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Downsizing after divorce? How to declutter and take charge of your life

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After a breakup or divorce, your life and finances are different, and you may need to consider moving to a different home or apartment.

According to a comparative study on the National Library of Medicine site about the consequences of divorce for men and women, women have historically experienced a 27% decline in their standard of living, while men realized a 10% increase after divorce.

While there are many factors to explain the sharp divide, there’s a common thread that can shape life after divorce: education.

Knowing how to adapt to the post-divorce landscape can make a difference — and that often begins with downsizing. 

Here’s how to navigate life with less stuff after divorce:

Be honest: Is your current house barely — or not — affordable on your income alone? If you’re struggling, even with child support or alimony, then it’s not affordable. 

Using most of your moola just to keep a roof over your head is shortsighted in the extreme because personal finance isn’t just about covering the bills.

You need an emergency fund. You need to save for retirement. And all women — not just single moms — need to invest and grow their wealth.

If you’ve got enough equity, you might be able to keep the house when dividing property in a divorce through a variety of options you may discuss with your attorney or banker. If not, you’ll need to figure out where to live after your divorce, which could include a new home or rental or living with friends or family.

Options for downsizing after divorce

Move to a more affordable house nearby

Educate yourself about your options, but remember that the best choice might be to move. You can look for a cheaper place in the same school district — but be prepared to start over in a different neighborhood altogether.

Free or affordable housing options for single moms

Sure, it’ll be a major disruption. But you know what else is disruptive? Getting evicted! Or even just having a mom who’s constantly freaked out about whether she can afford to pay for that unexpected car repair.

Owning a home is a great way to build equity, so if you can afford it, this may be a smart decision for your future.

A guide to low-income loans for single moms

Move to a rental

Jumping straight into a new home purchase isn’t always the best move.

You might still be raw from grief if the breakup was sprung on you, or wiped out by the divorce process even if you initiated it. Helping your kids cope with the new normal can be pretty migraine-inducing, too. 

So instead of rushing into homeownership, consider renting for a year to get your finances — and maybe your head — in order. Some pros of renting include:

  • Low maintenance: In a condo or townhome, someone else mows the lawn or shovels the snow. In an apartment, it’s the landlord that deals with the Revolt of the Appliances. 
  • No home ownership costs: When renting, you aren’t responsible for paying a mortgage, property taxes, maintenance costs, HOA fees, and other expenses for the upkeep of a home.
  • Flexibility: If you aren’t sure where you want to live long-term or have a job that requires frequent moving, a rental can be a smart decision.
  • Saving money: Depending on where you live, monthly rent may be lower than a mortgage payment, and some landlords include utilities. Renter’s insurance is typically considerably lower than what you’d pay for homeowner’s insurance premiums.
  • No down payment necessary: Although you have to pay a security deposit (usually one month’s rent) upfront, this is much less than a down payment for a home, which can start at 3.5% of the home’s purchase price with an FHA loan.

Once again, moving might be the right choice, even if it isn’t an easy choice.

There is also the emotional equation of living in your own home that you can afford. In her book The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), Emma Johnson writes:

Ohio mom Wendy, together with her teenage daughters, moved out of a four-thousand-square foot spread with five bedrooms and four bathrooms and into a three-bedroom, one-bath rental that was one-third the size. She took very few things from her previous home, which had been largely decorated with gifts and heirlooms from her ex-husband’s parents.

“Starting from nothing was daunting, but it was also completely liberating. I didn’t have to ask anyone else their opinion. My choices were mine, and mine alone. It was a huge adjustment for my kids moving from a fancier home into a quite spare rental house. But it was a very valuable lesson in what actually makes a home: people, feelings, and memories, and not granite countertops and spiffy bathrooms. A year ago, I purchased a home just a few blocks from our rental house. We had grown to love our neighborhood and neighbors. Our new home is still small, and we still have only one bathroom, but the girls now regard this as their home.

“Their dad is now under contract with his latest girlfriend on a six-bedroom, five-bath stately Tudor on a very fancy street about a mile from us. The contrast between my house and that house could not be greater. And though I know we would all like more bathroom space, I have no doubt that this will continue to feel like my kids’ home, however spacious and upscale his new digs are.”

Other ways to save on housing expenses or make money include renting out your house for Airbnb income, while renting a smaller apartment, sharing a home with another single mom, or moving in with her parents to save money.

Moving back in with parents after divorce

And maybe, just maybe, your folks have been begging you to come home. On the face of it, moving back into your childhood bedroom is no one’s idea of successful adulting. Yet it could actually be a shrewd choice for the short term. (Assuming, of course, that you and your parents generally got along before you left home.)

Before you say “OMG yes, thanks!” to the offer, make a game plan. First, figure out how much cash you’ll need to tidy up your finances and move back out.

Next, do the math: Based on your current salary plus careful budgeting and maybe a side hustle, how long will it take to get those dollars?

Set some guidelines: You won’t be a pain in the ass, and they won’t infantilize you. Is this a free flop or are you required to pay rent? How many chores will you be expected to do? Which nights will you cook?

Set some boundaries, too. Chief among them: 

  • Mom, not Grandma and Grandpa, will be in charge of raising the children.
  • Mom is also in charge of her own life, and will not accept being chided for wearing bright-red lipstick or staying out late.

