starting life over after divorce

Some people fantasize about starting life over—what it might be like to live in a different place or have a different situation (beach life or the mountains, anyone?). With divorce impacting 39% of all marriages, many women find themselves actually starting their lives over. It’s no fantasy.

Divorce and widowhood are hard on women. More than half of Millennial and Gen X women leave financial decisions to their husbands, according to a publication from UBS. TD Ameritrade reports that more than half of American women make less than their husbands, and only slightly more than one-third of women take charge of managing the household budget, per a report on Her Money.

With little experience in finances and less income to live on, divorcing and widowed women need financial education. If they have been a homemaker, returning to the workforce presents its own challenge—going from a “mom closet” to a professional closet. As I moved through the divorce process, I discovered there is little educational help for women to learn how to start life over, from building a solid financial foundation to going back to work.

Below are five high-impact actions to take when starting life over.

Financial Planning When Starting Over

1. Focus on living within a budget. Start by determining net income from all sources (paycheck, alimony or child support, side jobs). That is what you have to spend and build savings—that’s it.

Now, choose how to allocate it. First, subtract debt payments, such as a school loan or a credit card balance. Consider all debt mandatory. After subtracting debt payments, the remaining income is available for housing, food, utilities, gas and auto, insurance, and fun. A budget helps focus your lifestyle—you choose between daily $3 Starbucks or nail appointments. Choosing where to focus the budget may be be one of the harder parts of starting over after divorce.

2. Save an emergency funds to buffer you from unexpected expenses. Experts suggest 6 months of living expenses. That seems impossible to many—you may not have enough for emergency maintenance on your car. In fact, a Federal Reserve report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households shows that 37% of Americans don’t have enough to cover a small emergency expense.

Build your emergency fund with what’s possible. If you have $100 a month to save, that’s $1,200 at the end of a year—enough to replace a blowout with a low-end tire and have emergency money left over.

3. Avoid debt. Debt must be paid, and it diminishes your ability to get ahead when you are trying to start life over. If you signed the lease, contract, or agreement, then you owe the money—many times even after divorce or widowhood. Credit cards, home-equity loans, and car loans are often joint debts.

If the divorce is still in process, consider how the debt impacts your future budget. It may be better to take less cash to reduce debt too. If the divorce process hasn’t started, make paying off debt a priority. Carrying debt from a divorce will hinder any effort to start life over. Close any joint credit cards, or at least remove your ex-spouse from being an authorized user.

Experts say a mortgage is “good” debt, but only if the home is affordable. Don’t be “house rich, cash poor” and live in a house you cannot afford. Resist negotiating for the family home if it doesn’t fit your future budget.

Wellness Has a High Impact on Starting Life Over Well

4 Get fit. Wellness should be a top-five priority for anyone starting life over. Covid-19 showed the importance of physical fitness. According to the CDC, 78% of all Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths are among overweight people, and the WHO reports that the countries with the highest death rates are also the most obese. It’s an unpopular opinion today, but being overweight and out of shape are health risks.

Getting fit needs to be a complete lifestyle change for many. American portion sizes are outsized for the calories most people need. If your body has stored fat, then you eat more calories than you burn. It really is that simple.

Eating right isn’t enough. Add resistance training and movement. According to the CDC, more than 25% of U.S. women are not active at all. This means one-quarter of American women have stopped exercising. Sarcopenia, loss of muscle, is a risk as you age. An abstract in PLoS One reports a lack of muscle leads to instability, falls, and fractures, as well as loss of functional ability, such as lifting and moving things, which could mean needing a home aide in your senior years.

Polish–Reflect Your Personality in How You Carry Yourself

5 Carry yourself well. I tell my daughter, your external image reflects on the outside what you think of yourself on the inside. Polish is an old-fashioned word meaning to render finished, refined, or elegant. In a world where women live in yoga pants and men in cargo shorts, polished women stand out. We notice women who seem confident in a dress.

Women leaving abusive situations sometimes have to start life over with just a suitcase of clothes quickly packed. Grief and traumatic life events like divorce impact a woman’s sense of worth. Caring for “littles” seems all-consuming. It’s important to treat yourself as valuable and loved, and this means fighting apathy.

It’s just as easy to wear a sundress as yoga pants—the effort to clothe yourself isn’t substantially different. It’s mindset.

When I returned to work after 15 years as a homemaker, I used a capsule-wardrobe strategy to start from scratch without breaking the budget. The definition of capsule wardrobe is shifting toward “minimalist closet,” but it originally meant a “small collection of garments designed to be worn together which harmonized in color and line.”

Choose a color and build 8 to 9 pieces: pants, skirt, dress, jacket or sweater, a plain blouse (think solid silk), patterned tops, matching shoes, and handbag. These pair to get you through an entire work week plus dinner out with friends. This can be accomplished on a Target or a Nordstrom budget. Once one capsule is built, add new colors—within budget.

With starting life over after divorce or bereavement, live within a budget, avoid debt, save, get out to the gym, start eating better, and live a polished life. Create a sense of financial stability and boost self-confidence by focusing on these five areas—and move from starting life over to having arrived.