JAIMIE SEATON: I always thought I was the smart one. And hindsight is 20/20 but from where I sit now and how I have to economize, I just kind of shake my head at the amount of money I wasted.
This is Opportunity Costs, from Death, Sex & Money.
A series all about class, which we think about a lot…
And need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Six years ago, Jaimie Seaton moved back to the U.S. after spending several years living in Asia with her husband and two kids. They decided to settle in New Hampshire, where Jaimie grew up. And they bought a place near Dartmouth College.
JS: Out in the country, 5,000 square foot house on, like, three acres.
AS: 5,000. That’s a big house.
JS: I had three living rooms.
Before their family moved back to the U.S., Jaimie had worked on and off as a freelance writer and Newsweek correspondent, while her husband worked as an executive for Citibank.
JS: We lived very, very well, as many expats do. We lived in Thailand in a huge house with a pool and staff and a driver. We always traveled business class. We always stayed in 5-star hotels. I did everything in 5-star hotels. If I was meeting a friend for coffee that’s where we met. Um, my ex-husband and I entertained a lot. I gave lot of parties. I was always the class mom. So I gave tons of parties for my kids. And the fact that money was never an object that, that made it very - it made me feel more confident. And I notice that now that I don’t have money and I think, like, that probably says something more about me than about money, but it definitely changes the way I view myself.
AS: Were you aware of how much money was coming in and going out of your household?
JS: I think I was always aware of how much was going in. Um, I think I’ve always probably overspent, so yeah going out, you know—I’m so like embarrassed about this now, but for instance when we lived in Singapore and Thailand I didn’t know how much milk cost.
AS: Is that because someone else shopped for you when you were living there before?
JS: No somebody could have. Most ex-pat women have somebody shop for them but I’ve always enjoyed going to the grocery store, so. No I just didn’t look. I just knew at the end that it was a lot of money.
Jaimie hadn’t always been so unaware of her household finances. Her father was very wealthy. But after her parents divorced when she was three, she and her mom moved from Florida to New Hampshire, and money was tight.
JS: It was always a crisis situation in our house and I was very aware of it. Like I went out to work in like 5th grade cleaning houses because of that. And yet I would go visit my father in Florida and he had his own plane and you know a 56-foot boat. And obviously money was never a problem. So I grew up living in these two very different worlds and trying to, I don’t know, make sense of them.
AS: Do you remember feeling that you belonged in one environment more than the other?
JS: Yeah I think I always thought I belonged in my dad’s environment. And even though my mom didn’t have money once we came here, she was still the same person she had been brought up to be with, you know, southern manners and she was very educated and very smart and, um, so I always saw her as belonging in that world too.
AS: So even though you didn’t have a lot of money in your mom’s household, you had all of the - you understood the social cues and you understood how to comport yourself in that fancy environment in Florida.
JS: Yeah absolutely. I mean, my mom didn’t even want us chewing gum outside.
AS: Oh really?
JS: Yeah. I remember she came to visit me in college and I had started smoking and she said, “It’s bad enough that you smoke but don’t ever smoke on the street, that’s so unladylike.”
AS: And were you still moving between your parents’ homes when you were kind of on college breaks?
JS: Not so much. My dad, um, he’s pretty much taken himself out of all of our lives and he did that pretty early on. So I’m not sure the last time I went to see him. Maybe I was 17 the last time I was sort of in that world.
Jaimie says she struggled to put herself through college at UMass Boston.
JS: I was homeless for a while. And there was a period where I think I had like a quarter a day.
But after graduating, she took a leap, and moved to South Africa, to work as a freelance journalist. That’s where she met the man who would become her husband. They married when Jaimie was 34.
AS: How old were you when your husband left?
JS: 46 maybe?
AS: How old were your kids?
JS: 9 and 12.
AS: And the year before your marriage ended were you making much money?
JS: No. I wasn’t making much money. I never made much money during my marriage. I never needed to.
AS: He was making a lot more?
JS: Oh yeah, a lot more. Yeah.
AS: Your husband told you that he was in a relationship with another woman and she was pregnant. That’s how you learned -
AS: And how, how far along was that pregnancy?
JS: 6 months.
AS: So he waited until he really had to tell you.
