This article was originally published in The Lyre, the magazine of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority:
Graduation felt bittersweet as I looked around the TV room of the Gamma chapter at Northwestern University for one last time. I couldn't wait to begin my new life as a college graduate, but saying farewell to my friends and our carefree college lifestyle felt miserable. I took consolation from a well-defined vision of what the next decade would hold for me, but now, looking back through a lens of 20 years, I could not have been more wrong.
One lesson I have learned since college graduation is that life constantly evolves. It was rare for me to end up where I imagined I would be, either professionally or personally, five years later. Some transitions from one life phase to the next can be planned, but many others can sneak up on you. Unexpected changes are the most emotionally taxing, and when they are complicated by a change in financial situation, they can feel overwhelming. The key to navigating these changes successfully is to identify and plan for potential financial hurdles as you move from one phase of life to the next.
From Formals to Life on Your Own
Transitioning from student life to the real world is likely the first big financial test you will face. This change can be stark, especially if you bore a share of your college financial burden. I had a work-study job in the Economics department for four years as well as a babysitting gig for about 20 hours a week, so I had a decent income as a student. I also racked up over $40,000 in student loan debt along the way. I was determined to rid myself of this debt burden so I did not allocate any of my income to investing while I paid off my student loans, which in hindsight was a mistake. I was debt free by the time my peers began buying apartments and houses, but I was starting at ground zero in savings. You may need to forego some happy hours to be able to pay down debt and save simultaneously, but the extra years of growth in your savings and investment accounts will pay off richly in the long run.
Even if you manage to graduate without student loan debt, learning to budget and avoid credit card debt can be challenging for those making their own financial decisions for the first time. Maintaining strict financial boundaries isn’t much fun, but it’s incredibly important at this stage. Some financial planners advocate small changes like making coffee at home instead of a $5 daily latte. I disagree. I believe that it is much easier to make larger, infrequent money-saving decisions than many small ones over and over. Choosing an apartment that is $150 per month cheaper than what you can afford is easier and more permanent than saying no to the coffee shop every day. That money can be automatically allocated to a savings account or an emergency fund every month with no continued effort.
Love, Marriage and Cohabitation
First comes love, then comes marriage, and then comes an entirely new list of financial questions. It’s natural to be optimistic when imagining the life ahead with your partner, but wearing rose-colored glasses keeps many couples from planning for their comingled financial lives. Just as some couples go through pre-marital religious counseling, I highly recommend the same exercise with money.
Understanding each other’s financial habits and aligning expectations can help eliminate a lot of stress during your marriage. Will you have joint bank and credit card accounts or maintain them separately? How will you split expenses? What are your goals for home ownership, children, and retirement? How do you agree on discretionary spending when one person is frugal and the other is not? These are all issues that are better resolved ahead of time rather than in the heat of the moment.
It doesn’t necessarily require a legal commitment for these financial issues to arise as more and more couples live together without getting married.
In my late twenties, I lived with my boyfriend for almost five years. In the beginning, we earned approximately the same amount of money so we split everything down the middle. A few years later, he was out-earning me by several multiples, but we continued to divide our regular expenses in half. I felt uncomfortable asking him to pay more, but I had a hard time keeping up with the upgraded lifestyle he wanted to live. The relationship, and my finances, would have been healthier had I insisted on discussing a different way to divvy up expenses. Speak up and be honest about your financial needs in a relationship.
Family money and inheritances are another potential source of tension for many couples. It can be awkward to ask about what your partner is expecting from his or her family, especially when there is a significant amount of wealth involved. I have worked with women who knew their partners had a trust fund, but had no idea how large it was nor its intended use. These details are particularly important when the couple hopes to have a family since often estate planning is designed around providing for future generations.
Prenuptial agreements are a common way to address these issues before they become a problem during the marriage. Many women push back against this idea because they believe it’s planning for the marriage to fail. Try to think about it as similar to auto insurance. No one hopes or plans to get into an accident, but if it happens then the coverage is invaluable. Even if you stay together forever, it’s useful for both spouses to spell out what they are bringing into the marriage and whether they intend to combine assets with each other. Keep in mind that inherited assets belong solely to the spouse receiving them as long as they are not commingled with marital assets. In other words, if you inherit money and put it in an account under your name only then your spouse has no claim on it. If the inheritance goes into a joint account or is used to buy property where both spouses live, then it may be considered community property.
