Every parent going through divorce worries that their kids will feel different because their family is no longer the same as another's. If their kids have to wear clothes from Target instead of The Gap, or swim at the community centre and not the club, there is the parental guilt that their kids will suffer for something they didn't choose.
Not surprisingly, this can lead to needless conflict over what kids are entitled to after divorce. Clinging to the pre-divorce budget for the kids often turns into a demand rather than a conversation. Couples can find themselves disagreeing for the first time about what their kids really need -- lessons, equipment, summer camp or sunny vacations. Those disagreements reflect the fear and uncertainty about how even the basics will be paid for after the separation, coupled with the worry that the kids are already the victims.
Divorce is a time of change and that means recognizing the need for budgets. There are new expenses to manage. Some, like legal costs or furnishing a second household, are temporary. Others, like the extra rent or new mortgage payments, are here to stay. The most constant is that the children's expenses will always be changing.
If kids are spending time in both households, figuring out how those costs fit into the big financial picture can also be cause for disagreement. Most parents do not have exactly the same values around money. As an example, some of us are more tolerant of debt, some less. Getting over the worries about possible disparities is one of the biggest emotional challenges of divorce. But it is also one of the greatest opportunities in building the best budgets. What one home can give can be supplemented by what the other is willing to provide.
Depending on the age of the children, there are different solutions to these concerns. For very young children, their need for "things" is very limited. Anyone who has had to separate a toddler from the remains of a favourite blanket will understand that toys are not always the answer. For older children, being a part of the crowd is often a very big component of well-being. The challenge is to be able to understand whether the gadgets your kids are asking for represent acceptance or if there are other ways they can feel socially integrated.
The challenge for separating parents is to take the resentment out of the equation -- instead of focusing on the argument about what the kids "need," create a budget to cover the things that the kids will benefit from the most.
Here are some helpful tips to get started:
There is no point worrying about riding lessons or ski weekends until you have listed all the costs you know are certain. School supplies, bus tickets, medications, diapers, birthday parties, shoes and pyjamas are just some of the unavoidable costs. Don't forget school photos, pizza day and the odd school trip. Figure out how much the basics cost as a starting point.
If the kids are spending time in both homes, the budgets need to be clear on who pays what. The biggest part of anticipating is looking at the arrangement through the eyes of your children and being ready to answer their questions about who will buy their shoes or pay for their school trips.
Use your home computer to understand what is available in your community for children. Investigate, research and compare. Create criteria for making decisions for your kids. There are many articles on the benefits of arts and culture, sports, team sports versus individual sports, exercise, downtime, diet and so many other things. Each child has particular strengths and challenges. Don't forget to talk with the school, the daycare and the doctor to help gain perspective on each child's social strengths and physical preferences.
If kids are old enough, get them involved in building their list of clothes, shoes, hobby or sports equipment, books, school supplies, backpacks and electronics such as computers and games. Use this list as an opportunity to help them manage the dollar amount of their budget. Let them judge what trade-offs they find acceptable. The big benefit here is that kids may feel that the divorce is something they cannot control. Having a say over spending demonstrates to them that they will be looked after and that they can understand how they fit into the financial picture of the family.
In the next article, look for tips on stretching your kid's budget dollars and discover useful resources.
Eva Sachs and Marion Korn are the co-founders of Mutual Solutions, a service that provides separating couples with trusted, understandable, actionable and practical advice. For more information please visit www.mutualsolutions.ca.