JS: Yep. He waited until he really had to tell me. It was November 9th. We were sitting outside in our house here. My old house, and he just told me out of the blue.
AS: How long did it take you to think about money?
JS: Maybe 24 hours. I got a job at Dartmouth actually that week.
AS: That week?
JS: Yeah. It was really important to me to make sure that I could support my kids, so. I honestly don’t even—it was a temporary job and I don’t know how I got through the interview. I remember that a neighbor drove me and I met her afterwards for coffee and I walked in and I burst into tears and I said, “I got the job.” And she was like, “How did you do that?” I said, “I don’t know.” So it was quick. It was one of the first things I thought of.
AS: Mmhmm. I - one of the things about divorce is that it’s at once just such a devastatingly personal process to go through, and it also is a financial process to go through. How did you begin to calculate how your lifestyle was going to change?
JS: Um, when I look back now I see I was really in denial about the finances and it was sort of - on the one hand, I went out and got a job and I was very worried about them, and I was very aware of it. And on the other hand on a day-to-day basis I think I was in denial. I know I was in denial. I still took my kids out to an expensive restaurant in town that they liked to go to because that’s what we’d always done. It didn’t occur to me not to. And looking back I wish that I had - I wish that from the first day I had made major changes. So I - and, and when I went to see the lawyer who eventually represented me, he said, “One of the hardest things for women like you to realize is that life as you knew it is over.”
AS: Your divorce lawyer said this to you?
JS: Mhmm. Mhmm. Talking about finances. He really, really tried to get me to see and I - it wasn’t intentional on my part. I think I - I think dealing with the emotion was enough for me. I literally couldn’t deal with it. I think of it like a ship, a large ship. It takes a while to turn. And that’s how it was for me. It took me a while.
Coming up, Jaimie talks about her post-divorce financial picture, and how it’s affected the way she feels in the social circles she used to be part of.
JS: I feel uncomfortable partly because of the money but mostly because they’re all still married and their families are intact and, umm, and when my kids and I are with them it’s hard - it’s hard to be around it.
Divorce typically hurts both parties economically, but when straight marriages end, it disproportionately hits women. One study by the federal government found that after divorce, women’s household income fell by 41 percent, nearly double the loss experienced by men. And that affects kids too. We heard from a lot of you whose parents split up, and what that’s meant for your class identity.
BRITTANY SALSMAN: My parents divorced when I was very young and my mother struggled month to month and even week to week at times.
33-year-old Brittany Salsman sent this voice memo in from Chicago.
BS: I remember sitting in the grocery cart and being told “no” on a very regular basis to food items that weren’t even really special. And carrying a calculator, and it was always my job to add up the items that we had in our basket as my mom would add and remove. And I thought that was a lot of fun at the time, but now that I'm older I realize what was going on.
Brittany’s father remarried. And, she says, her younger half siblings...
BS: They have never wanted for anything. Not only have they not worked, they have not been allowed to work. And that continues today, and that's not a benefit that I get as his daughter. Nor does my older sister get as his daughter. So as you can imagine this creates quite a challenging relationship with class.
On the next episode, another family with a challenging relationship to class. This time, because they moved way up.
VIK: You find yourself having to be less transparent and less honest. You know you aspire to be an honest person and speak truth and, and then you find that this thing can actually be the very reason that you’re finding yourself being less truthful.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Jaimie Seaton is now 52. She still works as a freelance writer. She’s required to bring in about $2,000 a month as part of her divorce settlement. Alimony and child support from her ex-husband cover the rest of her expenses, but it’s not enough to live like she used to.
JS: I think people assume, you know, oh your husband is a banker and he makes a lot of money, you’re going to get a lot of money. Or, you know, he went out and did this horrible thing, of course you’re going to get a lot of money.
In the five years since her marriage ended, Jaimie told me she’s had to downsize in a number of ways: she traded in her Lexus for a Volkswagen, moved out of her 5,000 square foot house into a smaller one...
JS: It’s about 1900 square feet. But I really like it. I never miss my old house at all. I think for personal stuff for me, you know I used to - my hair was always done. My nails were always done. All that kind of stuff. I wait until the last possible minute. You know, I do my roots with a box at least twice between. I - I try not to spend a lot of money on myself because I'd rather spend it on my kids or the house.