Welcoming a child into the world is one of the biggest changes that a woman will experience as her priorities and schedule get a massive make over. New mothers in the workforce have the additional adjustment of a change in identity to either a working mom or a stay at home mom. Add in the financial stresses of a new baby and this can be a challenging transition.
The first step is to sit down and calculate how much extra it will cost in your area to care for your baby. Websites like babycenter.com have tools that can help you add up the tally of daycare, babysitters, diapers, food, clothing, toys, medical expenses, and saving for college. This number is critical in the decision of whether both parents, or which one, need to work. You should also consider longer-range upgrades such as private school tuition or the possibility of moving to a larger house or apartment as your family grows.
The most pressing concern for many new parents is preparing for the skyrocketing cost of college. Between 1995 and 2015, the cost of tuition and fees at private universities jumped 179 percent, out-of- state tuition and fees at public state schools rose 226 percent, and costs at in-state public universities shot up 296 percent (Source: US News). Meanwhile, general inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index increased 55.1 percent and nominal household incomes rose 66 percent (Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve). The sooner you start building your child's tuition fund the better.
Before the baby is born speak with a financial advisor about your options for 529 Plans. Run by a state agency or educational institution, a 529 Plan helps families accumulate funds to meet future college costs. These plans offer tremendous tax advantages, they are flexible, and have no income limits, age limits or annual contribution limits. Financial aid applications can be affected by who owns the plan, however, so be sure to plan accordingly if you expect to apply for aid. Contributing to your child’s college fund can be a great alternative to birthday toys and brand new outfits.
When Love and Marriage Don’t Go As Planned
Divorce rates are on the decline, but the American Psychological Association says that 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the U.S. still split up. Emotions run high during the dissolution of a marriage, so getting your facts straight is key. The first thing you should do is talk to a lawyer and find out if you live in a state that follows the equitable distribution of marital property or community property. This will determine how marital assets will be divided. Next, seek out the financial education you need, especially if you were not previously the one making money decisions. This will give you the confidence required to make the tough decisions ahead.
I was married in my twenties and separated three years later. Despite my economics background, I didn’t have a clue about the financial implications of a divorce. These are some concrete steps you can take to protect your finances as you enter the divorce process.
Open New Accounts in Your Name Only
Your spouse could clear out your checking and savings accounts without your consent or freeze your credit cards if all your liquid assets are in joint accounts. Fund your accounts with enough money for at least 6 months to weather any short-term storms.
Track Online Account Passwords and Keep Hard Copies of Records
Make a list of all your accounts and the online access information. Hard-copies of insurance policies, wills, trusts, tax returns or other legal documents will come in handy when the court asks you to complete a financial declaration with proof of taxes, debts, assets and monthly financial obligations.
There’s a good chance that one of you will move out of the marital residence as you go through divorce proceedings. If you’re the one to leave, you may no longer have access to the property and no way to prove that the things important to you existed. Take pictures of everything, even if it is something you may not want to fight for in the split, and document it as something to negotiate against.
Protect Yourself from Debt
Debt is divided post-separation by who incurred the debt. Translation: if the debt is in one person’s name it’s theirs, if it’s under a joint loan or credit card then the responsibility is shared. There’s not much you can do about joint debt, but if you have a shared credit card you can freeze additional spending. Monitor your card activity and your credit score on a regular basis.
Follow Professional Advice
Take a breath before you sign any legal documents and take advice from your legal and financial team. Don’t give up because you’re tired and frustrated. Our brains are programmed to prioritize current rewards (lack of conflict) over future rewards (a fair settlement). Try to focus on what will be best for you and your family 5 or 10 years from now.
