How to Leave a Marriage When You Don't Have Much Money

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Leaving a marriage with no money isn’t easy, but it is possible. Here are some tips you might consider.
Updated Dec. 18, 2023
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couple sitting at table with divorce documents

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It’s a tough spot to be in. You know, or you’re reasonably sure, that the right move is to leave your marriage, but you don’t have any money.

That doesn’t mean you’re stuck. In this article, we’ll talk about ways to prepare financially for the divorce. We can’t promise it’s going to be smooth sailing — divorces almost certainly aren’t — but we have some ideas that could help.

Consult an attorney

Natee Meepian/Adobe attorney explaining to his client

Divorce attorneys are often the most expensive part of the divorce process, as the average hourly rate for a lawyer is $270, according to a survey by legal publisher Nolo. However, there are ways to get legal help that mitigate the fees associated with a lawyer. For example, you could look for a legal aid center that services your area. Its mission is to provide civil legal aid to low-income families across the country.

You could also find attorneys that do pro bono work. Pro bono lawyers agree to take your case for free or for a reduced rate. You can find pro bono lawyers by looking online or on the American Bar Association website.

Tip: Many attorneys also offer free consultations, which gives you an opportunity to receive much-needed legal advice.

Consider mediation

fizkes/Adobe spouses split up disputing about divorce settlement

Mediation is a great way to avoid the costs of a lawyer. A mediator helps you work out the details of your divorce. They facilitate conversations about splitting assets, deciding child care agreements, and who takes on what debt from a marriage.

When everything is accounted for, a mediator will draw up a divorce agreement for both parties to sign. Divorce documents put together by a mediator have a higher compliance rate because both spouses have agency when deciding on the agreement. In other words, both parties are more likely to follow the divorce agreement because they both fully participated in putting it together.

Tip: Private mediation can be almost as expensive as hiring a lawyer. To save money, look for community-based or court-based low-cost mediation.

Consider a side hustle

Milica/Adobe young English teacher giving online lessons

When you’re trying to leave a marriage with no money, it could be helpful to start a side hustle or get a part-time job. Side hustles are a great way to make some extra cash and pay for the divorce. If you’re the partner who’s moving out, it could help fund moving expenses, apartment living, and other financial burdens you might encounter throughout the divorce process.

Just keep in mind that the extra income will have to be taken into account when the court is deciding on alimony and child support.

Tip: Even a short-term gig like seasonal work could be helpful.

Open a separate bank account

virojt/Adobe man taking notes with account passbook

You’ll want to put the money you’re earning into a separate checking or savings account that only you have access to. This keeps your money safe from your spouse in case things go sideways in the divorce. It also gets you a jumpstart on separating yourself from your spouse. You could redirect your work direct deposits into this account as well. It’s hard to financially disentangle yourself from your spouse, but this is a great first step.

Opening a bank account is especially important if you’re leaving an abusive relationship. You don’t want your former partner withholding funds from you as a way of financial abuse as you’re trying to leave a difficult situation.

Tip: Be sure account statements are being sent to a safe address or P.O. box.

Keep things civil, if possible

Soloviova Liudmyla/Adobe father waving goodbye to son

Another way to keep divorce costs low is by keeping things civil. This allows you to separate amicably and save money by paying lawyers less and staying out of the divorce courts more. It also helps keep the animosity down. Animosity breeds spite, and you don’t want your spouse taking it out by trying to ask for more in the courtrooms.

Tip: If you’re in a situation where domestic abuse is occurring, an amicable split will likely not be possible. Your safety is more important than saving money. Keep contact to a minimum and communicate through your legal representative.

Ask for help

bnenin/Adobe group of multiethnic friends eating pancakes

When you’re leaving a marriage with no money, it’s important to reach out for help. Friends and family members could keep a lookout for deals on furniture for your new apartment, offer child care while you go to the courthouse for divorce proceedings, help you move out, and more.

Your community is your best asset when it comes to an affordable divorce. Before shopping for things to set up your new household, check with charitable groups or religious organizations in your area. These groups are established to help people in your situation, and they want to make sure you have everything you need.

If you’re afraid for your safety during the divorce, your local domestic violence shelter is ready to take you in with open arms. Reach out to get the support you need during this challenging time.

Tip: Be cautious about what you post on social media, even if it’s just asking for help. Anything you post could come up during divorce proceedings.

Consider low-cost therapy

thodonal/Adobe divorce advice concept on a smartphone

Therapy is an excellent way to let go, decompress, and sort out how you feel about a situation. It could also help you process the complicated emotions that arise during a divorce and help boost your self-esteem.

However, therapy can be expensive. Check with your health insurance to see whether it has a low-cost therapy option. Many insurers cover mental health services for a copay or coinsurance. If your insurance won’t cover therapy, check with the universities and nonprofits in your area. They may have sliding scale options.

