Meredith Stoddard: “Face your finances”

Face your finances — take the time to document what you know you own and owe and work it to completion over time. This inventory is your balance sheet and it helps you to know what you’re working with and what you’ll need to divide. The other part of the picture is figuring out your cash flow. […]

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Face your finances — take the time to document what you know you own and owe and work it to completion over time. This inventory is your balance sheet and it helps you to know what you’re working with and what you’ll need to divide. The other part of the picture is figuring out your cash flow. What money will be coming in and what is going out over time. If the picture is negative, you may need to get creative: consider a roommate, moving in with family, a new location or a new/second job, for example. Facing the facts is an important first step in knowing what you’ll be dealing with. And if the finances are new to you, there is no time like the present to start to learn the basics. As the old Chinese philosophy says, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

As part of our series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce Or Breakup” I had the pleasure of interviewing Meredith Stoddard.

Meredith Stoddard is currently Vice President, Life Events Planning at Fidelity Investments, a leading provider of investment management, retirement planning, portfolio guidance, brokerage, benefits outsourcing and other financial products and services to more than 26 million individuals, institutions and financial intermediaries.

Ms. Stoddard assumed her current position in 2019 and is dedicated to building a program to help people through the functional, social, emotional and financial aspects of some of their most complicated life situations and events.

Ms. Stoddard joined Fidelity in 2004 and has held a variety of positions throughout the firm, including phone and branch management, strategic initiative launches, training for field associates, leading a squad in Wealth Management and better supporting female investors. Prior to joining Fidelity, Meredith worked at RBC Dain Rauscher, Trillium Asset Management, at a startup, in resort sales, and teaching snowboarding.

Meredith received her Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management from Boston University and has done MBA coursework at the University of Vermont. In her free time, Meredith enjoys getting outdoors, travel, nonprofit work and investing in real estate.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a relatively stereotypical suburban community. My family liked doing outdoor activities together, music, entertaining and traveling (i.e. national parks). I was shaped a lot by family stories, such as how my Mom’s mom was one of 5 sisters and they all went to college back in the 1930s, how my Dad’s family survived the Worcester Tornado or how my dad got out of the MGM Grand Fire, and helped others as well. My own experiences over the years ranged from handling responsibility at a young age to crazy things like being on a plane where the engine caught on fire (it landed safely!) or witnessing the Boston Marathon bombing when I was an adult. This has taught me that there’s a great big world out there, to be curious and learn, to appreciate nature, to be rational under pressure, and to be resilient no matter what comes your way.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career has been less of a “path” and more of an adventure that is all over the map. There certainly wasn’t such a thing as a “Live Events Experience Lead” when I was in college, yet here I am in this role. I’ve worked in real estate, resort sales, at a dotcom startup, financial services (and if we include the high school and the college years: hospitality and restaurant industry). I usually use a version of the following criteria in considering a job: 1.) is this something I can be authentically passionate about? 2.) Do I bring a perspective/experience to contribute and can I make a difference? 3.) Is this a personal growth opportunity where I can learn something, as well? 4.) Who is the team of people I’d work with and can we learn from and push each other in a good way?

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

Each job has been a bit of a mini-career and I’d say that the thread that ties them all together is that the people I serve, whether that’s an end customer, an employee, a teammate or a boss, are so fascinating. The most valuable time I spend involves talking with people, understanding what drives them, what they struggle with, what is going on in their lives and figuring out how I can better serve them. There is so much to be learned by really listening and understanding others.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve told this story before, but once I started my first corporate job I had been riding my bike over the weekend and fell off of it, breaking my nose and giving me two black eyes. So there I was, 23 years old, trying to prove myself and transcend my age with coworkers, most of whom were at least a decade or more older than me, walking around in my brand new skirt suit with two black eyes and trying to act like it wasn’t a big deal. In fact, it really wasn’t, but it certainly didn’t look great! I ultimately learned what seems epic in the moment is actually not a big deal at all when you look back on it. It still makes me laugh to think about how ridiculous I must have looked.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for” has always been one of my favorite quotes. It applies to my life philosophies in so many ways including my aspiration to keep myself honest about always making decisions that involve going toward something rather than making decisions out of fear or running away from something. I have gained so much from the strategic leaps of faith I took and, while jumping into something new. I learned: to get comfortable being vulnerable and admitting what I don’t know. To bring my whole self to all aspects of my life. To fail, often publicly, and pick myself up and start over. That I’m capable of more than I knew possible when I was younger. Finally, I learned that all of these leaps that I took taught me so much and made me stronger.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My main focus has been working on Fidelity’s Life Events hub, to make sure that we “get real” about what people really deal with when they go through various life events because life doesn’t often go according to plan. We’ve been pushing the envelope around what kind of help we can bring to people. Offering mental health resources, providing language to handle difficult conversations around aging, or curating help through the college application process are all ways we try to support people. It’s obvious to most that Fidelity can help people with the financial aspects (i.e. budgeting, savings, planning), but that’s only a piece of it and we’re working to make it more personalized and holistic so that “help” is truly comprehensive and meaningful.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience going through a divorce, or helping someone who was going through a divorce? What did you learn about yourself during and after the experience? Do you feel comfortable sharing a story?

