One way in which divorced couples may not consider they will continue to be tied is through their finances. “What?” you say. Why is that? Simple. If you have kids together, whatever your ex-spouse and you achieve or don’t achieve financially will impact your child’s life. So if you think your times of fighting about money are over, they probably aren’t. And even if you don’t fight about them, your spouse’s choices will affect your choices and vice versa whether you like it or not.
For some, this plays out in the forms of failed child support payments or the inability (or maybe even unwillingness) to pay half on basic expenses such as childcare, school supplies, clothing, etc. For most of Ian’s youth, this wasn’t the case for us. Bob and I were both gainfully employed… most of the time. And we were both very generous with our son and interested in him having a balanced experience at both homes. However, there were a couple of occasions where each of us made choices that impacted both of our financial pictures.
For me, it was this unquenchable desire to be self-employed and start my own business. After 15 years of grinding it out, I grew tired of corporate America and the job eliminations and re-orgs that led to multiple lay-offs for me. In 2001, as we all entered into a new American chapter post-911, many of us adopted a YOLO attitude. You only live once. Incidentally, my son hates this phrase as he equates it with those mean people in high school that would make shitty choices that hurt others and then claim YOLO as their excuse for being assholes. But I digress. In my YOLO phase, I decided to revisit music as a profession. I had been singing with bands on and off since Ian was about a year old and really never felt like I did as much with it as I could. At this point, I was 35, the mother of an 8 year old, and wanted desperately for him to grow up seeing a parent pursue her dream and make a living out of it. As he was already expressing a desire to be a musician, I felt the need to be a role model for him to follow his dreams and not end up in a safe career by accident or because everyone told him it was what he “should” do. I’ve always told him what he “should” do is what makes him happy.
With this in mind, in 2002 when I was laid off yet again after a 3-month stint with a new company who unbeknownst to me was embarking on a downward spiral which would ultimately cause their demise, I decided to do something completely different. I had felt like I had been walking into a Dilbert comic strip for years anyway and was totally fed up with feeling like my finances were in the hands of people that made bad business decisions and only saw me as a dollar figure on a page. My boyfriend at the time suggested that maybe I should teach people to sing, recognizing that singing was my passion and something that got me out of bed – or rather kept me up late at night. I had joined a band about a year or so before this that I was really enjoying. They were quality musicians and I was bringing in a decent part-time income from playing out with them several times a month. The band’s name was Scarlet which stemmed from two influences – 1) We are located in central Ohio, home of The Ohio State Buckeyes – the Scarlet and Grey and 2) I have blazing red hair that I pay good money for. So these sounded like good elements to contribute to a successful and memorable band promotional play.
As the band income continued to tick up to a bit more than a part-time income, I got to work on the idea of teaching people to sing. Of course, I don’t play piano or any other instrument. So I had to find an alternative approach to accompany my students. I already had invested in a PA system to use with the band. Add to that a home karaoke system, small TV, and six months of basic piano which resulted in my ability to pound out scales and matching pitches to coach students through troubled spots, and BAM! A business was born.
I created all of my own marketing materials from business cards to a website and even a radio spot. I began taking on students and before long had about 25 students a week and I was covering all of my bills. At the same time, I pushed for more band bookings and started picking up acoustic shows with my guitarist to boost income in the summer when vocal student business would drop off. I thought I had everything pretty much in hand. But I didn’t have a lot left over after paying bills. So when it came to paying for the extras for Ian – soccer gear, music lessons, instruments, and more extravagant clothing choices – I simply didn’t have the funds to match Bob. Then there was the need to arrange for childcare for all those weekend and evening shows. I think Bob, who had entered into a new relationship with his future wife, and who had always made the safe choices in life, resented my choices during this period. I couldn’t always pay half toward health insurance or the unexpected expenses for Ian and had built up a small debt with Bob that I would eventually pay back. I didn’t want Brandi to think I was a deadbeat either. I liked her and didn’t care for the tension it created between us. I had been financially on my own, as had Bob, since the age of 18 and had only on one occasion when I was about 22 asked my parents for help. They didn’t have a lot of disposable income. So I didn’t want to make this their problem. I apologized to Bob and Brandi for falling behind on things and as soon as I did have money to begin paying them back, I did so very quickly, putting any of my extras behind that in priority.
This may also sounds like a big “so what?” or “you just did what a decent human should do”. And you would be right. Except for ex’s don’t always treat each other like decent human beings or with the same regard as they do friends, family, or even acquaintances. In many cases, they treat them like the enemy. It’s really a stupid move on their part because cooperation can go a long way to prevent greater damage to one’s financial situation. So it tends to backfire. Bob and Brandi didn’t have to be patient either. They only gave me a hard time on a couple occasions and it wasn’t even that severe. They could have made it much more uncomfortable or do what some divorced parents do and talk me down to our son. But to my knowledge that never happened.
Eventually, right before I completely ran out of money to even cover basic living expenses, I decided I had to be responsible and went back to my corporate career. While I loved running the studio and coaching people to sing, it conflicted heavily with the time I had with Ian. People take on things like sports, lessons, and the like after school and after work. So this meant Ian would walk in from school around 3:00 in the afternoon and my lessons were usually just starting for the day and would continue through 9:00 or 10:00 PM each night. We couldn’t have dinner together and it was difficult for me to make it to soccer practices or other after-school functions. Fortunately, Ian was a good student and didn’t need my help on school work very often. Although looking back, I would like to have been more involved in what he was doing. I still guilt myself about not volunteering more at Ian’s school like I’m sure all the other mothers did. But I always said, “Sorry, I’m trying to start a business.” Anyway, the schedule wasn’t working. The finances weren’t working. And just the right opportunity to hop back into my old career surfaced. So I returned as a consultant for 5 years to the corporate grind in 2004.