Talk these things over with your parents. Heck, print out your game plan and have them sign it. Should friction develop later on you’ll be able to say, “Hey, we agreed that…”

Remember: Your being there could be as good for them as it is for you. They get loads of grandbaby time, and you could take on some of the heavier chores – yard work, deep cleaning – that aren’t as easy for your folks as they used to be. (Or, again, you could outsource those chores.)

In return? You get a cheap (or free) place to stay as you power closer to your financial goals.

Still, it can be frustrating to be back where you started. So while you’re home, practice self-care with an eye toward improved health and beauty, rather than eating alllll the ice cream and binging on British TV mysteries. A new look after divorce might be just the thing you need to convince yourself that life does, in fact, go on.

How to hire someone to do your laundry

5 benefits of hiring a housekeeper or house cleaner

Getting rid of stuff after divorce

Whether you stay where you are or move, you’ll also want to declutter and get rid of stuff you don’t need.

While the urge to purge is understandable, pause and see if you can make cash from any post-divorce rejects methodically. Sell rather than give away furniture and other valuable items (including your wedding and/or engagement ring). 

Items you’ll want to think about selling or donating include:

  • Furniture
  • Bridal jewelry
  • Clothing
  • Other items that might remind you of your marriage or ex

Sell rather than give away furniture and other valuable items (including your wedding and/or engagement ring). 

For fine gold jewelry and coins and diamond jewelry, CashforGoldUSA is a quality choice to sell your jewelry online, quickly, for the highest price. Be sure to first learn more about what your gold is worth, and how to sell it safely with CashforGoldUSA’s online gold calculator. CashforGoldUSA has an A+ Better Business Bureau rating, and pays within 24 hours.

The money from this continued cleansing will help pay for your post-breakup furniture and décor, moving expenses, and other housing-related costs.

Downsizing your lifestyle

Look at your budget to find areas where you can cut back on spending, such as getting rid of cable or cooking at home versus eating out. 

Here are a few things you can do to downsize:

Get a different car

You can buy a used car outright to avoid monthly payments, so your vehicle expenses will be limited to gas and maintenance.

Research reliable cars with great gas mileage and a history of low maintenance costs. Resources like Kelley Blue Book and US News and World Report can help you make an informed choice. 

If you currently have a vehicle with a high monthly payment, there are a few things you can do to get rid of the expense. You’ll need to work with your lender, but these options could save you money:

  • Sell the car — You’ll need to pay the remaining balance on the loan, so price the vehicle at a cost that will wipe out that debt. Reach out to the dealership where you purchased the car to start the sales process.
  • Pay off your loan  — If your balance is low, pay it off if you can to eliminate the monthly payment.
  • Ask for a voluntary repossession  — This is the last possible option you should consider. While some lenders may forgive your remaining debt and take the car, this action will hit your credit report and decrease your creditworthiness.

If you want to keep your car and save your credit, talk to your lender about renegotiating your payments. But be aware that this could extend your loan period.

Decrease spending

Resist the urge to use credit to pay for everyday expenses. Use cash or a debit card instead so that you can keep track of what you spend. Plus, once that money is spent, it does not have to be paid back (like a credit card).

Cancel unnecessary and unused subscriptions. It might not seem like a lot, but $5 here and there for access to streaming or audiobooks can add up.

Set boundaries on how much you will spend on:

  • Food
  • Entertainment
  • Clothing
  • Monthly phone bills
  • Internet/cable access at home 

Before you make a purchase or take on a bill, decide if it’s necessary. If it is, have a set amount you want to pay before committing. For example, if your budget for monthly cell phone service is $40, look for providers that offer discounted plans. 

10+ ways to get a free smartphone and discounts on monthly cell plans

Shop less

As mentioned earlier, downsizing can also mean letting go of physical items through donation or selling. But don’t declutter your home only to replace those items with more stuff. Limit your shopping, opting to buy quality goods that last.

To limit the temptation to overspend, schedule one day a week for grocery shopping following a strict list of items and only buy new clothing or shoes as needed.

The takeaway

Many moms find that downsizing to a smaller, more affordable home that is also easy to maintain gives them the freedom and confidence they need to move forward with their new life. 

Downsizing after divorce includes getting rid of unwanted possessions, downsizing or otherwise changing homes, losing weight or an unhealthy mindset (“What kind of awful mother am I to be putting my kids through all this?”). 

Plus: a feng-shui home makeover post-divorce or breakup is good for the soul, inviting in new, positive experiences and people.

Take what’s worth keeping from your old life and use it to create a meaningful new life of your own design. 

Looking for inspiration for your new life? Check out my list of books for single moms, and gifts for single moms (from yourself, your kids, lover, friends). Also, my single-mom homie Karen Salmansohn is a great source of inspirational quotes for moms.

Longtime personal finance journalist Donna Freedman created the Smart Spending blog for MSN Money and has written for dozens of other publications, including The New York Times Review of Books, NerdWallet, Magnify Money, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Vox, U.S. News and World Report, Get Rich Slowly, All You, The Simple Dollar, the Chicago Tribune and Wise Bread. Her work has won regional and national awards. She is a member of Mensa, but people are much more impressed by the fact that she was once on the game show "Jeopardy!" Donna lives and writes in Anchorage, Alaska.Donna's website | Donna's LinkedIn profile

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