'It's Really a Freeing Thing'

One Woman's Journey Toward Taking Control of Her Financial Future

by Sara Ventiera

Financial Frequency. myCash

December 23, 2019 .5 min read

Two weeks after her sixth wedding anniversary in 2018, Jennifer Billock returned to her home in Trevor, Wisconsin, after a work trip to find that her husband had moved out.

The marriage had been difficult for years. Her husband, an aspiring singer-songwriter who earned a modest living by teaching guitar and selling records on eBay, had slowly lost his hearing, then stopped working completely. 

Billock had to cover all the household expenses from her income as a part-time teacher, travel writer and author, including paying for his costly health insurance deductibles.

After he left, she filed for divorce, a stressful time made worse, she says, by his

“threats and gaslighting and skipping court dates.” 

Billock, 36, also battled illness, suffering from an inflamed gallbladder, which required surgery, and she underwent a second procedure to treat an irregular heartbeat. 

Photo courtesy of Nichole Babiez Photography

“The trigger was stress,”

she said.

“The stress was ever present.”

The couple’s divorce was finalized last November, and after signing the paperwork Billock felt she could finally move on with her life. 

“I went home and went about my day,”

she said, laughing as she recalled her calm response.

“My relief was my celebration.”

She also determined that in 2019, Billock would tackle a new challenge: taking control of her personal finances. 

In doing so, she became part of a growing group of women who are learning how to manage their money.

And that transformation, an emerging national trend, frequently accomplishes more than merely putting one’s financial affairs in order. 

Studies show that women, particularly after a divorce or break-up, feel more empowered in other areas of their lives as well.

Many report rising confidence the longer they are on their own, and 55 percent of those divorced for a decade or more claim to be

“good at saving money for long-term goals like retirement.” 

That’s according to a study done this year by the Allianz insurance company of 900 women, ages 25 to 75, who earn more than $30,000 annually. 

Another study, a survey of 1,700 women in the U.S. by online auction marketplace Worthy, found that 44 percent of respondents saw

“divorce as a chance to reinvent themselves,”

with 21 percent wanting to be free of their ex’s financial mistakes. 

Billock had longed to get rid of the $10,000 credit card debt she’d accrued, which piled up in part due to her former spouse’s medical bills. 

She considered the Snowball Method Spreadsheet, a system of repaying debts that prioritizes accounts with smaller balances, rather than those with high interest rates, which consumer researchers have found to be most effective at paying down creditors. 

But she was unable to make a dent in what was owed.

“I was paying out too much for him,”

she said.

She eyed one asset that could help: the couple’s 1940s cottage in Trevor, Wisconsin, but she had no idea how to go about selling the property. Like many older homes, it had problems. Billock wasn’t sure the cottage would even pass a building inspection.

She finally summoned the energy to call a real estate agent, and was pleasantly surprised to hear that not only would the house likely sell, it stood to get an attractive offer, meaning there might be a profit for her.

“I thought it would sell for nothing,”

she said.

“I was really happy about it.”

The house went to contract in January, and Billock pocketed $40,000. 

She immediately paid off the $10,000 credit card debt, put $25,000 into a high-yield  savings account and stashed another $5,000 into a checking account in case of emergencies. 

But Billock wanted to do more with her windfall. She sought to ensure her long-term financial health. 

 So she set up a meeting with a financial advisor, Todd Puch, at Northwestern Mutual in Skokie, Illinois, whom she'd met through a networking group. After her divorce, Puch reached out and pressed her to get together for a consult.

Billock didn’t expect it would go anywhere. 

“I thought it was going to be like, ‘Hi, I’m Todd,’ ‘Hi, I’m Jen, here’s the situation’ and I would never talk to him again,”

she said.

But Puch came armed with a presentation on his laptop, along with paperwork for her to take home and look over. Billock, encouraged by Puch’s organization, was most impressed that he took time to listen to her aspirations and absorb the hard truth of her circumstances.

“Jennifer was like a lot of people I run into,”

said Puch.

“She wanted to take charge of her financial future and wasn’t sure where to start.”

Billock said she left their meeting feeling a mix of confidence, excitement and trepidation.

But over the next few months, the two created a long-term plan that would take into consideration her student loan payments, her $60,000 annual income, the rent she was paying — $500 a month less than her $900 monthly mortgage payment — and her overall life goals.

Billock’s education took time. 

The first time Puch explained potential savings plans she felt completely overwhelmed, Billock recalled, and asked him to go over the details multiple times during their meeting. He patiently guided her through an array of options, she said. 

She also wanted to know where she was likely to stand financially after selling the house and whether she could afford to save some of her earnings after years of skating by.

“I was starting to feel more confident about my financial situation,”

she said. 

“Every month it got a little bit better, seeing that I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck.”

By the start of that first summer, Billock was contributing $400 a month into a diversified portfolio that included a mix of stocks, a Roth IRA and life insurance. And she set up automatic payments so as to guarantee the transfers. 

Though funding her retirement was a key part of the process, Billock, who now has a boyfriend, also thought of providing financial security for her family, including paying down her student loans to avoid the very thing she herself had faced: becoming a financial burden on her partner should something happen to her. 

And she needed to have some financial flexibility to deal with  unforeseen emergencies. 

Billock, like 90 percent of those surveyed by Allianz who have worked with a financial advisor, recommends that women seek professional guidance. 

“There is no way in hell I would’ve been able to figure it out without Todd’s help,”

Billock said.

“I would’ve Googled, ignored it, then moved onto writing an essay about how retirement is confusing.”

While Billock felt a slight sense of panic when she saw the first withdrawals come out of her account, fearing her balance would slip right back down to zero, her financial confidence continues to grow -- and has expanded into other aspects of her life.

 She visits a massage therapist once a month and has immersed herself in a healthy  new community at a women’s gym she joined. 

While Billock doesn’t consciously recognize her newfound calm on a daily basis — not feeling constant anxiety has just become part of her everyday life, she says — she recently had an epiphany during a trip to Target.

Billock splurged on a pair of leggings for a Christmas party at her gym, paying  $85 for them, some socks and two new sweaters. 

“In the past, I either would not have been able to do it or would have been really stressing out about bills I wouldn’t be able to pay because of how much I spent,”

she said.

“It’s a really freeing thing.”

Photo courtesy of Nichole Babiez Photography

That night, full of holiday spirit, Billock donned her new outfit: a sequined llama Christmas sweater, Santa socks with white furry trim around the top and those leggings, which have images of different animals wearing Santa hats. 

She added a pair of pink donut pajama shorts, and finished the elfish ensemble with wooden clogs she’d bought on a trip to Amsterdam.

That night she won a contest for best costume, taking home

“a bottle of wine and the adoration of everyone there,”

she said. 

“I was quite pleased with the situation and myself.”

It was the right way to cap off a great 2019.