AS: How much do you think about money in your life now?
JS: All the time? Every purchase?
AS: Are you comfortable financially now? Do you have enough?
JS: Well that’s all relative right? Compared to most people, 99% of the people on this planet, I’m very, very wealthy. And I never forget that. But I still have to - you know, I still work pretty much seven days a week. It’s rare that I take a whole weekend off which my kids don’t like. And it’s not even right now that worries me because I have the support from my ex-husband right now. It’s when my kids are gone. Then, then that, that’ll be difficult.
AS: Because that also means the end of child support.
JS: Yes. Yeah. The end of child support and a great reduction in alimony, so.
AS: So that adds a whole other layer to what is already a difficult transition when your kids leave. It’s a major shift in, in your financial situation.
JS: Yeah, it will be. It will - it wakes me up at night.
AS: How long will you be receiving alimony?
JS: (Laughs) Well in New Hampshire you’re only supposed to get it for a few years. It’s called "rehabilitative," which is interesting.
AS: Yeah, that’s quite a loaded word.
JS: Well it is a loaded word. Also you know, I mean I, I remember when we were going through everything my lawyer and others saying, “It’s not like you had a 20 year marriage.” And I thought, well we were together for 17 years and we were married for 14 and we have two children. It’s not like we were only married for a year either. But I did speak with my ex-husband and just told him personally, “I’m really afraid of being old and being poverty stricken and if I, if I make it on my own and I don’t need it you don’t have to pay me but can we just put in the agreement that I get alimony 'til I’m 65?” So he agreed to that. It’s very - it’s a very small amount but, um, it’s something.
AS: It’s something that you can think of and not feel totally on your own.
JS: I still feel totally on my own.
AS: You do?
JS: Yeah I’m scared of getting older definitely. There are days where I’m just furious. And I just think, I can’t believe I’m in this position. So, I feel angry. I mean when my son graduates I’ll definitely leave this town, or sell my house. I won’t be able to live here anymore, which is fine. You know, I’m here for the schools. But I’m actually planning to go back to Thailand in old age because I don’t think I can afford to live here.
AS: It’s less expensive. You could have a life for less money that would be more comfortable.
JS: It’s ridiculously less expensive and the big driver for me is actually healthcare, because healthcare is less expensive but more importantly if you know you want - you need something done you can get a price on it ahead of time. It’s, it’s not just me. This is not a great country to be old in, or sick. Unless you have a lot of money, this is not the place you want to be. So I think there will be more people in my age group who are leaving.
AS: Are you dating now?
JS: I would, but have you ever been to this town?
AS: (Laughs) I have. Aren’t there a lot of college professors around? You know...
JS: Yeah they’re all married. It’s a great town if you’re married. So, you know I would. Absolutely I would. I wouldn’t get remarried until my kids are out of the house, but I would like to.
AS: When you think about the kind of person you’d like to date, what do you picture as far as what kind of work he does and where he fits in the sort of money and class lens?
JS: My son always asks me that but in a different way. He says would you rather meet somebody who’s really nice and really good-looking but poor, or really mean but has a lot of money? That’s his favorite question to me. Um.
AS: Well, and what do you say to him?
JS: He actually asked me that last night and I said, “I need both.” Um, so you know I have dated, but most men who are in this age group have also been through rough divorces, and it’s not so easy. I know that I have dated men up here who maybe weren’t as successful as my ex-husband? And I know the perception of me is that - like that I’m going to be high-maintenance or that I‘m going to expect that. Even if they see the way that I live, like I heat with wood. So, I’m always carrying in wood. You know, I shovel my own driveway because I don’t want to pay a snowplow. I’ve learned to do all these home repairs because I don’t want to have to call somebody. But they still see me as sort of like, well if I married her then she’s going to expect to go back to the way it was.
AS: You can sense that?
JS: Or they say it!
AS: They say it.
JS: Yeah, they say it. Which I just find funny. I’m just like, “Have you been to my house?”
Jaimie’s kids are now 18 and 15. Her daughter plans to go off to college later this year, and she got into a prestigious and expensive school. Jaimie doesn't want her to go into a lot of student debt, but she doesn’t have the money to cover the cost.
