As the prosperous wife of a successful banker and businessman, Marilyn Svee never worried about money. But indifference is a luxury she can no longer afford, now that . . . She's Going It Alone
(MONEY Magazine) – For most of her 23 years of marriage Marilyn Svee, 44, never balanced a checkbook, paid her own bills or thought about stocks and bonds. She didn't even have a credit card in her own name. She didn't need one. Svee was the well-cared-for suburban wife of a successful banker turned investment manager. And although she held several paying jobs while married, under her own roof managing money was the man's work. Her husband Kit, 45, not only ran all the family finances but also paid the bills -- comfortably -- on an income that regularly topped $75,000 a year. She and Kit raised three kids (Shelly, 24, Tracy, 22, and Christopher, 9) in large, well-appointed homes in Minnesota and, later, in Arizona, enjoying a full complement of upper-middle-class goodies. At one point, for example, the family owned a five-bedroom, $150,000 lakefront house in Deerwood, Minn. and sported around in two boats and four snowmobiles. Marilyn never worried about money (in fact, she never bothered to learn exactly how much Kit earned) or whether it would be there tomorrow. Then, in January 1987, after about six years of slowly building marital trouble, Kit moved out of the couple's Scottsdale, Ariz. home. Suddenly, Marilyn Svee (pronounced Svay), then 38 and working mostly to keep busy at a department store jewelry counter for $125 a week, was on her own. As usual, Kit had made the money decisions. Without informing Marilyn, he withdrew the $1,000 that was in their joint checking account and put her on a $1,000-a- month living allowance while continuing to make the monthly mortgage payments on their home. She had no checking account, and without a credit history she couldn't get a charge card. ''I had a daughter who was a freshman in college, and all these lenders were begging to give her credit,'' she recalls with a trace of anger. ''And no one would give me a card.'' She felt helpless. ''I couldn't believe I was in that situation,'' says Marilyn. ''I thought I was smarter than that.'' Yet in many respects, Marilyn was no different from perhaps a majority of the American women who divorce (about 1 million each year). For one thing, they often have at least some financial ignorance to overcome, especially older divorced women like Marilyn. Says Victoria Felton-Collins, an Irvine, Calif. financial planner and author of Divorce and Money (Nolo, $19.95): ''It's still extraordinarily common for women in their forties and older, who were married for 20 years, to have allowed the man to be in complete financial control.'' For another, there's the well-documented fact that women suffer more financially from divorce than men do. After divorce or separation an average woman's family income drops by 37%, according to the Census Bureau. In Marilyn's case, divorce cut her family income roughly in half. One year after moving out, Kit returned to attempt a reconciliation. But after two more years of tension, the couple finally decided to go their separate ways. In the divorce settlement, Kit agreed to pay Marilyn $40,000 in cash, $730 a month in alimony until 1995 and child support of $770 a month for Christopher until he turns 18. Kit will provide health insurance for Marilyn (until 1995) and Christopher (until age 18) at a current total cost of $6,000 a year. And he agreed to cover Chris' college bills. Marilyn got their $178,000 house in Scottsdale -- along with its $106,000, 9.6% 15-year mortgage. She rents it out for $1,100 a month, but that doesn't cover her $1,156 monthly loan payment, let alone the annual $1,400 she owes for property tax and insurance. Overall, however, Marilyn feels that her settlement with Kit, negotiated amicably without lawyers, was fair. ''I wanted to make sure I could be comfortable and build my career,'' she says, ''but I wasn't interested in becoming a rich woman.'' Yet her lack of financial resources has made her more sympathetic to feminist arguments about the exploitation of women. ''That happens when you put in 23 years in a marriage and come out with no pension or IRA,'' she says. ''Kit has an IRA.'' After the legal papers dissolving the marriage went through in June 1990, Marilyn put the Scottsdale house on the market for $178,000 (she got only a few nibbles, and has now given her tenant an option to buy at $170,000 until December) and moved back to Minnesota to begin life on her own. She chose to settle in Eagan, not far from where she had lived early in her marriage, because she thought that the small, friendly town, which is a suburb of St. Paul, would be an attractive place to bring up Chris. In addition to her alimony and child support, Marilyn earns $38,000 a year as a district sales manager for Doncaster, a North Carolina manufacturer of fashionable women's clothing that is distributed by home-based salespeople. Her income from those three sources totals $56,000. While that figure is more than three times the median income for single mothers who work, Marilyn is far from secure. She has no pension and nothing put away for retirement. Apart from $13,850 invested in the stock of two small Minnesota companies and $1,500 in a checking account, she has no savings and can't seem to squeeze cash from her budget to build any. ''I kind of go from month to month,'' she says. Kit also feels the divorce has put him under financial