My parents, twice-divorced each, had four words of advice for me when I told them I was ending my two-year marriage: Get a good lawyer.
Like a lot of Americans, I couldn't even come up with $500 in emergency money when the time came to split. Just the opposite. I was nearly $20,000 in credit card debt and $15,000 in student loan debt. I also earned much less than my ex-husband. Financial manageability was not exactly my strong suit when I got married. Could I really afford to get divorced?
But when you are in stage five relationship decay, the price you're willing to pay to end the suffering is limitless. I took my parents' advice and looked for a lawyer. You know, someone like Glenn Close in Damages. In reality, what I could afford was closer to John Laroquette in Night Court. I called a few listed on the Internet; they were not impressed with the stakes. There were no kids and only minor assets, and a quibble over jewelry that was a wedding present.
Mom insisted on an attorney who had at least a nameplate on the door. In the end, the cost for the attorney who was recommended was $6,500. Cash up front, no credit cards.
Trying to find an estimate on how much a divorce costs is like trying get an average price for an airplane ticket: it all depends on what kind of baggage you're taking with you. The cheapest divorces -- "Divorcios Rapidos" -- are around $650 after all the fees and paperwork. Other ballpark figures put an average figure at around $15,000 to $30,000 for lawyers and related filing costs. And it just goes up from there.
Indeed, it has become so expensive -- and divorce so prevalent -- that a whole cottage industry of lending specifically for splitting up has emerged over the last decade.
To finance mine my first thought was: Sell the ring. Norman, the diamond dealer in midtown Manhattan who had seen me only three years earlier, offered me a slug of Scotch from a bottle he kept under the counter and told me to go home and think about it.
"You can use it for next time," he said. "We'll add a few more stones!"
I considered pawning it but the bullet-proof glass was too much for my tattered emotions. I kept the ring and decided to take a loan instead. My options were: take out a credit card advance at 29 percent interest or humble myself and ask my parents.
Financially speaking, the damage from a divorce extends far beyond the lawyer fees. It means going from a two-income household to one income to pay rent and utility bills and other household costs. It's no coincidence that when the recession hit, the divorce rate plummeted in the United States.
Retirement savings took on new importance as I considered the possibility that I might be supporting myself alone for many years to come. I lost a financial and psychological safety net. And then there is the loss of health insurance, shared credit and debt, tax benefits, and many other financial benefits that come with marriage.
For me, my divorce became object lesson in austerity: Gone was cable TV, the membership to a yoga studio, dinners at restaurants, travel, new clothes and other remnants from my married life. Now, I was too single to fail.
After a teary negotiation session with two lawyers and my ex, my attorney gave me another dose of financial reality. "You are so lucky to get divorced. Do you know how many women are living in misery because they can't afford to leave?"
Gratitude was not exactly my go-to emotion during the process. But I knew she was right. I am lucky: I have a job; I have health insurance; and I have a family who was willing to help in an emergency.
But my gratitude goes further than that: Marriage doesn't have to be a lifeline for financial stability. Yet for many women, it is still a primary economic building block.
For me, it was the end of my marriage that actually became the pathway to a better economic reality. My forced cost-cutting helped get me out of debt and stop using credit cards; I started to contribute to my 401(k); and I learned how to live on a much smaller budget and build my own savings safety net. I repaid my parents for the loan they extended me. I became truly self-sufficient for the first time and I stopped relying on cheap credit or other people to pay for my life.
As I left my lawyer's office not long ago, she gave me a final piece of advice: Next time get a prenup.
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