“For all the feminist strides of the last few decades, I often think that the same old rules apply: Most women are still one man—be he spouse, parent, or male boss—from the street,” Lorraine Glennon wrote us last month, after our virtual interview with Annabelle Gurwitch, whose new book You’re Leaving When? directly tackles the issue of downward mobility among women our age.
If I left—even though we’ve been together 28 years—I’m afraid I’d get nothing.
Gurwitch—who has demonstrated a willingness to share about most anything in her books and articles, including her favorite vibrators—acknowledged that it’s harder to talk about money than sex. This got us thinking about what readers weren’t saying about their financial situation. Particularly at a time when the heaviest burden of the pandemic-induced recession has been falling on women.
Even as jobs trickle back, net job growth is still twice as large for men as for women, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. As of March, women still needed to regain 4.6 million more net jobs to get back to the levels of employment they saw before the start of the pandemic. Men need to regain 3.8 million.
“I think this chronic fragility of middle class life is such a feminist issue,” commenter Glennon wrote, “and it affects millions of women, but particularly those in the NextTribe demographic who didn’t expect to find themselves in their 60s and still struggling financially.”
The Velvet Handcuffs of Marriage
Wanting to know more about what our readers were dealing with, we put together a survey about money, and one finding in particular jumped out at us. One-half of married respondents cited money concerns as a main reason they stay in their marriage. “It’s so embarrassing to say this, given that I think of myself as a feminist, but even though I’ve thought about divorce often, I just see a black financial hole on the other side, which scares the crap out of me,” said one 59-year-old NextTriber. “Saying this out loud makes me wonder what kind of progress we’ve made since my mother’s time.”
I have to wonder what kind of progress we’ve made since my mother’s time.
Another 61-year-old reader admits that she’s terrified of what her husband would strip from her if she were to leave him. “I’ve worked my whole married life, but I’ve never made as much as he has,” she told us. “I’ve contributed financially to the family upkeep but have very little savings. We have a pre-nup, so if I left—even though we’ve been together 28 years—I’m afraid I’d get nothing.”
Statistics bear out their worries. Women over 50 who divorce or separate can expect a 41 percent drop in household income, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, while men’s household income dropped by only 23 percent. In general, you need more than a 30 percent increase in income to maintain the same standard of living you had prior to the divorce, so you can see that the math doesn’t work here for divoreced women. What’s more, the average divorced woman has one-third the retirement savings or pension funds as a divorced man.
After her divorce, Gurwitch struggled to keep herself afloat, even though she had been the main breadwinner in the family. She ended up renting out rooms in her house, and certainly AirBnB has become a safety net for many divorced women getting on their feet, just as running boarding houses were for matrons of a different era.
In her NextTribe piece entitled “What I Wish I Knew About Money Before Getting Divorced,” Christine Grillo says her financial woes started with her divorce. “When I was married making ends meet was always tough, but the doubling of costs (house, heat, utilities, etc.) has been a permanent challenge that has really put me over the edge.” Grillo calls herself a “Maddie,” which stands for “mature, able and downwardly mobile.”
Financial Inequality After Divorce: It May Be Worth It
Even though a fairly large percentage of respondents in our survey said they were staying in less-than-happy marriages because of money and even though over a third of the respondents in a separate study said they wish they’d received more money in their divorce settlement, those who do pull the plug are generally happy they did so. A study by online legal marketplace Avvo revealed that the majority of divorced women (73 percent) did not regret their decision to end their marriage, and actually were happier being single even though they were worse off financially.
Francis Financial, a woman-owned wealth management company, conducted a study on women, money and divorce, and the most important message formerly married women wanted to share with other soon-to-be divorced comrades was to get smart about money. So the point is, don’t stay in an unhappy marriage simply because of money; just make sure you educate yourself about finances before you jump.