JS: I have to say I did urge my ex-husband from the moment they were born, let’s start, let’s have these massive savings accounts and let’s do all of this, and he - I can’t say he never did it because we were married. We never did it.
AS: Is your dad still living?
AS: And you don’t have a relationship currently?
AS: Do you think you could ask him for money if you needed it?
JS: I just did. I just sent him a letter and asked for my daughter’s college, for help.
AS: What was it like writing that letter?
JS: Um, I would do anything to get my kids through school without a huge debt, which is what I wrote to him. It was hard. It was hard, but it was always my goal that my kids would go to school without debt. If it was asking for myself I, I wouldn’t have done it, you know, but this is really important to me. She got into a really good school and I really want her to go there. And I, you know he doesn’t talk to me anyway. I figured the worst he could do is ignore my letter or write back and say no.
AS: You sent it in the mail?
JS: Yes because I don’t have his email address. I’ve been writing to him for almost 20 years and he’s never responded, but, you know, what do I have to lose? Maybe he’ll help her out.
AS: Hm. It’s interesting because it still - it gets, it brings back to that idea of, sort of you’re firmly grounded in one economic reality in your life and you also have this tenuous access to other money and figuring out if that’s something that's a part of your identity or not, is something that’s not clear.
JS: I don’t know if I have access to it because it’s highly unlikely that he’ll say yes.
JS: Um. Yeah, I don’t have access to it. I have access to, you know, people who live in that world. Right? I could go visit one of my friends in Florida who lives in a big mansion. But I don't really - you know, I miss my friends. I’d love to see them but like I said I mostly work and the last couple of times my kids and I did that we just felt uncomfortable.
AS: Like you didn’t belong.
JS: Yeah, we feel like we don’t belong. We, we definitely - we’re very aware of it. I think my kids are very, very, very aware of our different financial situation now. Um. We were recently invited to a dinner party by a family that we used to do stuff with all the time. And we’ve been to this house a million times. You know, on the way home all they could talk about was what a nice house it was and how rich the people were. And I said, “Well first of all it’s not polite to talk about money and you can’t look into somebody's bank account.” But I thought to myself privately later that night that when we first started going to that house—and I did mention this to my kids—we had just come from Asia and everyone we knew lived in really fancy houses. So to us it was like, oh yeah that’s a nice house. Whereas now I think we noticed it much more.
JS: And I was trying to soften it for my kids. It's interesting. I was saying, you know, “Well, I think they got a good deal on that land and you know that he built it himself with his dad,” and my kids, you know, ended up laughing at me and they're like, “You’re trying to convince us that they’re not rich, but Mom, they’re rich.”
AS: And you still tell them that it’s impolite to talk about money.
JS: I do. (Laughs)
AS: That’s surprising to me.
JS: I don’t know, maybe it’s a really WASP-y thing. I don’t think that when we leave people’s houses who have hosted us that it’s polite to talk about how much money they have in their bank account. I just, I try to discourage them from gossiping because I’m sure that we’re gossiped about in town.
That’s Jaimie Seaton. She wrote a piece for BuzzFeed about how her relationship to money and class changed after her divorce. You can find a link at our website for this series at deathsexmoney.org/class. And she told us, she hasn’t heard back from her father.
This series, Opportunity Costs, is produced in collaboration with BuzzFeed News. All this week, you can hear conversations with our listeners and read personal essays about class and money in America today. I wrote one too about learning to share money again after going through a divorce. You can find a link to that piece at deathsexmoney.org/class.
And to get weekly updates from us at the show, subscribe to our newsletter. Go to deathsexmoney.org/newsletter.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Emeryville, California. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Thanks to Dan Dzula for his help on this episode. Our interns are Catherine Xu and Angely Mercado.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale. The show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Instagram.
And Jaimie says she hasn’t just lost old friends in the divorce because she’s uncomfortable with their new class gap. They’re uncomfortable around her, too.
JS: I’ve written about it. I’ve researched it. I think people think divorce is catching. I think women don’t want single women around their husbands. I think being around other people’s pain can be uncomfortable. So it might as well be the 1950s. Except at least in the 1950s, I think people would have fixed me up.
I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.