Divorce is expensive with Eliza Cussen
The founder of Divorcist talks about changing the conversation around divorce, making it more financially accessible and what companies need to consider when working with survivors of domestic abuse.
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Blog writer: Carson Kohler has been writing for the web since 2016. Based in Arlington, Virginia, she is currently a writer at a national news website.
Divorce is expensive. The average cost per U.S. couple is around $12,000.
And that’s just court and legal fees. That doesn’t account for the cost of dividing one household into two — renting or buying a home, furnishing it, utility bills… the list goes on. Everything doubles.
“That’s a massive expense you tend not to plan for because no one gets married planning on getting divorced,” explains Eliza Cussen on the Healthy Rich podcast. “So many people are prevented from leaving their spouse by those financial practicalities.”
That’s why Cussen founded Divorcist. It’s like a wedding or baby registry — but for divorces. People can register for household essentials or create a cash fund that helps offset the cost of establishing a new home.
The company’s mission is simple: Make divorce and breakups more dignified.
Cussen joined Dana Miranda on the Healthy Rich podcast to discuss the importance of changing the conversation around divorce and what to consider when working with survivors of domestic abuse.
Changing the conversation around divorce
Cussen, who hails from Australia and currently lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, didn’t understand the patriarchal, heteronormative institution of marriage in the U.S. until she arrived here on a K-1 visa in 2014.
People started calling Cussen by her husband’s name, and his family suddenly expected her to schedule vacations and family reunions.
She says in Australia, marriage is more secular and relaxed.
“This culture of making marriage mandatory and this marker of adulthood and success is really problematic, especially for women,” she explains. “It means you're incentivized to stay in a marriage.”
In reality, everyone should be in a marriage or relationship because they want to, because it’s a source of joy — not because they need to provide for their families financially.
“There is still a sense of shame around [divorce] and a sense that if you need to leave a relationship, you have somehow, in some way, failed,” Cussen says. “We need to bust that right down.”
This shame creates a situation where, in order to get help during a difficult life transition, it feels as though you have to publicly admit you’ve failed. Plus, there’s already a stigma around asking for help, especially financially.
The combination can be dangerous — especially for survivors of domestic abuse.
Designing for the most vulnerable users first
In 2016, Cussen worked with a group of women to advocate for the Safe at Home Act, which protects victims of abuse or stalking by assigning them a dummy street address. This ensures their real address stays secret. Not even the police know their real addresses — only the Department of Justice, which forwards your mail.
The bill was passed in Wisconsin, and about 20 other states have put similar programs into place.
The victory spurred Cussen to think about how she could adopt this premise online. A team of female engineers got to work and made the software from scratch. It’s now called Divorcist.
And when you sign up, you’ll get a welcome email — that encourages you to unsubscribe. That way, if you don’t feel safe or like your spouse may find the email, you can opt out.
Cussen’s team has thought of a lot of other safety details, too. For instance, if you order a “Better Off Box” for a friend who’s going through a divorce, the care package’s shipping label will read from “Eliza and Beth,” not Divorcist.
“We are always thinking of how we can make things more secure, how we can really meet the needs of this unique and highly sensitive group of customers,” Cussen says.
These features are available for every user, which is important because people don’t always identify as victims of abuse, especially financial abuse.
On the day Cussen joined the Healthy Rich podcast, she’d worked one-on-one to help someone in an abusive relationship set up a cash fund. They can now share that link with the Divorcist community. The cash will go into a secret bank account, and she’ll be able to activate her plan to leave in the coming weeks.
“This is something that can really help people at their most vulnerable,” Cussen says.
Making divorces and breakups more accessible
While we’ve heard plenty about financial tech companies in the past decade, Cussen has seen an explosion of divorce tech tools aiming to make divorces more financially accessible. This is on the heels of a cultural push to normalize divorce in the U.S.
“Divorcist is really just one step to try and make sure that once you've come to the decision of leaving a long-term relationship or a marriage, that the practical elements don't have to factor into your decision making anymore,” Cussen says.
And it’s essential we remind people, particularly women, it’s OK to ask for financial help in these vulnerable life transitions.
“It’s like, ‘Honey, it’s your turn. You’ve been helping everyone around you your whole damn life. Now it’s your turn to get some help,’” Cussen says. “And that’s all we’re here to do — to provide the technology that makes it more accessible and more acceptable to get help when you’re at a low point.”
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This article is based on an episode of the Healthy Rich podcast, conversations with leaders and creators in the personal finance industry and beyond to discover steps we can take to bring inclusive, budget-free financial education to more people. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts!