One day last year, I was standing in the checkout line in the grocery store with my daughter, blithely waiting for my debit card to go through when the woman behind the cash register said, "It says insufficient funds. Do you have another card?"
I was mortally embarrassed, but tried to laugh it off. "I've been having trouble with this account," I lied. "Here, try this one," I said, handing her another card.
"Sorry, insufficient funds," came her reply, with an empathic look.
"Really?" I asked, feigning surprise, while I broke out in a cold sweat. "That's odd. I'll just put it on a credit card."
"This one's declined as well."
By this time, there was a line behind us, and I scanned the faces to see if anyone knew me. I handed over my ex-husband's American Express, praying it would not be declined.
"That worked," the woman announced, more relieved than I.
As my daughter and I slunk out of the store, she asked me if we were broke. I said we were fine, but drove home shaking and fighting tears. The truth was, I had been in denial about our financial situation ever since my husband left me for another woman nearly three years earlier.
At the time, we were living in a grand, 5,000 square-foot home on three acres in the country. We purchased the home upon returning to the U.S. from Thailand, where my husband was CFO of a global bank, and I was country correspondent for an international news magazine. Back then, we lived like kings. We had a large house with a pool in a private enclave, two maids and a driver for our SUV.
We vacationed frequently and extravagantly; I hosted lavish catered parties for the bank staff or other expatriate families; I paid $10 for a bag of spinach at an upscale grocery store; and I always, always picked up the tab. After struggling financially all of my adult life, being able to treat friends brought me joy and made me feel safe and secure.
When we moved back to the States five years ago, our life was less glamorous but no less comfortable. The house in the country was a stretch financially, but we took a risk, assuming money would never be a problem. My husband had a good salary at the bank and I was on retainer writing for a corporate client in Singapore.
In the aftermath of my husband's revelation about his affair, I went through a number of phases as I struggled to cope. My first reaction was that he might leave us high and dry, so I went out and got a temporary job writing at the local college. Over time, denial replaced pragmatism. I could barely grasp that my husband of 14 years had left me; facing the idea that my socio-economic status would inevitably change was simply too much.
My lawyer warned me early on that the hardest thing for women "like me" to realize was that the life I knew was over. I ignored him—not out of hubris but out of fear.
I didn't understand that I was ignoring his advice, or that I was in denial. I was simply living—and spending—the way I had for the past decade. Continuing routines such as going out to nice dinners and traveling to Florida for spring vacation provided a comfort and continuity that my children and I craved.
We were able to sustain this for about a year, but then my contract wasn't renewed, and my husband was laid off. He found another position six months later—at two-thirds his previous salary—but by then we had two attorneys on retainer and the bills were piling up.
My children and I moved into a home less than half the size and, over time, many of the luxuries I took for granted fell away. I was taking outward steps to live more modestly, while inwardly denying the necessity of doing so. I expended an enormous amount of energy trying to keep up appearances to the outside world, my children and, most of all, to myself.
By the time my cards were denied at the grocery store, I was running a deficit every month. My ex-husband paid his support like clockwork, I was earning money as a freelance journalist and had cut my expenditures to the bone—but it wasn't enough. I applied for countless jobs but couldn't even get an interview. When we lived the high life, I never thought about money; now it consumed me. I became terrified to open bills or check my account balance and I was often overdrawn.
I was deeply ashamed; I was also angry to be in such a precarious position in middle age. My husband and I had plans. The worrying about money part of my life was supposed to be over.
My situation is not unique. One study from 2014 found that older divorced women's income drops by 40 percent and a quarter of divorced women over 60 live in poverty. That's pretty sobering and scary. I don't live anywhere near the poverty level, but I don't have any savings and I worry about how I'll make ends meet when child support and alimony fall away.
In hindsight, I wish I had stopped spending money the moment I found out about the affair; I wish I had come out of my denial sooner. Once I did, it was pretty easy to revert to my pre-marriage penny-pinching ways: I started shopping at a cheaper grocery store and stuck to generic over name brands on most items; I learned to do simple home repairs, and last winter I heated our house with wood. Even when I never had to look at a price, I delighted in finding a bargain. When it's out of necessity, the triumph is even sweeter.
My old life is a distant dream. I shake my head when I think of how much money I wasted on so much unnecessary stuff. I don't miss the luxuries; I miss the feeling of security, treating my friends to lunch and not worrying all the time. This wasn't my plan for this period of my life but it is my reality. And I'm ready to face it now.