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Don't make the divorce mistakes I did

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

You’ve probably seen the same financial advice I have, about how much money you’ll save if you skip that daily $5 latte. Small potatoes.

If you really want to save money, don’t get divorced! At least don’t get divorced the way I did.

Nearly 20 years ago, I went through a litigated divorce that left me in a financial hole for a decade. We started with a mediator, which is a terrific alternative to higher-priced lawyers. We worked out all the financial issues but couldn’t agree on custody of our two kids. So we ended up in court, the last place I ever thought my marriage would lead to.

Divorce is usually a money-loser, for both sides. But many people make it a lot worse than it has to be, and I must ruefully count myself among them. If I had to do it over again (now there’s a horrifying thought), here’s what I’d do differently:

Manage my anger more cost-effectively. Everybody who gets divorced believes their former partner is the devil incarnate, and what’s happening to them is grossly unfair. Boo-hoo. When you feel cheated, you get angry, and that anger can lead to some colossal mistakes. In my case, I paid my lawyer to play way too much small ball, sending threatening letters over perceived slights or minor incidents that were unrelated to the custody issue we were actually litigating. At the time, I felt righteously indignant, which seemed to justify any expense, in my mind. I was a jackass. At the $200 per hour my lawyer charged back then, I should have given him inviolable instructions to do nothing unless it would tangibly increase the odds of a favorable outcome. Only years later, as I was paying off those bills, did I really learn how expensive unchecked emotion can be.

Think harder about an alternative future. I envisioned myself as one type of parent, and I spent a lot of money on legal fees trying to get a custody deal that would fulfill that vision. I lost every step of the way, and paid a high price for lacking the imagination to foresee other ways to parent. My kids are young adults now, and I have a terrific relationship with each of them. That’s because I learned how to be a part-time dad, and still make my parenting count. I still wouldn’t choose that arrangement if given the choice. But I know now you can accomplish a lot as a parent, in less time than you think. Wish I had known that sooner.

Remember that it’s my kids’ money, too. I guess I was willing to go deeply into debt and absorb lifestyle degradation because I was fired up for a battle I felt was worth fighting. But I should have thought more about the impact my own diminished circumstances would have on what I was able to offer my kids. Many times, while paying down those legal bills, I sure wished I had a few extra bucks for a bigger rental apartment, a nicer vacation or some activity with the kids I couldn’t afford. If I were paying my lawyer today, I’d ask what each increment of $100 or $1,000 would be able to buy in the future, assuming I didn’t spend it on litigation.

Knowing all this, it still would have been hard to fold or even compromise back when I felt I was fighting the world’s most important battle. But a stark preview of the future costs of emotional decisions would have been sobering. The best way to overcome anger is to put a price tag on it, and the price is usually higher than you’d ever guess.

This story was originally published on Oct. 5, 2016 as "If I got a divorce do-over, this is how I'd save thousands."