From Clueless to Clued In: How I Changed My Money Story
Divorce Realigned My Financial Life and Career
Guest Contributor: Sarah Charles CSRIC™, AIF®
I made a lot of mistakes in my twenties. A lot. Marrying the wrong man was one of them. But that’s nothing compared to the string of bad financial decisions I made.
1) After college I moved to New York City where my life resembled an episode of Sex in the City. Cosmos at the Four Seasons. Shopping sprees at Barneys. Haircuts from a celebrity stylist. All on the starter salary of $30,000 a year. I was dressed to the nines and having a lot of fun; I was also accumulating a mountain of debt.
2) When I told my mom that my now-ex and I were moving in together, she gave me the best advice she had: “Sarah – a woman should always have her own money. Make sure you keep something for yourself. Don’t combine everything that you have.” I nodded dutifully, and then promptly went out and opened a joint checking account. What money was she talking about? All I had was a closet full of designer clothes and a shoe box full of credit card receipts.
3) I didn’t just ignore my mom. When my ex and I got engaged, my dad gave me a copy of Prenups are For Lovers. “Consider it,” he said. I laughed. My husband-to-be was 11 years my senior with a platinum card and a 6-figure salary. How could I possibly out-earn him or have anything of value to protect?
4) At my ex’s suggestion, I consolidated my debt to begin paying it down. However, I failed to read the paperwork and unknowingly signed myself up for debt protection i.e. the debt was insured in case I couldn’t make the payments. The price of my mistake? An extra $150/month. And because I never read my monthly statements (I just mailed the check), over a year passed before I realized that because of the fees, that mountain of debt was growing instead of shrinking. That was the moment I was stripped of all financial responsibility. Or maybe I abdicated it. Did it matter? Everyone could see that I was abysmal with money, and my ex took complete control over our finances.
5) My monthly statements weren’t the only thing I didn’t read. Mortgages. Tax returns. Credit applications. Just tell me where to sign please. To this day, I still have no idea how much we paid for our first house.
6) When my ex told me to stop contributing to my 401(k) because we needed the cash flow, I listened to him.
I could go on, but you get the point. It didn’t matter that I was an economics major in college. It didn’t matter that I worked in financial services (although not yet as an advisor). I was totally checked out of our financial life.
A decade after we moved in together, the marriage ended. We separated physically — a legal requirement in North Carolina. But I dragged my feet on separating financially. And then on August 7, 2009, I got an email from Citibank stating that we had missed a payment on a line of credit and as a result, my credit score would drop. My credit score. Just mine. Because even though my ex was responsible for paying the bills, the account at Citibank was in my name only so I was the one held responsible for the missed payment.
The black mark on my credit was the equivalent of an F in school, and it was the motivation I needed to start our financial separation. But more importantly, the email from Citibank was a wake-up call: I needed to step up, take ownership, and get my financial shit together.
I was 33 years old. I had no money. I had a less than perfect credit rating. And I was clueless.
Fast forward to today.
I am financially secure. I have money in the bank, I am saving for the future, and the only debt I have is my mortgage.
I am in control of my finances. I track my spending to the penny, I read everything I sign or pay, I have excellent credit, and I live within my means – which thankfully includes fabulous clothes.
I am happily remarried and this time around I heeded the counsel that both my mom and my dad gave me all those years ago. (Click here to learn more about prenuptial agreements!)
I am also a financial advisor. It was a career move I made after my divorce, and my passion is educating and empowering all women around their personal finances.
How did I transform? I wrote a new money story.
You see, the biggest mistake I made wasn’t that I married the wrong guy or that I rejected my parents’ wisdom or even that I screwed up my debt consolidation. The biggest mistake I made was allowing the sum of those past mistakes to define my money story for too long. For over a decade I starred as The Girl Who Wasn’t Good with Money in my own version of Clueless, and while that may have been true at 23, it wasn’t true at 33. And yet, it never occurred to me to audition for a new role until the day I got that gut punch of an email from Citibank.
Starting over is scary. The early days of both my physical and financial separation were some of the hardest I have lived through. But new beginnings can also be empowering. Going through a divorce gives you the chance to write a new money story – one that reflects who you are and not who you were. It’s also a chance to (re)claim your financial independence.
While I will always be sad for the young girl who spent too long believing a false narrative that she couldn’t take care of herself financially, I am incredibly proud of the woman who chose to write a new money story – and who now shares her wisdom with other.
There’s a parable about a woman who falls in a hole while walking down the street. She shouts for assistance. A few people stop, but the hole is too deep for anyone to help. Then her friend walks by.
“Hey,” the woman shouts. “I am stuck down here – can you help me get out?”
“Sure,” says the friend. And then promptly jumps in the hole.
“Are you crazy?” the woman says. “Now we’re both trapped.”
“Yeah,” says the friend. “But I’ve been here before. And I know the way out.”
So yeah. I’ve been here before. And I know the way out.
The information in this article should not be considered investment advice to you, nor an offer to buy or sell any securities or financial instruments. The services, or investment strategies mentioned above may not be available to, or suitable, for you. Consult a financial advisor or tax professional before implementing any investment, tax or other strategy mentioned herein. The information herein is believed accurate as of the time it is presented, and it may become inaccurate or outdated with the passage of time. Past performance does not guarantee future performance. All investments may lose money.