The Death of a Spouse
Women live an average of five years longer than men, leaving more women to face the loss of a spouse (Source: US Centers for Disease Control). Grief can lead to prioritizing emotions over smart financial moves when facing this traumatic life transition, so it’s important to avoid immediate decisions. Watch out if you find yourself using excessive spending as a way to cope with your loss. Travel and home improvements may be therapeutic, but make sure they are not drawing down too much short-term liquidity. Take some time before deciding to either pay off a mortgage or sell your home. You may feel differently about the place you lived with your spouse six or twelve months down the line. This is also a time to be cautious about whom you trust with your finances. Be sure to vet thoroughly any financial or insurance professional before giving them any money. One way to do this is with FINRA's BrokerCheck, a free tool that can help you research the professional backgrounds of brokers and brokerage firms, as well as investment adviser firms and advisers.
Zenith’s mission includes connecting and coaching on a personal level so I can’t think of a better story to share for my first new blog post. This is my very personal, very intimate experience with marriage, money and divorce. I hope it resonates with you.
I was just shy of 22 and a recent college graduate when I got married. A few years earlier my husband-to-be’s sister had gotten married and then separated after six months. At the time I thought, how can you date someone for years and decide you don’t want to be married after only six months? Fast forward to the morning of my six-month wedding anniversary and I distinctly remember sitting across the kitchen table from him and saying to myself, oh yeah, now I can understand that. Even though I knew I had made a huge mistake, it took me another three years before I could get up the courage, and money, to leave.
My new husband had been a graduate student at Northwestern when I was an undergraduate. I was hired as a research assistant by his thesis adviser, and about a year after that we started dating. He finished his PhD when I was a junior and accepted a job as an assistant professor in Montreal. We dated long distance for my last year in school, and as my graduation approached we faced some decisions and geographical complications. I couldn’t get a job in Canada without a work visa, and as a new graduate with no experience it was going to be nearly impossible to convince a company to sponsor me. I wanted to go to graduate school anyway so I decided to add McGill University in Montreal to my applications and not only got in but received a stipend and teaching assistant job.
All in I would make about $12,000 a year as a grad student, which even in 1994 wasn’t close to enough income to get by alone. Throw in the fact that my mother was very opposed to the idea of living with someone before marriage and we decided to tie the knot. It was very much a practical decision with no romance involved. It went something like, “so I guess we could just get married.” “Yeah, OK, I guess that makes the most sense. We’ve been dating for almost 3 years and we’re not ready to break up.” “Alright, how about July.” “Sure.” A month after graduating I found myself standing at the head of an aisle in a puffy white dress thinking to myself, is this really it, forever? My college roommates smuggled in shots of vodka for me (I love them). My sister’s last piece of advice to me before I began the wedding march was, “you can always get out of it.” Not an auspicious start.
I couldn’t support myself on my salary, so as desperate as I was to leave I was stuck until my studies were completed and I could get a job. I was miserable. I was in my early 20's, living in the suburbs (his choice) and sporting a minivan in the driveway (his choice). A few years earlier I had dreamed of living in a high-rise in downtown Chicago and a driving shiny Beemer. Watching any movie set in Chicago brought me to tears.
He was pushing to start a family but thankfully I held him off. One day he told me that I wouldn’t know the difference if he replaced my birth control pills with a placebo, so I started hiding them. He questioned everything I bought, which was minimal outside of groceries and household supplies, but that was a way to emphasize his monetary control. I was a full time student and teacher commuting to school by bus and train while he took the car to work, and yet I also covered the lion’s share of household responsibilities. Once I confronted him about this inequity. He dove into a lengthy analysis of how an hour of his time was much more valuable than mine because of the gap in our earnings, and so it made sense for me to take care of the menial tasks (incidentally, he was an economist). Meanwhile, his research career wasn’t progressing well at the university, he was depressed and playing SimCity in the basement until the wee hours. Happy times.
Despite the deterioration in my relationship I simply couldn’t afford to strike out on my own. I cried every day on my way home on the train. I thought about transferring to a school in the U.S. but that didn’t solve the money problem. I stuck it out and finished my degree but it took me six months after that to find a job as Canada struggled through a recession. When I finally started a full time job I still was not making much money, but it was significantly more than my student salary. I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Each day I planned to go home and tell him I was leaving, but I was terrified because I had no idea where I was going. I did anything I could after work to avoid the conversation – I went out with work friends, I took up running despite the sub-zero winters – and I continued to cry on my way home. Finally, after 11 months at my job I mustered the courage to pull the plug. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1997.
