How to Handle Shared Expenses After Divorce

Discover how to divide bills fairly, communicate stress-free, budget well, and master the art of shared expenses when you're co-parenting.
By:
Chelsea Williams
September 16, 2021
M

oney’s never easy, but during marriage, finances are often relatively straightforward. Spouses can split expenses evenly or come to other arrangements they’re comfortable with. After divorce, figuring out who’s paying for what becomes more complicated. While you’re living in separate households and need to handle an array of new expenses as a single parent, some of your shared expenses will continue because of the children.

This can be a difficult adjustment. One moment, you’re living together and jointly managing one household. The next, you’re dealing with separate accounts and family budgets.

To make the transition from married couple to divorced parents easier, you can plan wisely for various categories of expenses. In this article, I’ll cover all the tough stuff about managing family finances post-divorce.

Know What Child Support Covers

Shared expenses: mom kissing her daughter on the forehead

It’s important to know what child support is intended to cover if your divorce involves child support. Whether you’re the one paying or receiving support, understanding what it applies to and what it doesn’t shows what your financial obligations will be above and beyond that amount.

Broadly, child support covers basic living expenses. Those expenses include what it costs to feed, clothe, and house a child. Divorce law varies by state, so depending on where you live, it may also encompass standard educational expenses like higher education. For young kids, child support generally covers a portion of child care.

Family courts can have a lot of discretion to create arrangements that align with the best interests of children in individual divorce proceedings, so check your local laws for clear guidance and anticipate a dynamic situation. But as a general rule, most of the time, child support doesn’t cover health insurance, extracurriculars, private school tuition, or other optional expenses. However, if a child has special needs or extraordinary scholastic gifts, family courts in some states could rule that the support-paying parent is responsible for tuition at private schools geared to the child’s abilities.

Child support is dedicated to living expenses, so the way you spend support money won’t usually be monitored by a third party.

If you don’t yet know how much support will be factored into your co-parenting situation, you might find a child support guidelines worksheet helpful for estimating what a judge may decide.

Remember: Things may not work out as you expect. Every case is unique. However, educating yourself about child support in general will help you get an idea of how you’ll be splitting expenses that are not covered by child support.

Plan to Split Expenses Fairly

Shared expenses: mother and son shopping

Once you’re divorced, you no longer have to split bills for a household. Nonetheless, co-parenting still entails a significant amount of joint expenses. And when new expenses pop up, which they often do, there won’t necessarily be clear guidance for how to manage them fairly.

But before we talk splitting expenses, let’s explore the word “fair.” Fair doesn’t always equal even. In the world of divorce, fair doesn’t necessarily mean a 50/50 split. You could end up paying a part of your shared expenses that’s proportional to your income. That may shift over time as you and your former spouse’s incomes change.

Conversely, one parent may opt to be responsible for a certain expense indefinitely in consideration of their relative financial ability or because an item, like education, is important to them. Provided you mutually agree to approach the expense in question this way and both parents understand that the exact amount of money required might change over time, agreements like this can work.

Sometimes, divorced couples work out a combination of strategies for splitting expenses. For example, my co-parent has always paid for my son’s sports registration fees and equipment, while I pay for his music lessons and instrument needs. Then we split school supplies and medical expenses down the middle.

Income, assets, and your child’s needs can change over time. So informal arrangements may not last forever. Luckily, co-parenting families who understand the value of clear and tactful communication can find a lot of wiggle room in how they approach expenses.

Pro tip: I recommend establishing individual accounts before you begin tackling shared expenses after divorce. It’s important to have a paper trail of what you’ve personally paid for your child as well as a record of co-parenting finances both of you have agreed upon.

Communicate With Your Co-Parent About Shared Expenses

Once you’ve committed to taking care of certain expenses for your child, it’s important to follow through. It’s easier to do so when you’re keeping close track of which person pays for which things.

I highly recommend taking advantage of your cell phone. Used correctly, it’s an invaluable tool for sharing expenses. And while basic functions like calculators and calendars can help, co-parents would be wise to consider using apps geared to divorced couples. They facilitate financial discussions far better than endless texts and email threads dripping with passive aggression and annoyance.

There’s no room for disagreement or confusion when you and your co-parent use an app like Onward. From the moment you download it, it’s clear the app is perfectly geared for divorced parents who need an easy way to manage shared expenses.

