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Divorce on the cheap: How to break up without breaking the bank

What to do when 'til death do us part turns into irreconcilable differences. 

Nov 29, 2018 Read: 5 minutes

Regardless of the circumstances, divorce is a tough process for both sides. No matter how amicable the breakup is, it's often a costly affair. According to Nolo, a legal books and software publisher, the typical divorce costs approximately $15,500, with the bulk of the total going toward legal fees.

It's never a good idea to cut corners to finalize your divorce—especially when children and spousal support are involved—but there are some ways to trim expenses so you don't lose your financial footing in the process. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you make the separation official.

1. Enlist an expert

With some states allowing couples to file "no-fault" divorces and various legal sites offering to streamline the entire process, it's possible to finalize your own divorce for a few hundred dollars. However, keep in mind that saving money on the front end of the divorce could cost you a lot more in the future.

“The people who 'got a deal' on their divorce are often the people who end up spending more to fix problems," says Elise Pettus, founder of UNtied, an education and advocacy organization dedicated to helping women move from married life to singlehood.

Hiring a lawyer may seem like a big investment, but a professional can give you accurate advice about your options regarding child and spousal support, tax deductions for dependents, division of marital assets and other benefits and expenses. This could translate to thousands of dollars every year—making your lawyer bills seem like a bargain in the long run.

2. Mull over mediation

To help ease the process of separating their lives, many couples opt for private mediation. Not only does a private mediation offer a more collaborative experience, but it's usually cheaper than hiring individual attorneys to wrangle an agreement.

“If you and your partner agree on most things, and the power dynamic is equal, it is worth looking at mediation," says Pettus.

While an attorney can cost up to $250 an hour, mediation tends to range from $100 to $200 an hour—and the couple will ultimately split the cost. That being said, Pettus recommends hiring individual attorneys when reviewing the final agreement.

3. Watch the clock

One of the best ways to keep legal fees in check is to be stingy with your attorney's time. That starts with getting organized. Instead of paying your lawyer to go through your financial statements, carve out some time on the weekend to do it yourself.

"If you can't be flexible, it will be difficult to reach an agreement without spending a fortune. "

Elise Pettus, founder of United

In general, keep in mind that your lawyer's hourly fee will make them one of the most expensive people in your orbit—they're probably priced far higher than your accountant or your therapist. To save time and money, try to keep your conversations focused squarely on legal matters. Pettus recommends going into every meeting with a list of specific concerns and questions.

Most important, if you need to vent about your ex, do it with someone who doesn't charge quite so much—like a therapist, a divorce coach, or one of your friends.

4. Pick your battles

People say marriage is all about compromise. The same goes for divorce.

Before you walk into your first settlement meeting, have a list of your priorities, as well as the things that are up for negotiation. Keep in mind that you will probably need to give in on some difficult compromises. “If you can't be flexible, it will be difficult to reach an agreement without spending a fortune," Pettus says.

The alternative? When couples can't reach an agreement, they end up in litigation, which can add thousands of dollars to the total tab. Studies show that people who went to trial spent approximately $5,000 more than couples who settled outside of court.

5. Watch out for hidden costs

While discussions about the cost of divorce often focus on legal fees, couples should also consider all of the hidden costs that creep into the process. The typical divorce takes about 11 months to finalize, which means you may need to pay for a temporary apartment or additional childcare while you get your new life together.

Start this long process off on the right foot by working with your spouse to create a strategy for handling non-legal fees. Chances are, both of you have commingled finances and assets, which you may both need to access during this time. With that in mind, it's probably in both of your best interests to develop a shared game plan.

6. How to handle debt

Though your relationship didn't work out in the long run, it's important to set each other up for a healthy financial future. In addition to keeping interactions positive, being in a good financial position can help both of you move on.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see is when couples don't account for how they'll deal with debt," says Leslie Tayne, a New York financial debt resolution attorney.

For example, one ex can unknowingly wreak havoc on the other's credit by making late payments or missing them entirely. A blemish on your credit can lead to higher interest rates on your loans and credit cards—which can add up to a significant expense long after your divorce papers are signed.

As you and your ex move through the divorce process, set calendar reminders to ensure both of you make important payments on time. Keep in mind that, while your marriage is coming to an end, you are still connected through your shared assets, your children, and your other financial links. Taking care of your personal finances is an important step to establishing good post-divorce relations—while setting yourself up for a successful new life of your own.

Sarah Max is a Chase News & Stories contributor. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Bloomberg News, and other outlets.