pressure. A real estate investment manager who buys mortgage contracts, he lives alone in a three-bedroom Scottsdale house and drives a $30,000 Chrysler Maserati. But he has bought a $43,000 one-bedroom condominium in Eagan to be near his kids, and keeps a car there as well. ''I have more expenses now, with the other residence and car,'' he says. But Christopher, despite his tender age, has his own view -- he thinks his dad lives better now: ''Dad has a Chrysler Maserati. And he doesn't have to worry about expenses for kids and a wife.'' Marilyn found her job with Doncaster through an acquaintance who works for the company. Operating out of her home, she supervises a sales force of 24 women who sell the upscale garments to other women by appointment (typical price: $250 for a wool blazer); she also has six regular customers of her own. As a manager, she collects a commission of 6% to 8% on everything her dealers sell, plus 25% on her own sales. By next fall, she expects her team's annual sales to exceed $600,000, which means her income will begin to climb above her $38,000 base salary. ''It's hard work,'' she says. ''But I love it when I recruit new salespeople.'' Even she admits, though, that she'll need many more of them to bring her budget in line. ''Right now,'' she says, ''I feel like I'm going backward, but I couldn't tell you why.'' Perhaps it's because she's spending every cent she takes in, mostly on the two houses she's carrying. Then there are the basics, including food ($525 a month), clothing ($400) and car costs ($120). She shells out more than $1,000 a month on such business necessities as a car phone and travel. By the time she's dipped into her purse for incidental expenses for Tracy and Christopher -- like haircuts, movies and ski trips -- she has nothing left to sock away. Thanks to her heavy mortgage interest charges, rental losses and business expenses, however, she paid a remarkably low $436 in federal taxes for 1990 and no state tax at all -- and expects to pay about the same taxes for 1991. Looking back on her life, Marilyn realizes that this is the first time she's ever had to worry about money. She grew up cozily middle class in the small town of Grosse Ile, Mich., 20 miles south of Detroit, where her father was part owner of a foundry that made auto parts and her mother was a homemaker. Marilyn and Kit were high school sweethearts who married in 1967, when they were both in college -- she at Western Michigan University, he at Michigan State.
Marilyn quickly made the transition from dutiful daughter to traditional wife, dropping out of school to keep house. Six months later, the newlyweds moved to Maplewood, a suburb of St. Paul, to be near Kit's parents, who had recently relocated there. Kit attended night classes at the University of Minnesota -- earning a bachelor's degree in business in 1968 -- and went to work as an auditor for the First National Bank of St. Paul. He ended up spending 10 years at the bank, rising to assistant vice president before moving to Piper Jaffray & Hopwood, the brokerage house, as a bond salesman. Marilyn's suburban schedule, meanwhile, revolved around raising Tracy and Shelly. But once both girls were in school full time, Marilyn completed her education at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, getting a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1980. That same year, Kit took a bold step: with the backing of his retailing executive father and another investor, he bought the $28 million First National Bank of Crosby, in Crosby, Minn., becoming its chief executive. He appointed Marilyn vice president for marketing and personnel at $18,000 a year. She acted quickly to boost morale among the bank's 28 employees, giving them added responsibilities and sending them to banking seminars. But her own morale sagged when she felt that Kit ignored many of her suggestions. As Marilyn now sees it, working together was what first brought out the personality differences that would later destroy their marriage. Kit sold First National in 1984, ending up with a net profit of about $33,000. Shortly thereafter, Marilyn accepted an offer to help a friend revamp his Radio Shack store. She modernized the fixtures and window displays and cleared out old inventory. Typically, though, Marilyn shunned the operation's finances; it was Kit who overhauled the store's bookkeeping system. After taking a few months to plot his next step, Kit decided to move the family to Arizona, where he went to work buying and selling mortgages, eventually going into business for himself. Meanwhile, the marriage continued to deteriorate until he finally moved out. Luckily for the kids, Kit and Marilyn have managed to stay on speaking terms. Kit stays in his Eagan condo about one week a month, also doing business in the area. He helps the girls out with their college tuition and car insurance, and he lent Shelly $2,000 to help her buy her own condo in Eagan. And for Christmas, the entire family vacationed at Steamboat Springs, a Colorado ski resort (Kit and Marilyn slept in separate rooms). Inevitably, though, Marilyn thinks the divorce was hard on the children, especially her youngest. While she would someday like to remarry, she isn't dating yet and says she's in no hurry to start. If she does find a new mate, though, Marilyn pledges that the marriage will be a union of equals. ''I know I'll never be as dependent on anyone again,'' she says. ''Knowing you can take care of yourself is a good feeling.''