I waited downstairs on the scratchy couch in the basement for him to come home, and when he walked in the room I calmly told him that it was over. He had very little reaction, nodded and seemed to expect it. I was shocked but relieved. I said all I cared about was the kitchen equipment and china and he could keep everything else including the car and the house – my first of many incredibly dumb financial decisions, but I offered that olive branch because I felt guilty for leaving. He agreed and we started talking practicalities. I hadn’t planned ahead so I had no choice but to stay in the house for a while and we became ships passing in the night. Eventually I arranged to move into an extra bedroom with some friends. Everything was still proceeding smoothly with the separation and I couldn’t believe I had waited so long, maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Not long afterward, about 6 weeks since the Thanksgiving Day denouement, a friend asked when I was going to serve my estranged husband with divorce papers. The thought had never occurred to me. I was thrilled I had gotten the words “I’m leaving” out of my mouth and myself out of the house. The next step seemed unimportant at the time, but I realized she was correct, I needed to get the process in motion. I didn’t know where to begin and thankfully she took the wheel. Her husband’s cousin was a lawyer and he asked her to refer me to a divorce attorney. I engaged the lawyer, we served divorce papers, and then the fun really began.
The next day my roommates and I heard someone pounding on the front door and shouting that “he knew I was in there.” I ignored it and hoped his anger would pass. After all he hadn’t been happy in the relationship either and he must realize this was the best for both of us. I finally agreed to talk to him after a few of these door-pounding incidents so that we could get on with our lives. I asked him what had changed – those last few weeks I thought we had been moving toward this result. His response was that he thought I had a temporary break down but that I would never have the “balls” to go through with it. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me when he said that – I didn’t have enough inner strength to see my decision through to the end. I said, “well, you have underestimated me.”
That conversation was among the most memorable of my life, and now I look back on it as a turning point. I pushed ahead and only communicated through our lawyers. He had hired a well-respected attorney based on his assertion that he was going to get some money out of me. Blood from a stone? I couldn’t imagine what he thought I had to give. The reality was that he had income, a pension and a house to which I was entitled half but I just wanted out and was willing to walk away from all of it for my return to freedom. I thought he was getting a pretty sweet deal.
Shortly thereafter, I learned his plan at a deposition. He had bought the house we lived in prior to our marriage and his parents had given him the down payment for it. It wasn’t an expensive house, if memory serves it cost just north of $100k back in 1993, and I think they had given him something like $15,000 or $20,000 for the deposit. At the time I asked him why his parents were gifting him this money and he responded that they had helped his sister through her divorce financially and they wanted to even the playing field. Sounded reasonable and it really had nothing to do with me since we weren’t even married yet. But during this deposition he claimed that the down payment was a loan to “us” and that I owed him half of that in cash. He even had his mother call my mother and record the phone conversation with the hope of bullying her into some type of bizarre admission. My relationship with my mother was strained at the time due to her negative views of divorce, and he wanted to leverage that against me.
This was a ridiculous sum of money that I did not have, not to mention that the logic was completely flawed. First of all, I had never signed any type of loan document and the money had been a gift from his parents to him. Second, even if it had been given to both of us, then any equity in the house was half mine as well – and there was equity in the house at this point. But the third reason was the final death knell. I tracked down the mortgage loan application from his bank, not an easy task in 1998, and found that if the down payment was borrowed in any way then it must be declared as such or risk defaulting on the loan. Boom! I knew he hadn’t declared that so we presented his lawyer with this information and asked if he preferred to pursue this ridiculous vendetta or have his mortgage called by the bank. The silence was stunning. He vanished.
My lawyer couldn’t garner a response from him or his attorney for years. I had a four-year relationship in the time between this and when we were legally divorced. Every day I feared that he could have some claim on the income I’d made during those years, and I had come to the sad conclusion that I might be legally married to this person forever. I changed my beneficiary on my 401k to my sister but I was told that as long as I was married I needed his signature for it to be valid. Areyoukiddingme?? He refused to respond to any correspondence and meanwhile I was still paying my lawyer for every unanswered letter sent.
