Via LearnVest By Elizabeth Bryan, as told to Libby Kane ~
I will never forget the moment that my soon-to-be ex-husband and I sat in our mediator’s office as he illustrated our finances on a chalkboard.
“There really aren’t any assets,” he told us. But there was $4 million of debt—from bad investments, lawsuits and failed business deals that I knew nothing about.
I left the room sobbing, feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. How could I not have known that we owed so much? How—over the 14 years that we’d been together, and through the birth of two sons—had I been so unaware?
Financially Blind—Over Love
I met my ex-husband when I was just 25 years old. He walked into a New York City gallery where I was working, and I recognized him immediately: He was a famous comedian (I can’t disclose his name for legal reasons) who was then at the peak of his career.
My life changed overnight: We went hot-air ballooning in Italy, on a safari in Africa and out every night in his limousine for extravagant dinners. You name it, we did it. And when he decided to move to Aspen a few years into our relationship, I gave up my job to join him.
But our romance had one caveat: I would never have a say in the finances. Since I believed we would be forever, it was never an issue—plus, he didn’t handle the money, either! His business people did, while he spent whatever he pleased. He had monthly meetings with his business manager, who’d offer advice, but then my ex would just go down his own path. He refused to listen to anything about saving or budgeting, figuring that since he was earning the money, no one was going to tell him what to do with it.
We didn’t marry for 12 years, but as soon as we did, things began to go south—primarily because of finances.
My ex had extreme control issues around money that stemmed from a rough childhood. His parents were poor, and he helped to support them from a young age. Because of this, he always needed to “feel rich.” For him, this meant eating out constantly and carrying around rolls of $100 bills. On a trip to Florence, he once took me into a high-end clothing store and said, “You have 15 minutes to get anything you want.” I remember standing in the dressing room as a clerk literally threw clothing over the door for me to try on as fast as possible.
How We Reached the Breaking Point
As my ex-husband got older, his career started to level off—he was headlining fewer shows and bringing in less money. We’d scaled back the way we lived to some degree, but then the credit cards started being declined. I’d call our business manager and hear things like, “Hopefully there will be money next month.”
After enough of these calls, I finally woke up to the fact that I was in my late thirties—with two small children, no savings, no retirement plan and a husband whose career was clearly going downhill. I started to freak out and ask questions: How were we providing for our sons? Did we have retirement accounts? I “broke the rule” and insisted on being involved in our finances. Not only did he refuse to discuss it, but he also refused any kind of counseling.
When I left, he felt personally betrayed, which translated into a very contentious divorce. I got a menial amount of child support, plus alimony for one year, since we were technically only married for two years. There were no assets, and due to the unmanageable debt, both of us were urged to declare bankruptcy. Because California law splits a couple’s assets and debts 50/50, I inherited a decade’s worth of debt after just a little over a year of marriage. I remember my ex’s creditors constantly calling before I filed, looking for payments I couldn’t afford.
“I inherited a decade’s worth of debt after just a little over a year of marriage.”
From Luxury to Austerity
I went from a life of excess to saving every penny I earned from selling my own artwork. When my sons were bored, I said, “No movies, but we can make a cool fort out of cardboard boxes!”
At the same time, I was trying to recover from declaring bankruptcy. Luckily, I’d rented my new home before the filing went through. And thank goodness I also had a car because my destroyed credit made it impossible to get a loan or a credit card with a reasonable rate. I never wanted to use them again anyway. (My credit is now in the low 700’s—it took years to build back up to that number!)
Although I had a place to live, I had no resources to furnish it—or replace all of the things that were full of memories from my marriage. I didn’t want to sleep on the sheets we’d shared, but I couldn’t afford to replace them. So I dyed them to make them look “new.”
One day, I happened to dye a piece of suede, which turned out beautiful. I borrowed $100 from my parents, bought and dyed pieces of suede from the local leather shop, and then hand-stitched them together to make shawls. When a friend who owned a shop in a mall saw them, she said, “These aren’t shawls—you’re making skirts, and I’d like two dozen for the store.”
Before I knew it, I was dressing celebrities like Farrah Fawcett and Bonnie Raitt, and selling my creations in upmarket stores in major cities—the kind of boutiques I’d shopped in when I had money.
I quickly needed a larger space to run my business, so I took $10,000 from an art sale and borrowed another $10,000 from my parents. I knew nothing about managing a business, so I brought in a partner to handle the finances—at least that’s what I thought she’d do. It had only taken me three months to get angel investor funding—and within 12, the money was gone. I was so busy with my creative role, on top of being a single mom, that I didn’t pay close enough attention to what my partner was doing. It was clearly my mistake.
If I had to pick a low point, this was it. My marriage was over, my business had failed and I was completely broke. There were weeks when I was so paralyzed with fear that I couldn’t get out of bed—I couldn’t figure out how I’d messed up my life so badly.
Looking back, I know exactly how it happened: My parents never taught me about money, and while I had graduated college, I hadn’t been required to take business classes. But hitting bottom was actually a huge blessing because it made me realize something: With my life stripped down to nothing, I really had everything—my sons, my health and myself. Eventually, with emotional support from my parents and friends, I began to forgive myself.
How I Finally Turned My Life Around
I had finally wised up—I was on a mission for financial stability. I got a job in marketing—and got serious about budgeting.
“My approach to money today is on steroids—I love knowing where every cent is.”
I worked with an attorney to finally get my business accounts in order—everything from contracts to trademarks and licensing deals. More importantly, he pushed me into taking a lot of it on myself, so that I could pursue projects as a fully engaged, responsible grown-up.
I also discovered the Women’s Institute for Financial Education (WIFE). My CPA had recommended checking them out, and when I saw their slogan—”A Man Is Not a Financial Plan”—I had to know them.
Besides basics like budgeting, WIFE has taught me to plan for the future and depend on myself. I learned the hard way that you need to save, plan ahead and create a stable foundation in order to have the freedom to be entrepreneurial—and successful.
Today, my approach to money today is on steroids—I love knowing where every cent is, and I’m proud of the way I educate my kids to be financially savvy. I now have emergency funds, insurance for the future and retirement accounts. Now, instead of a
voiding bills, I actually get excited when my bank statements hit my inbox.
It’s a long way from being $4 million in debt.
Elizabeth Bryan is the co-author of “Chicken Soup for