicate topic with a partner? I’ve read the book “Prenups for Lovers” and so far that book has interesting ideas. Do you have any other resources on prenups that you can share? Thank you!

Shari
Shari

This sounded so much like my parents that I actually had to check and see if my sister was the author! My parents were the same way, and the divorce was the best thing for them. My mom found someone who doesn’t mind her crazy spending habits, and my dad found someone as frugal as him. I think their second marriages are much happier than their first.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Ha how funny. Perhaps we’re sisters from another life. 🙂 I’m glad to hear both of your parents remarried and found spouses that they’re more compatible with financially. It’s nice to be able to share similar financial goals with someone since money is such a big part of life whether we want it to be or not.

eileen
eileen

Please bring back copy editing. Thank you!

Kathleen, Frugal Portland
Kathleen, Frugal Portland

What great insight you have, Sydney! I’m happy to learn more about you. This was eye opening.

Untemplater
Untemplater

Thanks a bunch Kathleen! Nice to run into you here.

Tina
Tina

Try having a gambler as your spouse. My DH had a problem before we got married and I didn’t even know it until about 2 years into our marriage. He hid it well. But when things started to come unraveled, I went and got a job after being a stay at home with our kids. After many years of struggle and lapses, he is finally gamble free and has been for 6 years. We had to work hard, I had to be tough and give him no access to money. He regrets his actions and now is involved with our… Read more »

Jackson White
Jackson White

One of the biggest reasons clients come to us is because of differences in spending habits. A lot of couples think think they can just tough it out because they love each other- but whether its pleasant to look at marriage in this way marriage is a financial decision just as much as an emotional one.

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