In the year after she got divorced, Amber Rodgers went shopping. She wanted to "look better and feel better." She was also "guilty buying" for her two kids, now 8 and 9, she says.
When she was married, Rodgers had never followed a budget or paid bills online or taken care of her taxes — her husband was in charge of the finances.
Once they were no longer together, Rodgers says she struggled to manage all of her expenses and blew a lot of money on feel-good spending.
When you go from a dual income into a single income, it's traumatizing," the 35-year-old says. "I literally had my electricity turned off because I just couldn't pay my bills. I had to borrow money from friends."
While many people's first inclination when going through a divorce is to hire an attorney, too many make the mistake of not also seeking financial help, says Michael DeGroat, a financial adviser at Ameriprise Financial Services who works in particular with divorced women.
Studies show that women, more so than men, lack confidence and knowledge on financial topics and so tend to be more vulnerable when a divorce leaves them with more financial responsibility, financial experts say.
But a divorce often means a drastic change in finances for both men and women, and there are several crucial steps to take — if you are thinking of divorcing, going through a divorce or are already divorced — that will put you in a better position financially.
Meet with an adviser
If you think your marriage is headed for divorce, start paying attention to any bank accounts or other accounts you hold jointly with your spouse, if you don't already, so you know what your assets are, says Linda Ostovitz, partner at family law firm Silverstein & Ostovitz in Ellicott City, Md.
"Look at the paperwork that's probably in your house," she says. "Look at your tax returns. Look at your monthly bills." Understanding what you're working with will better help you prepare for how life will change after the divorce, as well as what you need to do to put yourself in the best financial circumstances possible, she says.
Start setting aside emergency cash, too — Rodgers, who recommends having about $2,000 saved, says she stashed hers in a tampon box and used it to pay initial attorney fees.
And make it a priority to seek professional financial help. It's most ideal to meet with a financial adviser before or at least during the divorce process rather than after the divorce is finalized, DeGroat says.
"The biggest thing that I see, and a common divorce finance mistake, is waiting too long to replace that partner's responsibility," he says. "Often, finances, especially in times of emotional turmoil, become a back-seat rider. A lot of opportunities are missed and a lot of mistakes made."
Rodgers says seeking a financial adviser too late was one of "the huge mistakes I know I made. Had I done that I would have done a lot of things differently, including sticking to a budget."
She did get financial help in 2010, about a year after her divorce settlement and around the same time she started her company, D.I.V.A.S., which stands for Divorcing Independent Very Able Survivors and provides resources including legal, financial and real estate help. Rodgers was previously a real estate agent.
Now she helps others going through divorce to not make the same mistakes she did.
"When you go through this you need to set up your own accounts," says Rodgers of Dallas. "Cancel anything in your spouse's name that's a credit card."
DeGroat, who met Rodgers through D.I.V.A.S., says that the first thing he does with clients is review their beneficiary designations on everything from their bank accounts to life insurance to retirement funds, because in most cases the former spouse is the one listed.
"If they pass away and they haven't changed their beneficiary designations, that money goes to their previous spouse," he says. "I don't know anybody that's been divorced that wants that to happen."
Rodgers also recommends seeing an estate planner to amend your will, and DeGroat says you should look into new insurance quotes for things such as your house and car.
Also keep in mind how your tax situation will change, Ostovitz says. If a couple have children, they have to decide who can claim them as dependents. If you're paying alimony, it's tax deductible, whereas the person receiving it must report it as income, she says.
Ostovitz also says individuals need to be aware that their standard of living may need to change.
"Two people cannot live separately in the same manner as they lived when they were together," she says
Know what you're facing
When she got divorced five years ago after 32 years of marriage, Rosalie Delgado says her lifestyle changed "dramatically." At the time her husband had been making about $350,000 a year while she worked part time as a dental hygienist.
"We had money to go on trips and had more money than a lot of people, and I was not going to have that anymore," says Delgado, a former client of Ostovitz's. "I was just worried about how I was going to pay bills and how I was going to survive."
Delgado had to re-evaluate lifestyle choices such as what cellphone plan she'd get.
"To have a cellphone, that was something I always had," she says. "Now I had to face: 'Well, I'm going to pay that, so what plan should I have?' Just things you don't think about."
Now 60, she also has her impending retirement to consider. While she received half of her ex-husband's 401(k) savings, she says she doesn't make enough at her job to continue contributing to it, though she did start working more after the divorce. "My money now just goes to living," Delgado says.
She says that if you're thinking of getting a divorce, make sure you'll be able to get work and support yourself on your own. Ostovitz agrees.
"People who had the luxury of not working or working part time are probably going to have to go back into the workforce," Ostovitz says.
Delgado's biggest piece of advice, though, is to know ahead of time what you'll face alone. "You have to know what's ahead of you by yourself," says Delgado, who saw a financial adviser before she and her husband separated. "I thought I was prepared, but you're never prepared enough to face financially what you'll go through."