At 40 years old I am among more than a quarter of Americans in my generation whose parents have divorced. We are all familiar with the emotional havoc wreaked by such partings, but as we and our parents age still more consequences are coming to light, especially financial ones.
Reuters reporter Linda Stern recently wrote an article, "Adult children of divorce face extra burdens" that focused on the financial challenges those from divorced families face as our parents grow older. Her piece examined the angle of those whose parents divorce after 20 or more years of marriage, but most of her insights pertain to any of us whose parents have parted.
Quoting attorney-mediator Diane Mercer, Stern writes, "Young adult children of divorce may find their college fund ravaged; they may see their family home fall into the hands of Dad's new girlfriend or Mom's new guy. They may feel financially responsible for their parents at an early age, and have to care for single aging parents who won't take care of each other."
To which Stern, herself a senior personal finance reporter, offers great advice. Among her sage words: "Take care of yourself." She goes on, "Somebody's got to, right? Don't neglect your own career or savings plan because you're worrying about Mom and Dad. If anything, you may need more savings than other people: You stand a bigger chance of losing parental support and the family inheritance."
As someone who has been studying and writing about grown children of divorce for ten years, I can't tell you how many times I've heard my peers say, "The day my parents got divorced was the day my childhood ended." For too many of us, endings dominate our earliest memories. The aspects of life that others assumed were stable and lasting - such as families, homes, or finances - too often did not last for us. In response, we children of divorce can take on a kind of fatalistic thinking, always looking back, expecting the worst, and not daring to think about, much less plan for, the future. I wrote in my book, Between Two Worlds, about one grown child of divorce who said:
"My friends always get p----- off because I don't plan anything. They ask me, 'Want to do this and this?' I can only deal with today, I tell them, and they look at me like I'm crazy. They're nice ideas and if they actually pan out that's wonderful. But if they don't, oh well.'"
This way of thinking has financial consequences as well as emotional ones. Long-term financial well-being isn't just about saving or being frugal, although both practices are very important. People who are genuinely thrifty have a plan. They think about the future, set goals, work hard, reward themselves, and give generously to others.
With the financial crisis that has recently shaken our nation and the world, thrift is back on the radar screen again. It was even the subject of a week-long discussion in Philadelphia earlier this month, when that city became the first U.S. city since 1966 to celebrate National Thrift Week. (My colleagues at the Institute for American Values were part of the team that made it happen. Learn more at NewThrift.org.)
What does thrift have to do with children of divorce? The word thrift shares its root with "to thrive." Thrift is an ethical approach to our material world, a way of life that is open to all of us, no matter our backgrounds or our current financial situation. It's about saving and planning. It's about being green and conserving. It's about making things, fixing things, and using old things. (The rage for Etsy.com is a great example of our generation's embrace of this way of life.) Thrifty people take care of themselves and, because they have planned carefully and worked hard, they have resources left over to take care of others.
Our parents' generation came of age amid one of the most prosperous eras ever in American history. For us, times are different. We can't afford to ignore the future or hope that someone else will take care of us. But how about this? Instead of drawing back in fear, let's be bold. Let's confront the future, have a plan, and embrace a thrifty way of life, together. Not only will it be good for us, it might also be fun!
BIO: Elizabeth Marquardt is a vice president at the Institute for American Values, which is encouraging thrift efforts through NewThrift.org.