So, I have this friend. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call her Jenna. A few nights ago, while sipping wine and dining on some homemade eggplant parm at her place (homegirl can cook!), she casually dropped an anecdote about her past marriage. I perked up, knowing that she’d been married before I met her, but not really knowing much about the marriage, how it happened, or why it ended. She went on to tell me that after getting married in her later twenties, she ended up divorcing and filing for bankruptcy after the marriage ended because of the financial mess her ex-husband had left her in.
I nearly spat out my merlot. I was shocked — not just because that is a terrible thing for a husband to do, but also because I couldn’t believe that the woman before me — a vibrant, youthful thirty-something, happily engaged to one of the nicest men I’ve ever met — had gone through such an excruciating financial tragedy already in her young life.
Then, I asked her if I could interview her — mostly because we here at TFD like to get FBI-level nosy about people’s money-stories, but also because I was dying to know more. She thankfully agreed, so we sat down (separately, in our own homes, because it is 2017 and everything is done on the internet today) and had a chat. Here’s what Jenna had to say about her marriage, bankruptcy, money, and love.
Mary: So give me a little background on your relationship with your ex-husband.
Jenna: My ex-husband and I met back in the spring of 2006. I was introduced to him by a mutual friend of ours. She and I were good friends, and her husband was friends with him. At first I wanted nothing to do with this guy. Then after a few times hanging out in a group, he seemed to be okay. He asked me out on a date, and it grew from there. The beginning of our relationship was perfect — almost too perfect. Months went by and I ended up moving in with him and his family, due to health reasons. We both worked in the same place. I worked during the day and he worked the third shift only three days a week. As the years went by, I started noticing I paid for most of what we did. I didn’t think too much of it, since I worked a full-time job, and I knew he did not. Years later he asked me to marry him, and I said yes.
M: What were the money dynamics like in the relationship? Were you both earning money? How are your finances split and shared?
J: He had gotten a new job that paid really well and I was still with my same job as before. We were both making good money and were still living at his parents’ house. After the wedding, we closed on our first house, which I put the down payment on. I paid for everything to do with the house, even the extras. He only paid the mortgage and his car insurance. I knew the bills were not split evenly, but I just let it go because this was my house with my husband and did not think much into it. We had two beautiful dogs that I paid for, too, full breed.
M: Were you guys open and communicative about money? Were there instances of financial secrecy or abuse throughout the relationship, or did it just get bad at the end?
J: Our communication was horrible. It was his way, and that was it. I even had a side job where I brought in an additional $1,500 a month. He used that money as if it were his own. Yes, we used it for vacations, but the vacations were not my choice. We even consolidated our debt together and took out a loan at the bank. Every month over $500 would be withdrawn from my account, and he never helped me with that. I, in the end, paid off both of our debts.
M: What exactly did your ex-husband do to put you in a bad financial position when your relationship ended?
J: By the end of our relationship, he had racked up my credit cards, and went back on his promise to help me pay truck payments. He wanted a truck and I told him I was unable to afford the payments, and he said he would cover the difference. That never happened, and I got stuck with a bill that I could not afford on my own. When we split officially and legally, he left me with all the credit card debt, even though he was the major cause of it.
M: After the divorce, when you were left in his financial mess, what steps did you take?
J: After the divorce, I did not know where to start with my bills. My credit cards were maxed out, and I couldn’t keep up on my car payments. I was paying for two cars because they were both in my name. Even after everything I was going through, I let him trade in my car and he used it to get his own car in his own name. Some people thought I was dumb for helping him out, but it really helped me out, too. I tried making a chart for how I could pay everything off on my own without any help. I looked at each card to see which one had the highest rates. I tried working more hours, tried getting a side job, and even took out a small loan from my retirement fund, but nothing was helping. I went through this dark road alone because I was to embarrassed to tell anyone that I let someone do this to me, and I never had the strength to stop it.
M: Can you describe a bit of the process of actually filing for bankruptcy? What actually happened?
