"I had all these doomsday scenarios about my financial situation," says Jen Lawrence, 44, an Oakville, Ont. writer and blogger at readjenlawrence.com. "You hear these horror stories that one of the things that's most likely to cause poverty is when you split up, so I didn't want to be a poor divorcée."
While she admits she likely went overboard with the expense tracking ("Every time I'd buy a soda from a hot dog cart, I'd put that into Quicken"), Ms. Lawrence says her fiscal discipline was a way to feel in control of her finances at an emotionally challenging time.
"In the early days of a divorce, it feels really raw and it can be a little overwhelming," says the mother of two. "You're trying to manage your emotions, you're trying to manage your children's emotions."
Having seen others get into financial trouble after a split, Ms. Lawrence says she was determined not to fall into the post-divorce spending trap.
"I know people who decided to travel wildly when they got divorced, other people who hired a personal trainer, others go off to find themselves," she says. "It's already an expensive time because half of your asset picture is gone, and then there are the lawyers that you're hiring. So for me, the key to getting through it was to not get into spending as anaesthetic, just because you're feeling really awful."
Ms. Lawrence notes that although it's not something most people will welcome, she thinks divorce can actually be a "really good wake-up call" to examine important issues like retirement and other future financial priorities. That's why her first advice for friends going through a divorce is to urge them to meet with their financial professional.
"It's a time when you need to be making smart decisions and sometimes it's hard to do that on your own," says Ms. Lawrence. "I think people often use marriage as a bit of a safety net and insurance policy, like, 'There's two of us and surely two of us can figure it out.' But when you're on your own suddenly, it's very clear that it's up to you, that you're in charge of your financial destiny."
Chris Buttigieg is Senior Manager of Wealth Planning Strategy at BMO Wealth Management, and he agrees that when it comes to finances after a divorce, an individual's first move should be getting their financial house in order.
"Now that you're single, you need to recalibrate your financial plan," says Mr. Buttigieg. "If the couple had a financial plan, that was a plan they did as a couple with joint goals and objectives. Now it's time to look at it from a personal, individual perspective and reflect on, 'What is my personal financial situation now? What are my personal goals?' You'll have to work with that plan to ensure that your retirement or other financial objectives can be obtained on your own."
Post-divorce, individuals should review their investments, says Mr. Buttigieg, particularly any that were in joint name that have now been divided. Credit should be updated, and any joint responsibilities eliminated. The individuals should also review their estate plans and update their Will, powers of attorney, and beneficiary designations for registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs), tax-free savings accounts (TFSAs) and life insurance.
Carolyn Chambers, an associate family and divorce lawyer at Gelman & Associates in Toronto, says that she frequently advises clients to see a financial professional or certified divorce financial analyst to help them get a handle on their finances, particularly if their holdings are substantial.
Ms. Chambers says that it can be a rude awakening for some people when they understand the true cost of their divorce, especially if their spouse was the one who generally handled the finances in their household.
"Some people have a false sense of what they may end up with and they really overinflate it," she says. "And they are shocked later when they realize they are not going to get what they expected."
On the other hand, says Ms. Chambers, people may also need help when they receive a large settlement.
"They absolutely need to see someone to plan out their future, and to ensure that the money is going to be there as long as they need it."
If the expense of a divorce has required an individual to dip into savings, it may have had a significant impact on their retirement plan, says Mr. Buttigieg. He points out that a financial plan will encompass four important strategies to get back on track: saving, budgeting, insurance and emergency fund.
"I think common wisdom holds that every Canadian should start saving for retirement as early as possible, but it's even more important for someone who is single again to save more and often," he says.
When it comes to budgeting, Mr. Buttigieg says that people often underestimate the impact of divorce on income and expenses. There are many everyday expenses that will remain constant after divorce (like property taxes, phone, cable, utilities, etc.), but now they will need to be paid with a partial household income.
"In addition, there might be new costs to replace some of the tasks that were performed by the other partner," he adds. "Household chores, financial management, caregiving – now perhaps you will have to pay someone to perform those tasks."
Newly-divorced individuals will need to reassess their health benefits and insurance coverage, since employer group health and insurance benefits typically end for a dependent spouse upon divorce. And when it comes to an emergency fund, Mr. Buttigieg suggests that individuals should have three to six months of their monthly income needs available to provide a financial cushion in case of an unexpected situation such as a job loss or a repair of some sort.
He notes that having a comprehensive financial plan can boost confidence and provide the peace of mind that may have been shaken by a divorce.
"A financial plan will keep you on track to fulfil specific goals, it's measurable, and you can refer back to it and adjust it appropriately as you move forward with your life," says Mr. Buttigieg.
Ms. Lawrence says she eventually eased up on the strict budgeting once she felt comfortable that her finances were in good shape. But she says that having that control over her finances definitely helped her to better handle the life change that is divorce.
"You're going through enough emotional upheaval that you want some financial stability."