How I Learned to Live in Luxury—For Less

Advice & Stories, Living & Spending
on April 4, 2014

Living with Less: One Woman's Financial Re-Boot

When I was married to a dot-com millionaire, I remember waltzing into Neiman Marcus confident and carefree. And after getting a divorce, suddenly I was back in the workforce with a five-year-old son.

Once you get a taste of the “good life,” it’s hard to push the reset button. The key is figuring out how to satisfy your cashmere cravings on a polyester budget.

I learned this quickly after my marriage of nine years ended. My ex-husband had retired at age 41 after cashing in 80 percent of the stock options he acquired while working for an online company.

We were never Donald Trump wealthy—we were more like NFL athlete affluent. The money came quickly and in mind-boggling sums.

We diversified our portfolio in stocks, annuities, bonds, venture capital investments and real estate.

We also owned a day spa. It was in its infancy when I filed for divorce. Co-owning a business with your soon-to-be ex-husband is tough enough, but co-managing was impossible. I wanted him out.

I agreed to give him the venture capital account in exchange for outright ownership of the day spa. It was an emotional response to a business decision.

It was a bad idea.

Now I was 36, unemployed and trying to manage a new business with 19 employees.

Although the day spa experienced rapid growth, it was still a start-up and a drain on my savings. When we calculated the cost of operating the business, a split in our assets was not part of the plan.

After five years I decided to sell the day spa and rebuild my writing career. Meanwhile, I struggled with lacking the means to afford the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to.

Prior to our dot-com windfall, I was a bargain hunter. Yet after having what seemed like an endless supply of money, I became a super spender. I purchased designer duds at list price, simply because I could. I chose hotels based on the quality of linens. I once spent more on one pillowcase than I did on my first sofa.

Without any income, I watched my net worth dwindle from seven to six figures. I was hardly impoverished, but it wasn’t long before I realized I could no longer waltz into Neiman Marcus confident that I could afford anything I wanted. I was back to price tag flipping.

The sales associates in the beauty department, who used to get giddy when they saw me coming, now seemed disappointed when I opted for one lipstick instead of the entire new spring collection. If I had been truly honest about my financial fragility, I would have put that overpriced lipstick back too.

However, I stuck to my fabulous, luxurious routine for a while. Even after it was just my son and I—my stepdaughters had graduated from high school and college—I continued to pay a personal chef to prepare meals we rarely ate.

I had never considered myself shallow or attached to material things. However, I had clearly linked my self worth to my net worth.

Sure, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy are common for those going through divorce. But there are support groups and shelves of self-help books for people grieving the loss of their marriage.

Find yourself lamenting the loss of your weekly massage, personal organizer, personal trainer and personal chef? Eyes roll.

So adjust, you must.

The most difficult adjustments I had to make were psychological and emotional. I had to end the pretense of business-as-usual and get real about living my life.

First, I needed to decide how I wanted to live and not just what I wanted to do. I decided I wanted to write full-time, from home. I wanted to continue playing tennis regularly, remain in control of my schedule, sleep on Egyptian cotton and have gourmet coffee whenever I wanted. But I needed to do this within my budget.

Once I accepted that my cash flow was no longer what it used to be, I began making sound decisions.

My desire for fine linens, gourmet coffee and designer handbags never changed. My budget and attitude did.

I moved my son from a $20,000 a year private school to a public school with a magnet program. I ignored the “poor, pitiful you” looks from the private school parents when they inquired about my son’s new school.

After the five-year warranty on my luxury SUV expired, I sold it and paid cash for a sensible Buick sedan. Sure, the Buick didn’t turn heads like that graphite SUV, but replacing its tires didn’t cost $800 either.

I became savvier about purchases. Instead of buying new Prada or Ferragamo shoes and purses, I had old ones repaired.

I negotiate more and pay less. When I see luxury items I love at a price I can’t afford, I give the sales associate my card and say, “Please call me when it’s on sale.” They do.

I still shop at Nordstrom, Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus—I just wait for the markdowns. Funny, designer shoes look the same at 75 percent off as they did at full price.

It’s been 12 years since my divorce. I write full-time, and I play tennis more than ever. Instead of private lessons, I take clinics. This allows me to split the cost with several people. I play on public courts and participate in tennis leagues that include country club teams. So I get to play on country club courts, without paying country club fees.

Despite moving from a 6,400 square feet mansion to an 1100 square feet condo, I sleep soundly on high-thread count sheets, and I enjoy gourmet coffee from the espresso machine I purchased, on sale.

My life is better than ever because of a change in attitude, not income.

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett is a writer from Washington, D.C., covering interior design, architecture, real estate and small business.

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