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Downsizing after divorce? 4 tips for downsizing, decluttering, and getting an apartment

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After a breakup or divorce, your life and finances are different, and you likely need to reconsider moving house. 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. Plus: a feng-shui home makeover post-divorce or breakup is good for the soul, inviting in new, positive experiences and people. 

Downsize after divorce?

But be honest: Is your current house barely — or not — affordable on your income alone? Are you even struggling with child support or alimony? If so, then they’re not affordable at all. 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 through a variety of options you may discuss with your attorney or banker. 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.

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.

Finally, how much work do you want to do? In a condo or townhome, someone else mows the lawn or shovels the snow. (There’s zero shame in wanting to outsource household tasks.) In an apartment, it’s the landlord that deals with the Revolt of the Appliances. Once again: Moving might be the right choice, even if it isn’t an easy choice.

There is also the emotional equation of living 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.”

Getting rid of stuff after divorce

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). 

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The money from this continued cleansing will help pay for your post-breakup furniture and décor. The Chinese practice of feng shui is designed to create harmony between you and your environment. The premise is that objects hold energy – energy can be positive, and sometimes = energy is super-negative. Feng shui has various fixes, which can include clearing clutter, growing houseplants, rearranging furniture, adding mirrors to specific places in the home, and purging any belongings associated with bad memories (like, say, having been married to a total jerk).

In some cities you can hire a professional to feng shui your living space. Books have been published on the topic, too. But start with this in-depth article on feng shui — whether you are moving into the house of your dreams, or a 1-bedroom apartment (or maybe the home of your dreams is a cozy 1-bedroom apartment!).

Here are 5 divorce-specific issues in feng shui:

1. Everything I own is from my marriage and I can’t afford to replace it all

When I split from my ex, 90 percent of the furniture and about 60 percent of the artwork was from my relationship. Seriously, Laura, I can’t afford to replace everything I own. (Unless we super-charge the ‘wealth’ center of my apartment. Stat.)

2.   I like my stuff!

I’ve got a nice pad. I’m rather smitten with the cluster of paintings I arranged next to my bed when my ex moved out. But you don’t have to be an expert in detecting bad chi when it comes to a lovely water color from Santorini, Greece — purchased on the trip where we got engaged. Not to mention my favorite apple–green Le Cruiset dutch oven that he gave me for my 30th birthday and the Czech cut crystal stemware that were a moving-in-together gift from dear friends.

3. Some of the stuff from my marriage is valuable

Apparently, what you see when you walk into a home is critical. At my place, guests were met with a giant vintage German poster pimping tobacco, featuring a sinister man with Arian features, save for his white robe, head scarf and Arab-tan skin. Not only did Emmanuel and I find it funny and quirky, its acquisition  had a great back story — and we didn’t mind shelling out some serious cash for it.

Long story short: I’m totally over that poster. But the burden of finding it a new home is a stress.

Get the best of Reddit Personal Finance advice.

4. Lots of stuff is attached to good memories

Just because I’m ready to move on from past heartaches doesn’t mean I need to move on from great love. Does it? The folk painting bought on a favela tour in Rio on our honeymoon? What about the water buffalo carving from a riverboat trip in Laos? If I ditch everything I own as it relates to my ex, doesn’t this denigrate that relationship? Suggest that the whole thing was a failure? I don’t believe that. He’s just not my husband any more.

5. These are not just my memories — they are my kids’ history

All these objects I’ve been instructed to remove are touchstones for stories. Stories I am reminded of, or asked for by Helena and Lucas. They deserve to hear about where their parents met, or married, or funny travel adventures that led, ultimately, to their existences. Should I cleanse the house entirely of their dad, don’t I also erase their past?

The first apartment after divorce

Maybe you decided to make a clean break from the marital house, condo or apartment. (Or maybe you couldn’t afford to keep it.) 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.

Women report renting out their 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.

Best-case scenario: You find an affordable rental in the neighborhood and the kids don’t have to switch schools.

Or maybe the scenario isn’t best-case. Maybe it’s crap-case: There wasn’t much money to begin with so now you and your ex are both poorer, or there once was money before your ex made good on his threat to drag things out as long as possible.

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.)

Regardless, you may likely need to learn how to live alone — with or without children — maybe even for the first time of your life.

This can be challenging, lonely, heartbreaking. Living alone can also be freeing, healing and life-changing in important ways. In fact, living alone is one of the important things on our list of things every woman should do in her life.

Moving back in with parents after divorce

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 bingeing 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.

Why you can't afford to do your laundry — and how to outsource it for cheap

The takeaway

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?”). 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, 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.

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