Using Onward to the fullest to communicate with your co-parent could look like:

Tracking ongoing or monthly expenses. You can add details in the title, and expenses will be automatically listed by month. There won’t be any need to discuss next month’s soccer training fees or ask your co-parent if they’ve paid for those piano lessons yet. You can just check.

Sharing details about one-time expenses. When you pay your middle schooler’s class trip fee or buy birthday party gifts for their friends, you can record those purchases in the app’s notes. That way, you’ll have an accessible and accurate record of how much you paid and what you paid for, so it’s easy to provide a clear picture for your co-parent.

Expanding to include bigger long-term expenses. Many parents will incur significant expenses for big ticket items like saving for college and cars. Not to mention the unexpected expenses that come up throughout a child’s life, from medical bills to sports team travel costs. Without positive communication habits, those unanticipated costs can be hard to handle. But using the app enables you to manage those challenges smoothly and fairly.

Budget for Your Share of Child Expenses

person doing some online banking

Keeping track of who paid for a shared expense is one element of financial management after divorce. Your personal finances are another.

Without solid money management, you may not be able to commit to the expenses you’ve agreed upon in the divorce arrangement. That can create unnecessary tension with your co-parent.

Moreover, having financial goals can help you launch into your life after divorce with more confidence.

Let’s talk about some basic financial goals that will help you with your overall budget:

  • Set up at least one bank account with a bank you trust. Financial independence from your former spouse starts with a checking account. If you exclusively used a joint account during your marriage, it could feel a bit daunting to open up your own. But overcoming that discomfort is crucial. Opening your own account is an important step in moving forward and establishing financial independence. Once you open a checking account, consider also starting a savings account, or research high-yield savings accounts through your neighborhood bank or online.
  • Track your cash flow and spending habits. Good financial management startswith knowing where you stand. It’s wise to check your credit score and pull your credit full report after a significant financial change like divorce. Be honest with yourself about any credit card balances or other debts such as student loans, and consider setting up a reasonable repayment plan.
  • Save money at a rate you can handle until you have an emergency fund. Even small amounts add up. As a parent, this will make you feel much more ready for any unexpected shared expenses. If you don’t need to dip into it for an emergency, this fund can become the start of a long-term nest egg.

Don’t be ashamed to ask for financial advice from people who have their finances in order. They may offer creative and smart ways to manage money that wouldn’t otherwise consider. If you don’t have a money-savvy friend you trust, consider meeting with a financial advisor. A professional’s opinion on your financial outlook could also be valuable and save you money in the long run.

I want to address something that’s important but often overlooked: Taking a clear-eyed view at your finances isn’t always easy. And there’s no shame in running into financial struggles, especially in the period immediately following a divorce. I’ve been there, and so have many other divorcees.

But no matter how hard things get, don’t give up on yourself. You can be a supportive parent and work towards your personal financial independence, even with limited resources.

Maintain Some Privacy Around Your Family Finances

Little girl putting money in her piggy bank

There’s one other aspect of sharing expenses that could be lingering in the back of your mind. What if you have to share details about your finances with your co-parent, an attorney, or anyone related to your case?

This is a potentially nerve-wracking thought. It can feel very invasive. But if you’re uncomfortable, remember that full financial disclosure is not required in every divorce case. Depending on your local family court, you may not have to pull up your bank statements or tax returns.

And the rest of the people in your life don’t have to peer into your accounts either. Outside of court and arranging your contributions to shared expenses, you don’t have to reveal everything about your financial situation to your co-parent or other family members.

Don’t get too anxious about keeping up with your ex’s spending while co-parenting. Money isn’t everything, after all. Often a reliable parental presence is just as valuable to a child as financial support. If you hear that your co-parent is spending money in ways that you can’t, reassure yourself that there’s no need to compete.

You Can Share Expenses Amicably With Your Co-Parent

If you haven’t reached financial freedom or financial security after your divorce, you can still achieve peace of mind about shared expenses.

Start with focusing on improving your own circumstances. Set and implement savings goals. Then educate yourself about child support, settle on a split method you’re OK with, and maintain your boundaries with your ex through the help of modern communication tools.

Onward can help with the latter. It’s free and available for Android and iOS.

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.