J: It finally came to the point where I just sat in bed a cried. I was at a loss and couldn’t see a way out. I wasn’t even able to afford food for myself. I started looking up the pros and cons of declaring bankruptcy. What I did not know is there is a fee that you have to pay before you can even get started. Of course, I did not have the money, so I had to sadly go on a payment plan of $20 a week until I paid them off. That was just as embarrassing for me, and put me into depression. I worked with an agent and a lawyer — they made filling out the paperwork very easy to understand. It got me nervous because it looked like a book. I filled everything out honestly, even though it saddened me. The process was easy: contact the agency, pay the fee, fill out the paperwork, then a few months have to go by to show that you really cannot afford the bills, then you get scheduled for a court date. Court was the most nerve-racking thing I have ever done in my life. I went alone, and the lawyer sent an agent with me for support. Everyone sits in one room, and they go over everything in front of everyone. I had butterflies in my stomach and just wanted to cry when I saw that. Lucky for me, they called me last, so there was no one else in the room. Once they put the recording button on, it went by so quickly, and that was it. I was done! I was free! A weight had been lifted like no other.
M: After bankruptcy, what steps did you take to rebuild your financial life?
J: This was my time. My time to get back on the right road. My time to rebuild my credit and start living life again. The first thing I did that day was open a savings account. My goal was nothing too big at first, but it was to put $20 a week in there. Then I started recycling bottles at the store and would put that in the savings account. I started saving my change in a jar and would roll my change every four months. I made sure the little bills I had now, like UI, gas, cable, cell, car payment and rent were never late. After doing that for a year straight, I tried to open a small credit card. I was very excited to see that I got it. I also got a second job. I put my second job money right away in the savings account. I swore to myself I would never be in that situation again, and I would have savings to fall back on.
M: Do you think there was anything you could have done to protect yourself from getting into this position, or was it entirely out of your hands?
J: I wish I could say there was something I could have done. I guess I could have stood up to my husband and told him no, but who really thinks when they get married that this will ever happen to them? Everyone can say “tell him no, hide the cards” and so forth, but unless you have been through it, then you really don’t know what to do. It just happens so quickly, and you feel helpless when it does. Who wants to think that the one you once fell in love with would turn on you so quickly and leave you in pieces? No one, that’s who.
M: Is there any part of your financial life that is still suffering the damage of your marriage and is still being repaired/rebuilt?
J: Years later, I am still suffering with a car payment that is ridiculous because I had to roll over a truck I could not afford. I still have a year and a half left with that until I can fully clear my slate of him. Also my credit score (which was 836 when we bought the house) is now at 695, and that is after three years of working at it extremely hard. I feel like I cannot progress in life until I am completely clear of my past. It haunts me every month I make my payment.
M: I know you’re engaged now to be married again. Did you have any reservations about getting so legally and financially intertwined with someone again after what happened to you? Are you doing anything differently this time as a result of what you went though?
J: I truly never though I would get married again, but here I am engaged. I decided that I can’t stop living my life just because of one very bad experience. Yes, it was tragic what I went through, but weirdly, I am happy that I did. I will admit I was a little concerned about doing this all over again, but the huge difference this time is we talked about it in full. Now this time around, I am much smarter. I realized I was being taken advantage of by someone who will never change, and who just takes from people. I am now with someone who gives me more than I could have ever expected. Someone who is with me not just for money, but someone who loves me for me. We just recently bought a house together and we pay everything together. Everything gets split right down the middle, and it is such a great feeling.
Q. What advice would you give to someone in a similar situation experiencing financial abuse or having financial difficulties in their marriage?
A. My biggest advice to someone in this same situation is not to wait. Take action now. I know you’ll be scared, but it does not get better if you wait. Money is something that can make or break you in the long run. Step back and take a breath, because there is a light at the end of that dark tunnel. I promise it’s there — I didn’t think it was, either — but my light is now shining on me, and it’s one of the best feelings you will have.
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