Getting divorced is traumatic enough. But for many women the financial burden that comes with divorce makes the trauma twofold, writes Nevelia Moloi.
Sylvia* is a 36-year-old working mother of two who lived happily with her family in their comfortable home in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Her carefree life was horribly interrupted when she found herself faced with a divorce. Apart from the personal trauma of going through a divorce, within a few months she found herself also facing unexpected money challenges. The divorce settlement left her as custodian of their property bond, so overnight she became exclusively liable for monthly repayments. She was also granted sole custody of the two children and was held liable for repayment of all household debts incurred during the marriage. But that was just the beginning.
During this period, her car broke down, conveniently just after the warranty expired. She was left with the shocking bill of R65K that she somehow needed to source. Due to the nature of her work, she is regularly on the road and had no other alternative but to repair the vehicle at her own cost. This of course led to her defaulting on her other credit agreements (store accounts, credit card), and not being able to settle the arrears. She approached her bank to grant her a further bond to settle her unsecured debts, but the loan application was declined.
In desperation, she then approached individual credit providers to restructure her debts, but the secured credit providers rejected her request and advised her to surrender her assets. This was not at all what she had in mind many years ago when she said her marriage vows.
“Sylvia is one of thousands of women who find themselves on the dark side of debt,” says Magauta Mphahlele, CEO of the National Debt Mediation Association. “And it was not recklessness or lavish overspending that got her there.
“For some women, divorce signals the first time they look at the family budget or take responsibility for any type of payments. For others, it is when they discover their commitments to bills they have jointly signed for. In the best case scenario, women end up with credit card bills they struggle to pay off; at worst, they lose their furniture, medical care, and even their homes.”
Sylvia is one of the fortunate few: through mediation the NDMA was able to assist her in resolving the matter with her credit providers. Unfortunately Sylvia’s is not an isolated story - thousands of women especially find themselves financially bereft when their marriage falls apart.
After sex, money is perhaps the most difficult conversation in a marriage. Few couples agree on how they will allocate their budget or who will be responsible for what bills ahead of the wedding date. Knowing your partner’s financial personality is important: has he come into the marriage with a lot of debt; does he invest or spend recklessly; does he include you when it comes to money decisions?
Even more important is having a shared set of values when it comes to money. Do you both believe in practising generosity? Does one of you regularly spend on extravagant things? Is saving towards a goal a shared priority? Do you discuss taking out loans together?
When it comes to finances, women are more dependent on their family and social networks than men who have more existing resources, according to the 2013 Financial Literacy report prepared for the Financial Services Board by the HSRC. The report also shows that women hold fewer banking products than men.
On the upside, the FinScope 2013 survey shows women are moving faster into the banking system than men, with 87% of women being financially included in 2013 (men are at 81%). But shockingly the survey further confirms that the bulk of over-indebted people who have formal credit tend to be women.
When it comes to income and earnings, women in South Africa are definitely on the lower end of the scale. Even women in top management positions are not always paid the same as male colleagues in the same position. As a majority of child support recipients are women, financial inclusion has definitely improved amongst women. But child support is generally nowhere near enough when faced with the unexpected reality of being a single parent.
Having honest conversations about money in your marriage is as important as deciding where to send your children to school or whether you can afford a new car. It might take some initial work if there is currently a lack of openness when it comes to family finances, but it will ultimately strengthen your family so that you are able to collectively deal with the challenges of our current economy. And it can reduce the number of women who might find themselves in Sylvia’s shoes.
** Should you find yourself in financial trouble as a result of divorce or separation, contact the NDMA helpline on 086 111 6362. One of their trained counsellors will offer you practical advice to help you get out of debt. **
Nevelia Moloi is the Media & Communications Manager for HEARTLINES. This article is part of a series produced to support the HEARTLINES Values & Money campaign to encourage South Africans to think about how they earn, spend, save, borrow and give away their money.
This article appeared in The New Age on Tuesday, 6 May 2014.