How to Make Half Cover It All: Transitioning to a Single-Parent Salary

Transitioning to be a single parent—and a single-income household—is possible, and it's not even that painful. These tips will help parents going through a divorce learn how to make half cover all.

Mother and Son sitting not the floor surrounded by bills
Photo: Getty Images

It was my financial fears that kept me tethered to a miserable marriage, long after it had become unfulfilling. I felt immobilized: I wanted out, but I seriously doubted I could make things work on a single (not to mention paltry, part-time) income.

But fast-forward two decades, and thanks to the incredible gift of hindsight, I now know that transitioning to a single-parent salary is possible—and it's not even that painful. That said, it is a process that requires equal parts patience and prudence. But fear not: you can make half cover it all. Here's how.

The day I finally filed for divorce, I had $1,900 to my name. I made a last-minute plea to HR at the school where I was a part-time tutor, circumventing direct deposit in favor of a paper check, and—with that fistful of cash plus $200 bucks borrowed from a friend—secured a tiny apartment in which to seek refuge from the storm. I know: I'm one of the lucky ones.

I took things one day (one step) at a time. I insisted on "nesting"—our kids stayed put in the family home while their dad and I took turns bunking there during our scheduled parenting time. I continued to use our joint credit card for necessities (groceries, gas, and kids' clothing/activities) in the spirit of transparency. Finally, as had been his responsibility prior to our separation, my then-husband continued to pay the household expenses. This left me to pay for, during that initial phase, my own living expenses while not with the kids, as well as my car payment—both of which my part-time earnings covered. Again, I was lucky.

That said, what I really wish someone had told me pre-divorce (pre-marriage, actually): Being able to sustain yourself financially is not only sexy and trendy; it's important (vital, really). Of course, I had worked full time for years—when I was single, with no kids. Surrendering all of my own hard-earned career success when I decided to get married was a terrible mistake—perhaps the worst I've made, save for tossing my birth name out the window without a second thought.

Surrendering all of my own hard-earned career success when I decided to get married was a terrible mistake.

My advice for any married person: Make sure you have your own bank account. Not because you are even necessarily thinking of flying the coop—but because you deserve a modicum of financial independence (and remember: keeping your last name or having separate accounts actually says nothing about the strength of your marriage). Think of it as a what-if-I-get-sick-and-can't-work fund; or my-sister's-in-a-jam-and-needs-to-borrow-cash fund; or my-parents'-estate-is-tied-up-in-probate-and-I-need-to-pay-their-lawyer fund. Maintaining your own bank account is the responsible way to recognize the myriad financial fiascos that can (and will likely) arise and which you deserve to tackle solo if you so choose. Hell, use this fund to buy surprise gifts for your partner. It's not sneaky; it's prudent.

Next, on to credit cards. I was part of a hetero-normative, gender-conforming relationship for more than two decades. All the credit cards were in my name because—you guessed it!—my husband was too busy being our family's sole wage earner to complete such menial tasks, so I simply added him to my already existing accounts as an authorized user (who, when reading the fine print, is not liable for repayment). In this day and age, it's far better to go the joint cardholder route, where both parties are equally liable for repaying any purchases, interest, and fees.

As my now-ex and I slid into phase two, which equated to hashing out a divorce agreement with the help of two lawyers and a handful of court appearances, I learned loads about the myriad statutes that are in place to aid individuals in my shoes. And I learned these lessons the hard way; had I known about this web of nets and loopholes, I'd have likely filed for divorce far sooner—and made fewer poor decisions in the process.

Aside from my own top two tips for marriage itself (the aforementioned: maintain your own bank account but opt for joint credit cards), ahead is an actual attorney's advice for any parent considering, prepping for, or going through a divorce and all the financial untangling it requires.

01 of 05

Know that courts are bound by precedent.

This, in layman's terms, means that "most courts are given the mandate to look at the accustomed standard of living during the marriage," family law attorney Robin Lalley of Sodoma Law York tells Parents. Precedent runs the gamut from finances to child care arrangements and myriad issues in between.

Best rule of thumb? "It's important to try to maintain that [pre-separation] standard of living as much as possible," cautions Lalley who cites options ranging from "taking out a personal loan to meet expenses in the interim, or trying to push for the quickest court date possible to set spousal support." Educate yourself about precedent, as the term will affect everything that transpires once the divorce ball is set in motion.

02 of 05

Don't act rashly.

Lalley encourages clients against making "any big moves—like paying off larger debts—unless it makes sense to their particular case." This advice extends far beyond finances: If your primary responsibility has historically been caring for children, and your partner has been the primary (or only) wage-earner, do not alter things unnecessarily. This arrangement cannot be ignored in court (and will likely be taken into consideration when determining both child support and custody).

03 of 05

Avoid indirect payments "in lieu" of child support.

According to Lalley, "the best way to receive child support is [via] monthly/periodic direct payments from one spouse to the other." Furthermore, prior to entering into any separation agreement, ask your attorney to advocate on your behalf to ensure that "support terms will aid in helping with refinance or the future purchase of a home," suggests Lalley. Most mortgage lenders and financial institutions want to see a history of, "fixed monthly payments for an extended period of time"—and not having these parameters in place "may prove to hurt a person's ability to refinance or qualify for a mortgage."

04 of 05

Keep a transparent record of expenses.

Lalley acknowledges that "for the average case, there is not enough money to support two households the way that one was supported." That said, while the money may not be there, of course you still need basic necessities like groceries and gas—even if this means using a joint credit card to cover the costs.

Unless you are suddenly binge-buying Prada shoes and Gucci bags, the prior standard of living is "weigh[ed] against a dependent spouse's actual needs and expenses." In most cases, both parties will be responsible for splitting any outstanding credit card debt accrued prior to the official date of divorce (ie: during that limbo separation period when you can't imagine swinging it solo to cover the bills).

05 of 05

Do your homework with regard to separation and divorce laws in your state.

Many states are specifically "no-fault" divorce states, explained by Lalley as, "[one doesn't] have to have grounds to file for divorce or to seek claims through the court related to custody, support, and property division."

Most divorces, which seek a final judgment of divorce, are based on meeting the applicable period of separation. In states such as South Carolina (where Lalley practices)—that require a one-year separation prior to divorce—"[one] can seek other relief [in the interim], such as temporary and permanent spousal support, as soon as physically separated."

As fault or marital misconduct may come into play to bolster claims, or to help you seek a divorce settlement sooner, a bit of proactive research will let you know what lies ahead.

I'm fairly certain my ex and I were rooted in the land of lack: We breathed our fear of not having enough right into reality. Since going solo, almost all of the financial worry has evaporated—thanks to super-long work days when I don't have my kids, a paltry amount of child support when I do, plus tons of positivity and creativity (not to mention, on many days, fewer humans to feed, transport, and leave the lights on, which does have its financial upside).

So fear not: Your decision to get married, to be a stay-at-home parent, and to then get divorced does not mean you are destined for financial failure. For me, it wasn't getting divorced that threatened to crush me; rather, it was the series of rash decisions I made prior. Just take it one day—and dollar—at a time.

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