BOX: THE ADVICE
Making a Fresh Start The problems Cutting expenses to bring them more in line with income, building an emergency reserve, starting to save for retirement, finding a stabler career
The solutions Cut your expenses. Like most women who find themselves suddenly single after divorce, Marilyn must learn to adjust to her reduced resources. Even now, nearly two years after her marriage officially ended, she has not yet done that, says Michael Helffrich, a Minneapolis fee-only financial planner. The expenditure she needs to attack most aggressively: her staggering monthly mortgage payments that total $2,344 on the two houses she owns. There's nothing she can do to revive the sputtering Scottsdale market, but if her tenant declines to buy the house, she should drop her asking price sharply next year to attract a purchaser quickly. She should also consider trading down to a smaller home in Eagan, since Tracy will probably move out after she graduates from a local college in December 1993. If Marilyn doesn't want to go through the trouble of relocating right away, she should at least refinance her mortgage at today's low rates. Replacing her current 9.6% balloon mortgage with an adjustable-rate loan at 5.5% would cut her monthly mortgage bill by $330. The fact that she plans to move within a few years means that she needn't worry about a long rise in interest rates that would dramatically push up the monthly cost of an adjustable loan. Get serious about budgeting. Managing her own money is still a relatively new responsibility for Marilyn, as it is for many divorced women her age -- and it shows. Part of her problem is that she has income trickling in from several different sources, including her job with Doncaster, her alimony, child support and the rental income. There's potential for confusion on the spending side as well, since she's running both a family and a business out of her home. To help sort things out, Marilyn should purchase a money-management program like Quicken (Intuit, $69.90) that will allow her to track her finances on the home computer she uses for her business. Start saving for emergencies and investing for the future. Marilyn may have avoided some legal bills -- and emotional grief -- by negotiating her divorce settlement without a lawyer. But she may also have shortchanged herself. For example, as is often true in such self-negotiated settlements, she didn't investigate her rights regarding her husband's retirement savings. So she now finds herself with no money set aside for her own retirement. Helffrich says that she should sell her two stocks and put $2,000 of the proceeds into an ! Individual Retirement Account; the deposit would be fully deductible because she is not covered by a company pension plan. He recommends the growth and income Lindner Fund (no load; 314-727-5305), up 11.7% on average in the five years to Jan. 1. She should stash the balance of the proceeds in a money- market fund to be touched only in emergencies. Find a stabler career. Marilyn is successful and enjoys her work, but selling clothes on commission has several drawbacks. For one thing, it does not provide benefits like a pension plan or health insurance. Also, relying on commissions leaves her vulnerable to swings in the economy. After discussing jobs with Marilyn for two hours and administering the 20-minute Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test, a measure of personality traits, Howard Tucker, a Minneapolis career counselor, advised her to hunt for a position, perhaps in marketing or administration, at a company that offers solid benefits and that is known for promoting from within.
Marilyn responded enthusiastically to Helffrich's advice. Within a month of meeting with him she scraped together enough cash to open an IRA, putting $2,000 in a 19-month, 5.3% bank certificate of deposit. But she has delayed selling her two stocks, hoping for some additional gains in the current bull market. She plans to refinance her mortgage as soon as possible but has had trouble getting applications and information from lenders, who are swamped with homeowners seeking to capitalize on the recent low rates. And while she believes Tucker's advice was sensible, she is not ready to change her career right now. Marilyn likes the flexibility that working out of her home provides. So she will keep her job with Doncaster and concentrate on boosting sales.
BOX: A budget of her own
Though Marilyn Svee's total annual income is a hefty $69,200, steep mortgage and business costs leave her little spare cash.
INCOME Marilyn's salary $38,000 Rental income 13,200 Child support 9,240 Alimony 8,760 TOTAL $69,200
OUTGO Mortgage payments (Arizona house) $15,272 Mortgage payments (Minnesota house) 14,256 Business expenses 13,000 Food 6,298 Clothing 4,800 Recreation and entertainment 3,000 Utilities 3,000 Domestic help 2,400 Disability insurance 1,665 Car expenses 1,473 Property tax and insurance (Arizona) 1,400 Charitable contributions 1,200 Vacations 1,000 Income taxes 436 TOTAL $69,200
ASSETS Arizona house $170,000 Minnesota house 150,000 Investments 13,850 1989 Plymouth Voyager 9,200 Cash 1,500 TOTAL $344,550
LIABILITIES Mortgage (Minnesota house) $116,400 Mortgage (Arizona house) 100,000 Credit-card debt 2,460 TOTAL $218,860 NET WORTH $125,690