There are also many telehealth apps that are relatively inexpensive ways to get the help you need. Talkspace, BetterHelp, and Larkr are some of the more popular platforms. Although they’re typically more expensive than using your insurance, they may be cheaper than finding an in-person therapist to help you through this situation. Using technology to your advantage allows you to get the mental health support you need at a cost that’s affordable.

Tip: You may also be able to find support groups online or in person.

Gather financial information

virojt/Adobe man taking notes with account passbook

It’s important to have a complete financial picture when you get divorced. Even if you don’t have many assets, collecting the information in one place gives you the ability to make solid financial decisions regarding your divorce.

This information allows your mediator or attorney to help split assets and debt equitably so one partner isn’t burdened unnecessarily. For example, if you’ve supported your spouse by caring for children while they worked, you may be entitled to financial support (also known as alimony).

Here is information you’ll want to collect to prepare for a divorce:

  • Three most recent employment paystubs for each party
  • Monthly bank statements from all accounts from the past three years
  • Utility bills from the past three months
  • Income tax returns for the past three to five years, both business and personal
  • Any W-2 statements for both parties from the last three to five years
  • Any investment accounts, including retirement accounts for both parties
  • If applicable, Social Security statements for both parties
  • Any statements for debts such as credit cards, car loans, mortgage statements, student loans, and outstanding medical bills

Tip: If you can’t secure copies, take pictures of the documents with your phone.

Open a P.O. box

aspen rock/Adobe p.o. box

Opening a P.O. box is fairly straightforward and inexpensive. Having a P.O. box is important because it allows your mail to be delivered directly to you. You don’t want your ex to have access to your information.

Once it's set up, notify your accounts that your address has changed. If you don’t open a P.O. box, you could miss important information, such as bills and letters from your attorney. It’s definitely worth the money to open one if you can manage it.

Tip: Opening a P.O. box helps to protect your privacy.

Look into housing and other financial assistance

Natee Meepian/Adobe real estate agent describes the loan interest to the customer

If you’re not prepared financially to move into another home or apartment, consider looking into housing assistance programs to help cover the costs of new housing. USA.gov has information on finding affordable housing, and you can go to benefits.gov to look for housing information as well. Your local social services office could also provide assistance and advice.

In addition to housing, you may also want to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and explore options for health care. One excellent resource for health care information and assistance is Healthcare.gov.

Needing assistance for housing, food, and more may feel overwhelming, but when you’re leaving a marriage with no money, it’s important to cut costs where you can so you land on your feet.

Tip: Some housing assistance programs may have wait lists, so looking into assistance sooner rather than later is key.

Develop a budget

lordn/Adobe young woman single mother is doing home budgeting

A huge part of financial recovery after a divorce is putting together a budget. Learning how to manage your money, especially if you weren’t the partner who handled finances, can be daunting. But don’t let that stop you from setting yourself up for success. There are plenty of budgeting apps out there you could use to track your spending. Use them to see what you’re spending on and then make decisions from there.

If you notice your spending is bloated in one way or another, you could cut back. The goal when budgeting is to create a balanced spending plan that covers all your expenses and leaves you money to save. It might take time to reach that goal, but budgeting could help you get there.

Tip: Now’s a good time to learn more about personal finance. For example, this article on ways divorce can impact your finances could be helpful.

FAQs

wirojsid/Adobe golden rings and divorce decree

How do you prepare for the divorce process?

When you prepare for a divorce, you’ll want to consult a lawyer, if possible, and make arrangements to care for yourself and any children. This could include getting a part-time or full-time job, assessing where you are financially and developing a budget, and setting up your own bank accounts. Divorce is an emotional process, so having a therapist in your support system is important as well. Your lawyer or mediator will help you with the rest.

How much does it cost to get a divorce?

Divorces are expensive, especially when you have children, but it really depends on what state you live in and your specific circumstances. According to Nolo’s survey, the average divorce with a lawyer costs $11,300, but more than 40% of those surveyed paid $5,000 or less. Of course, there are other costs to consider beyond the legal ones. You may have to rent or buy a new home, furnish that home, pay child support, and more.

How long does it take to get a divorce?

How long it takes to get a divorce depends on your state and your situation. If it’s simple and amicable, it could be a few months. If it’s more complicated and involves custody issues, it could be months or even years.

Bottom line

olly/Adobe divorce negotiation

Leaving an unhappy marriage with no money is difficult emotionally and financially. But you have tools that will help you get back on your feet. If you think you’re ready for divorce, start putting a plan into place now so you’re prepared when you tell your spouse. While you’re planning, consider how to avoid these costly divorce mistakes.

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Author Details

Moriah Chace Moriah Chace is a queer personal finance aficionado who writes about credit cards, careers, banking, and more. Her work has been featured by a number of large media outlets including The Motley Fool, Buzzfeed, Bankrate, and Bigger Pockets.

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