Then the great recession of 2008 happened and pretty much all consultants in “non-essential” roles were cut. I’m not sure which tears down your esteem more. Getting laid off multiple times even when you’re getting stellar results? Or knowing your role is non-essential? Well crap. Now what?
At that point, I faced the daunting reality that I simply may not be employable given my current skills and experience. Further, I felt I may not have been suited to work for others. And even if I was, there were no available jobs in my field. So I walked back out of the Dilbert comic strip once again and set out to conquer the world of natural food and holistic health, a subject that had become a personal mission for me as I healed myself of many physical ailments that pharmaceuticals either failed to address or actually caused.
Once again, I embarked on starting a business from scratch with little money in savings to cover startup costs or general living expenses while this thing got off the ground. Although I had been doing a lot of the leg work with my then business partner for the preceding two years. So we did have a lot of the foundation laid – a legal LLC, a business model that we were really just testing, and a theoretical business plan that suggested we could both make about $200K annually with reasonable results.
When I got laid off, I informed my business partner that I was going to go fulltime on our venture but would need his support. He agreed to keep his corporate job and front our working capital needs. Mind you, I still didn’t have a plan to cover personal expenses beyond about 4 months. So my plan was to really hustle. And that I did. Except the one skillset which I needed most every day all day was sales. And that was supposed to be what my business partner brought to the table. Now here I was the one with the time and energy having to do not only operations, marketing, and finance, but also sales. Yikes! Seriously. Cold calling frightens me to death which is really odd given my first job in the financial industry was bill collector. I was paid to cold call credit card debtors all day long. And in fact, I was very very good at it. I don’t know what my hang up was about making sales calls on behalf of my business. I think it might have been that I hate to be disappointed. So facing rejection of a would-be client was the ultimate downer.
I continued to morph our business model to something I felt I could sell and that people would be willing to pay for that didn’t require the capital outlay and landed upon a reasonable concept of a personal wellness coach. By this time, the business partner was knee deep in responsibilities at his corporate job and just lacked the energy after that job each day to work on our business. For him it was just an expense that wasn’t producing a return. It just didn’t seem like his heart was in it. After a while, I suggested we talk about it. Since we had been friends long before the business, I told him that I really didn’t want to destroy that and thought it best we part companies on the business so that our friendship might survive. He accepted this and we ended our business partnership. The friendship still survives today.
At this point, I continued on my own for another two and a half years. I had no disposable income but I did have stellar credit and a lot of it. I also had a boyfriend whom I had been dating for a year and half and who had agreed to move in to my home so we could share expenses. He was at my place all the time anyway. So this seemed like a logical choice and removed the burden of foreclosure from my thinking. My car was paid off. Thank God! I trimmed expenses as much as I could.
But there were still the business expenses to cover – mainly advertising which always felt a bit like playing the lottery. Not that I didn’t work out the ROI in my head. In most of my choices, I only needed a couple students to cover the expense of the ad. So I normally did that. It just seldom seemed to produce much more than that. As this isn’t really a book about my failed business ventures, I won’t bore you with the details of the demise of this second business.
I will tell you that again, I’m pretty sure Bob wasn’t a fan of the financial choices I had made and it put an extra burden on him and Brandi to pick up my slack. Again, they didn’t say too much about it. Maybe this is because they had faith in me based on my past track record. I wouldn’t leave them high and dry and they knew it. I would pay my debts to them. And when I was again in a position, I would more than cover my fair share of things. They may not have been so understanding had I not been so quick to right the situation in the past. You get cooperation by being cooperative. You get consideration and respect by giving it.
Ironically, my lack of income during Ian’s last two years in high school and first two college years set all of us up for significantly lower college expenses since he was deemed in financial need. Had I been making my corporate salary, Ian wouldn’t have qualified for any of the need-based grants and scholarships he received. And both Bob and I would have been on the hook to contribute thousands more per year to the equation. So in this sense, I saved Bob thousands of dollars. I guess I chose the best years to be broke.
I am so appreciative of the support that Bob and Brandi gave me during those years. And one thing awesome that did come out of it was the fact that I could be home to greet Ian after school almost every day throughout his high school years. I could make sure that after school choices he made were better than the ones I had made as a teen home alone after school in the 80s.
Now while I probably own the award for the more prolonged financial woes, Bob and Brandi have encountered rough patches that I’ve been willing to help cover. There were occasional outlays of money I would front without expecting immediate repayment. And there were things I just did on my own that I didn’t expect to be reimbursed for. I’m sure Bob did such things too.
You can take from this chapter what you will. What I would suggest is that we were successful in navigating our financial pictures because we each established that we could be trusted by the other. Each of us would pay our debts. Each of us continued to care about how our decisions affected the other. Each of us realized that we had to consider the other spouses finances if we were interested in maintaining a reasonably balanced experience between homes. Even after divorce, we still had to come to agreement on money matters.