Financially free: Why I was better off after divorce

A young woman recounts how she took control of her finances after divorcing her troubled husband

I met Steven* when I was 19. It was the summer after my first year of college, and he was one of several guys renting the house my parents owned next door to ours. We spent about two weeks making eyes at each other before he finally introduced himself.

Steven was four years older than me and had been married once before. At first, my parents were a bit skeptical of him, but soon even they were charmed. He was funny and fun and very, very likable.

That summer we fell in love was one of the happiest times of my life. We went camping, cooked dinners, took trips to the beach, and spent most nights lying in his backyard in a hammock, watching fireflies and listening to the crickets.

We decided to get married just a year later. The lease was about to end on the apartment I was renting near my college, and I wanted to live with Steven, but not before we were married. So, in 2006, he proposed, and two and a half months later — at age 20 — I was his wife.

Seeing Steven clearly

Two months after we were married, Steven called me at my work in the warrant division of the sheriff's office and said he'd been fired from his job managing an auto parts store in town. He said he'd been accused of stealing. I, of course, freaked out.

The retainer fee for a lawyer was $2,000, and if the case actually went to trial, it would cost an additional $6,000. Since we didn't have that much money, we decided Steven should take the plea deal. He plead guilty, and, in exchange, had to pay back the amount for the stolen parts (about $2,000) and serve two months of home detention.

I believed he was innocent, and I defended him until I was blue in the face. I waited to see how he would make the situation right, but he didn't seem to do much of anything at all, or couldn't. I wasn't sure. Since he didn't have a job anymore — and we didn't have much in savings — my parents paid some of the amount Steven owed to his employer, and then we paid the rest back in installments. The whole ordeal was awful and humiliating.

That was the first early glimpse I had that Steven wasn't the man I thought I had married.

Before we got married, I knew Steven didn't have a lot of money, but I didn't know the extent of the situation. There had been hints — while we were dating, he was happy to let me pay for him, but I didn't how significant it was. I started working at an ice cream store when I was 15, and since then I've never liked having other people pay for me. It was just easier for me to pay, and he never resisted.

After we bought a house (the mortgage was in my name because Steven's credit was terrible), collection agencies started calling our home. I would hand him the phone, and he would just hang up.

He always refused to sit down and have a conversation about money with me, but between the bill collectors calling me, the list of his debts I was given when applying for a car loan at the bank, and the seizing of our tax refund to pay his delinquent loans, I pieced together that he had about $16,000 in student loans, one credit card he'd maxed out, another card with a balance of about $900, and extensive unpaid medical bills. Since his student loans were in default, I got them rehabilitated and began paying off all of his debts.

At the time, I thought since we were married, my money was our money. It didn't matter whose name was on the card because we would pay it off together.

But now I can see that there was something more going on: I was becoming afraid of Steven. He'd changed so much, so quickly. Now he would fly into rages while taking drugs he told me were for an old football injury. After less than a year of marriage, my new husband seemed like a stranger to me.

When trying wasn't enough

I felt so conflicted because while I didn't want to be with him, I didn't want to be divorced either. I am religious, and the thought of being in my 20s and divorced seemed awful.

But about six months after we were married, I realized that the stealing, lying, and money problems weren't isolated events — they were the pattern of Steven's life. I started daydreaming about what my life could be like without him. But, even so, I couldn't stop worrying about how he would fare without me.

I had so much shame about the state of our marriage, and I felt like a failure. Though Steven refused to go with me, I started seeing a marriage counselor. She told me that he was a drug addict, that he was using me to support his habits. I didn't want to believe her: I knew that he did have pain... he just wasn't dealing with it like he should have been. I also believed — and I still do — that at first we truly loved each other, and I didn't want to throw the relationship away if it could be saved. I kept trying and trying to fix it, until I was completely drained.

Even though I was still broke, I finally felt in control, and I knew that if I stuck to the plan I would be OK.

In early December 2009, I sat down with Steven and told him I couldn't be married like that anymore. My counselor had advised me for some time to stop paying his bills, and I was finally going to pull the plug.

"I'm at the end of my rope," I told him. "You have to be a husband. You have to care if I like this or not!" He pretty much stopped talking to me that day, and I moved in with my parents in February 2010.

By September 2011, after just five years of marriage, our divorce was final.

How I rebuilt my finances and my life

My parents raised three of us on very little money, so I was raised to be mindful about what I spent. But in the months before Steven and I split up, most of my bills were delinquent, my credit cards were past due, my mortgage was behind, debt collectors were calling me all day, and I was constantly having to choose between the water and electricity, groceries and gasoline. In short, I didn't recognize my life.

I was still working at the sheriff's office, but I'd quit school 30 hours short of earning my bachelors degree in criminal justice, because I was just so spent — financially and emotionally — that I couldn't handle both school and work.

About a month after we separated, Steven moved out of the house, and I moved back in. The electricity and gas had both been disconnected, and he'd taken the bed with him, so I was sleeping in a chair next to a space heater. Yet I realized then that my life and my money were my own again — and I could finally breathe and start to rebuild. I started by selling or throwing away almost everything we had left in the house. I had to start fresh. I also took on as much overtime as I could to earn extra money.

I started reading books by the financial expert Dave Ramsey and would listen to how other people got out of debt on his radio show. Steven and I had racked up $10,000 on one of my credit cards while we were married, and my minimum monthly payment was $600. So I called the company and they put me on a repayment plan, which brought my payments down to about $200, freeing up a lot of money for me to pay back other debts and restore the utilities.

I made an Excel spreadsheet, and in my discretionary spending column (I categorized my house and utilities payments separately), I budgeted $35 per week for gasoline, $40 for groceries, and $40 for little expenses like clothes, laundry detergent, parking tickets, and renting movies. These are limits I still abide by today. I got rid of any extra expenses, and I canceled my cable, phone, and internet services. Even though I was still broke, I finally felt in control, and I knew that if I stuck to the plan, I would be OK.

Where I am today

I've been able to pay off three credit cards, my car, and $1,300 in state taxes. I still have $1,200 in credit card debt to go, plus about $43,000 in student loans, which I'll be paying over the next 10 years on an income-based repayment plan until the balance is forgiven due to my work in public service. I also went back to school to finish my degree in criminal justice and should be done next May.

Once I had some money saved, I opened three online savings accounts: An emergency fund, my "sinking stability" fund for things like car repairs and house repairs, and a vacation fund.

Every two weeks, I have $200 of my $923 paycheck automatically transferred into savings, and I live on the rest. I have about $3,000 in savings so far. Next, I want to refinance my house and start saving aggressively for retirement.

I've been seeing my new boyfriend for about a year-and-a-half, and he's honest, kind, and even-tempered. He works really hard holding two part-time jobs while trying to build a career in video production, and he's responsible with his money.

We discuss our future, our priorities, and how we'll combine our homes and finances when that day comes. We talk all the time about strategies for saving money. I'm definitely being much more cautious this time around.

I still live in the house Steven and I shared, and I see him around town, but we haven't really spoken. It's a struggle to remember that I did all I could for him and our relationship, and that my only obligation is to myself now. But at age 27, it feels good to have control of my life again.

* Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, all names have been changed.

More from LearnVest...

* My abusive marriage destroyed me — and my finances

* Why breaking up was good for my finances — 5 true tales

* My celebrity marriage left me $4 million in debt


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