We’re sitting at the dining room table. There’s a pile of bills in front of us and not enough money to pay them all. Again. Another month when her ex doesn’t pay child support. Another month we are at his financial mercy.

This would be the last month we let her ex have the power to jerk us around!

Child Support Affects Us Coming and Going

I look down at my banking app on my phone, shaking my head. Nearly half of my check goes to pay child support for my two sons. Nearly the same amount of my fiancé’s income goes to childcare expenses for her two kids.

We’re going over the numbers for the third time. Which one of these bills can we afford to pay late?

All of this would be easier if her ex would just pay his child support like he’s supposed to.

Sam (not his real name) is a handy guy. He’s the kind of guy who can fix anything. I envy that quality. Because of his skills, he works the kind of jobs that pay cash. Under-the-table, unreported cash. There are lots of parents like Sam, that deliberately game the system to avoid paying child support by not working as much as they could or under-reporting their earnings.

For my fiancé, this means she gets child support from her ex if and when he feels like paying it. The amount he pays varies almost as wildly as the frequency of payment. It’s frustrating.

I never dreamed that another man, whom I have no relationship with, would contribute to my financial problems.

The Weight of Responsibility

From the moment I got divorced, I swore to myself that I would do whatever it takes to support my two boys. At one point I was working my regular 9-5 as well as a third shift gig stocking shelves at a grocery store near my apartment. There were times I thought I was literally going to die from lack of sleep. Many nights I ate cereal for dinner.

Being a Parent – Not Just a Paycheck

I did what I had to do for my sons. During that period, I didn’t miss out on my time with them. I was at the soccer games, parent/teacher conferences, and awards ceremonies.

I recognize that child support is not a substitute for my presence in their lives.

When my fiancé and I first got together I was broke. I pay twice as much in child support as her ex. We knew it was going to be challenging with four kids between us. We reasoned that if we moved in together and split the rent, her ex’s child support payments would offset her childcare expenses just enough for us to make it.

That was our first mistake.

Child Support – Crap Shoot Style

Have you ever gone to a party where there was a White Elephant gift exchange? Most of the gifts are junk left over from people’s garage sales. But, there are always a few gems in the mix. It’s a crap shoot – you could get lucky!

Imagine the moment of hopeful anticipation. You peel back the layer of ugly wrapping paper and expose a white box with the familiar Apple symbol. Recognizing that the size and weight of the box is just about right, you smile as you notice the letters i-P-A-D. You tear open the box ­ and out slides an Etch-A-Sketch.

That feeling. The one you have right now. That’s what we’ve felt every two weeks as we wait to see what Sam will pay toward his child support, or if he will crap out on his obligation again.

It’s maddening. I am beside myself with anger sometimes because I simply can’t understand why a father wouldn’t do what it takes to financially support his children. My fiancé even voluntarily reduced the amount of child support he would have been required to pay. Still, he seems to be perfectly fine with us shouldering the financial responsibility.

It Wasn’t Supposed To Be Like This

These emotions swirl around our home like a wild tornado. Neither of us expected to be dealing with this kind of financial pressure at this stage in our lives. We’re at the age where most people are hitting their stride financially. We both have good jobs with above average pay. Yet, we have to be extremely careful financially. One unexpected expense can put us dangerously behind on the bills.

As a man, I feel responsible to provide. In the early days of our relationship, I felt guilty. Sometimes I couldn’t even fill up my own gas tank. How would I ever be able to provide a for my newly expanded family?

The Emotional Backlash

Emotional pressure that stems from financial trouble is unique. It’s bleeds into every area of life. When her ex doesn’t pay child support, it creates financial problems. Financial problems can lead to serious relationship issues. An article in Psychology Today reports that  7 out of 10 couples report that money issues cause tension in their relationship.

Blaming and Shaming

Because money is a very real need, you can’t escape it. It’s easy to blame someone else. In fact, I would say I am justified in placing blame on Sam. It relieves my shame to blame her ex for not contributing his part. It gives me a place to focus my anger. It allows me to escape (if only emotionally) from the responsibility for our financial condition.

There just one problem with that. Blame doesn’t improve my bank account. Anger doesn’t pay the bills, and it sure doesn’t make her ex man-up  and pay up on a regular basis.

How do we get out of this rut? How do we budget for when her ex doesn’t pay child support?

Sink or Move Forward

Back at the dining room table, my fiancé looks up at me, her eyes soften as she notices the tears welling up in mine. She says, “We have to plan as if he’s not going to pay anything.” It’s not the first time she’s said it, but this time for some reason it resonates with me.

We have to plan as if he’s not going to pay anything.

I had spent so much time being mad at Sam for robbing us of our ability to take care of our family. I hadn’t stopped to realize that I was the one giving him to the power to do it. We are not helpless. His child support payments should not factor into our financial planning. I was giving him a seat at our table!

There were still changes we could make. We could control our own expenses.

We Took Our Lives Back

Our biggest expenses outside of food and rent are my child support payments and her childcare expenses. We have a long-term plan for legitimately reducing my child support, but that won’t help us right now. We needed immediate relief.

Thinking Outside the 9 to 5

We both work full time. We talked about one or both of us getting a second job, but the hours were just unrealistic. Then we got creative. What if we could drastically reduce the childcare expenses by having my fiancé work part-time?

She could be home during the times when the kids would normally be at daycare and work during the hours when they were in school. There would certainly be a dip in her income, but the childcare savings should more than offset that.

We talked about cutting back on luxuries like cable TV and dining out. It’s so easy to order pizza on nights when we don’t feel like cooking. We decided to plan our meals ahead and do more crock-pot meals.

We talked for over an hour, planning and figuring out how we could take back the control that we had given away.

The Energizing Power of Perspective

By the time we finished that conversation our body language had changed. We were smiling. The tension in my shoulders eased. The wild financial storm that we found ourselves up against suddenly seemed manageable.

Anxiety gave way to hope. We decided that we would take that control back. If her ex pays his child support, it will be a bonus.  If he doesn’t, we’ll be fine.

We own the financial problem, and we own the solutions.

Maybe your story is similar. It’s not the details of your plan that make the difference. It’s having a plan in the first place. No matter how bleak your financial situation, you still have control.

Want more inspiration for coping when her ex doesn’t pay child support? Our popular CPA, Janet Berry-Johnson tells you How To Begin Recovering Financially After Divorce.  Don’t miss Sara Gabriell’s article on Surviving Divorce: Protect Your Finances.

Be sure to tell us your experiences with child support in the comments below!

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