One day in 2003 I was sitting in my office when my phone rang – it was my lawyer. My ex had called him and wanted to finalize the divorce. Oh my g-d, holy miracle Batman, I heard angels singing and church bells ringing. Where do I sign? Then my lawyer told me to hold my horses. He had not spoken to him, and could not speak to him without representation by counsel, so I had to call him. I said I had no desire to speak to him, and he said if I wanted to get divorced in my life time then I had no choice. I took a deep breath and dialed the number I had been given. An answering machine picked up (it was 2003 after all) and it was his voice welcoming me to leave a message for either him or that of a woman. Ahhhh, now it made sense. He was living with someone and I assumed they wanted to get married. When we finally spoke on the phone it was perfunctory. He expressed his desire to end this charade and he was willing to use my lawyer as a mediator as his had abandoned him long ago when she realized there was no opportunity for financial gain. This translated into me paying for all of the legal and mediation fees, but again I was so eager to exit this situation that I didn’t care about the money despite the fact that I still had student loans under my belt. Not long afterward my divorce papers arrived, I signed them with glee, put them in the mail, and proceeded to celebrate with copious amounts of wine.
The lesson I learned, and the one I’ve seen play out with clients in my career, is that often women want to exit the world of emotional hurt they’re experiencing during a divorce at any cost. They sacrifice their financial security by making decisions before they fully understand the situation. I was young, educated and gainfully employed so I didn’t worry about walking away with nothing, but it was still the wrong decision. For a woman who has been out of the work force for a number of years raising children the stakes are even higher.
I had the luxury of being the one to know in advance what was happening, so I had the opportunity to plan ahead but didn’t take it. Know what your first move is after that initial conversation. If you are not the partner leaving and you are taken by surprise, then it’s more difficult to plan ahead, but I believe it’s wise for any woman to have a safety net prepared. My advice to my younger self, and generally all women, would be the following.
Much of this advice is valid for anyone regardless of your relationship status. Maintaining a 6-month financial cushion, knowing passwords, having copies of documents and tracking your spending are all key elements in safeguarding your financial future.
Rereading my "Unexpected Vacation" post below I am shocked to see the time stamp from November 2015. Nine months have passed since I published my story about taking time off, and boy, what a long strange trip it's been. A project I thought would materialize did not, I planned a consultant training program with a friend but then both of our lives went in different directions, I decided to look for a job, I did a bad job of looking for a job, then I really tried to look for a job and got one. I started said job - a completely new path for me doing sales for financial research - and six weeks later I quit that job. Self realization: I am not a pure sales person. At least not for something that isn't truly my own.
During this period the idea for my business continued to gasp for air while those demons of rationality and practicality tried their best to suffocate it. Slowly I let the angels of creativity and freedom have a serious beat down on those demons, and now I'm relaunching Zenith Partners with a slightly different concept than the original. Instead of focusing on managing money for women, I've pivoted toward the educational and coaching component for women and couples. I've become involved in an investment club of inspiring women and the concept of discussing money and finances with a spouse has resurfaced often. It's a tricky topic to tackle since we all carry so many emotions and stories about money from our upbringings. Unless two people are open to communicating those beliefs it can put a tremendous strain on the relationship. I believe that if Zenith can act as an intermediary for couples while helping women feel more secure about questioning and learning we can create some real value in our clients' lives. We're also working with women going through transitions like divorce, retirement and widowhood as well as couples transitioning through various stages of life and family. During my 20 year career in finance these are the situations that have moved me and engaged me on a personal level.
I've asked my sister Jodi to help me with marketing and spreading the word about Zenith. Eventually I hope she'll step into the event planning side. She's much better at those skills than I am, and I love the idea of being able to work together on a topic so personal. She and I experienced many financial challenges with our family throughout our lives so I can't think of a better person with whom to launch this endeavor.
My website is updated and I will be adding content daily. I'll be posting my first new blog post tomorrow about my experience with marriage, divorce and money. It's more than a little frightening to be so personal and raw online, but I believe it's the only way to truly connect with people and share why I'm passionate about this important subject. I learn so much from other people's struggles and I think it's only fair for me to share mine as well.
Thank you for all of the support I've received from friends and my online communities, especially Jodi Flynn's "Women Taking the Lead" group. Please check it out on Facebook.
I look forward to getting Zenith Partners off the ground and making a real difference in the quality of our clients' lives and relationships!