My divorce left me with $60,000 in debt, a mortgage, and minimal child support — where do I start?
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- For Love & Money is a biweekly column from Insider answering your relationship and money questions.
- This week, a reader is facing a huge debt following a divorce.
- Our columnist offers several strategies from experts for tackling the large debt.
- Got a question for our columnist? Write to For Love & Money using this Google form.
Dear For Love & Money,
I took all the debt from a nasty divorce. We're talking $60,000, and that doesn't include the mortgage. How do I even begin to tackle this mountain of debt on a single income with minimal child support help?
Drowning in Debt
The American Institute of Stress says that divorce is the No. 2 most stressful life event in terms of its effects on your health, just after the death of a spouse. I think anyone who has carried a large amount of debt would agree that fielding phone calls from creditors is no picnic either.
I'm so sorry you're going through this. But also, congratulations on getting out of a situation that wasn't right for you. It's one of the hardest things a person can do, and you're doing it. That's no small thing.
But $60,000 is also no small thing, and no matter how brave and resilient you are, overcoming it will require some serious financial savvy. To help you with this, I showed your letter to two experts who know what you're going through, because they've been there themselves.
See Insider's picks for the best debt consolidation loans »
You're not the only one who's gone through this
I spoke to Dasha Kennedy, a financial activist and a member of National Debt Relief's Financial Wellness Board. She is also the CEO of The Broke Black Girl, a financial advocacy group she founded after surviving a situation very similar to yours.
When Kennedy divorced in 2015, she was in her twenties and a mother of two small children. She realized that in their youth and inexperience, she and her ex had avoided discussing money. She learned the hard way that what they hadn't been discussing was now her problem — a problem she would have to solve on a single income.
I also discussed your letter with Kathy Costas. Costas is the vice president of EP Wealth Advisors and a certified divorce Financial Analyst. Her divorce took six years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a newly single mother who had spent the last several years out of the workforce, she didn't have that.
Stay in communication with creditors
Costas pointed out that divorce negotiations typically revolve around the division of assets; meanwhile, the division of debt is forgotten. If you haven't checked, you may not know about all the debt you owe. This can be terrifying, but until you understand the specifics of your situation, you can't overcome it.
If you can afford it, Costas recommends you work with a financial expert to settle your debt. They'll be able to guide you through deciding whether a payment plan or debt consolidation works for you. She also said that you should be regularly checking your credit report.
This is not the same thing as knowing your credit score, which is the grade given to your report by other companies. Your credit report will give you a detailed list of how much you owe and who you must pay.
Once you understand your situation, Kennedy says it's time to do the really hard thing — seek help. Call your creditors, and find out what payment plans they offer. Many places offer special considerations for people in difficult circumstances like divorce.
If your credit score allows it, you can also transfer as much of your debt to a 0% interest credit card as possible to buy yourself interest-free time to make a dent. However, remember that you must pay off the balance within the 0% interest period, or normal interest rates will resume.
The snowball method vs. the avalanche method
Due to her experience, much of Kennedy's work now focuses on the practical financial strategies one can use to address the emotional toll of debt. Her favorite approach is the snowball method. The snowball method is about using small financial achievements to fuel larger ones.
To do this, Kennedy suggests you pay off your debts in ascending order by paying off your smallest debt first while making only the minimum payments on the others. The sense of victory you will feel from paying off that small debt will help you feel you've conquered a challenge, which will go a long way in helping you summit the $60,000 mountain of debt in your path.
But to use the snowball method, you must first understand the specifics of your debt. Kennedy suggests reviewing your invoices to learn what you owe, due dates, your minimum payments, and interest rates.
In contrast, Costas brought up the insidious nature of compound interest, which is why she suggests you first tackle the debt with the highest interest rate — this is known as the avalanche method.
Which strategy makes sense for you will depend on your priorities and whether you prefer immediate wins or paying less long-term.
Ways to make your money go further
Kennedy also encouraged you to start saving money while you continue prioritizing paying down debt. She pointed out that even a dollar a day comes to nearly $400 a year. That may not seem like much, but it's a start. And sometimes, starting is the hardest part.
If there was debt that was overlooked or unconsidered during your divorce, the settlement you reached might have been unfair. A final idea Costas offered, depending on where you live, may be to revisit your divorce settlement and return to court to have it modified.
Finally, Kennedy suggested you eliminate as many expenses as possible. You mentioned child support; if your kids are old enough, Kennedy recommends having an honest conversation about why the household finances have to change. Kennedy says to remember that this is a temporary setback you can overcome.
As I spoke to both experts, I was in awe of how far they had come — from struggling single mothers facing more debt with half the income to a CEO and a vice president with teams arranging their phone calls. I wonder if, in the aftermath of divorce, either woman saw this version of themselves in the future. I wonder where you see yourself in the future.
Something tells me you're going to be great.
Rooting for you,
For Love & Money