Recognizing that my marriage wasn’t working was one of the hardest things I ever faced. You go from thinking you have your life at least somewhat figured out to realizing that almost everything you believed to be true about your future is now no longer true. It often upends nearly every aspect of your life: where you live, your friendships, your identity, your finances, and has a huge impact on everyone involved. It can be so hard to keep perspective when you’re in the midst of it, but the good news is that for most people, you WILL get through this, and you’ll come out stronger, having learned so much about yourself and what is important to you. Even when it can be terrifying at times, it eventually gives you an opportunity to reimagine all aspects of your life and gives you a chance to start over and create a new reality for yourself. In my case, it’s far better than I ever realized it could be on the other side. I thought my life was over when I was in the midst of it, but the reality was that it was just beginning.

In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes people make after they go through a divorce? What can be done to avoid that?

A few tips jump to mind:

  1. Don’t dwell on what you lost/are losing. I know it is easier said than done, but whether it’s the relationships with beloved extended family or financial losses that you’re struggling with, focus on what possibilities might lie ahead. Perhaps you’ll be able to model what being independent looks like for your kids, maybe you’ll eventually have the freedom to live in a place your ex wouldn’t have wanted to. It’s OK if you have no idea how you’ll get there but creating a vision and taking baby steps is how you get started.
  2. Build a support team. It can feel really hard to start to tell people, but whether it’s a friend, a therapist, a relative, a neighbor, a financial planner or an attorney (or all of them), you’ll need help. You may have to muster the courage to ask for help, but you will be glad you did.
  3. Find healthy outlets for your emotions. While some people have rather uneventful divorces, I’ve seen couples get really wound up in trying to “win” or “get” each other, and it just hurts everyone — especially if children are involved. If you take the time to work through the pain, take practical steps on the finances and work on yourself, things will look so much different in the rearview mirror when you look back years from now.

People generally label “divorce” as being “negative”. And yes, while there are downsides, there can also be a lot of positive that comes out of it as well. What would you say that they are? Can you share an example or share a story?

With every challenge in life, there comes opportunity. Opportunity to learn, to grow, to rebuild, to restart, to gain perspective, to heal. It might not be something that anyone would ask for or wish for, but most divorced people I know are thankful they survived the journey and wouldn’t have it any other way. For me, I ended up having 5 years on my own, where I got to live with just my dog and focus on work, running, volunteering, and music. Sure, aspects were hard because I felt untethered and didn’t know what the future held, but I met so many people, made some great friends and had freedom to just worry about myself. I met my partner 10 years ago and now we have 2 beautiful boys and a home in a place we love. My partner is so supportive of me and the goals I set for myself and is a true teammate in a way I didn’t have before. I’m so thankful to be raising our boys together and to have had the chance to change the trajectory of my life.

Some people are scared to ‘get back out there’ and date again after being with their former spouse for many years and hearing dating horror stories. What would you say to motivate someone to get back out there and start a new beginning?

Of course, it’s scary to venture back out into the unknown, especially after years (or decades!) of being out of practice. I like that Mark Twain quote “courage isn’t the absence of fear; it is acting in spite of it.”1. Anything new in this arena will involve some vulnerability and practice, but it gives you the opportunity to learn something about yourself, test what’s important to you, meet some new people and, if you’re lucky, have a chance at love again. I always said, at least when it didn’t go well, it often made a great story.

What is the one thing people going through a divorce should be open to changing?

Their perspective. The hardest part of divorce is that it changes nearly everything for you, whether you initiated it or not. It can be disorienting, confusing and scary but that can be transcended with introspection, gaining perspective and learning from others’ journeys. A lot of it requires a revisiting of your beliefs, motivations, decisions and behavior. A perspective shift can get you through to the other side of it in a healthy way.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. If you had a close friend come to you for advice after a divorce, what are 5 things you would advise in order to survive and thrive after the divorce? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. You are not alone. It can be really isolating and scary at first, but you WILL survive this and you will be OK in time. Lean on others: friends, mediators, social media groups, legal professionals, financial professionals can all help you to find your way.
  2. Face your finances — take the time to document what you know you own and owe and work it to completion over time. This inventory is your balance sheet and it helps you to know what you’re working with and what you’ll need to divide. The other part of the picture is figuring out your cash flow. What money will be coming in and what is going out over time. If the picture is negative, you may need to get creative: consider a roommate, moving in with family, a new location or a new/second job, for example. Facing the facts is an important first step in knowing what you’ll be dealing with. And if the finances are new to you, there is no time like the present to start to learn the basics. As the old Chinese philosophy says, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”
  3. Take time to heal — for some, it may be tempting to jump into a rebound relationship, for others, the idea of being alone terrifies them or they might try to skirt the pain with substance use or other avoidance tactics. The more you can face your fears and understand what got you to this point, the better off you’ll be in the long run. Some people spend a lifetime hiding from fear or pain and that’s understandable, but a rich, vibrant and fulfilling life is possible when you put in the work.
  4. Start to put together a vision of what could be in the future. Write in a journal, cut out magazine pictures, start a Pinterest board. It doesn’t matter if it seems unrealistic or even impossible. It can help you get a glimpse of what might be, which gives you something to build on. I did this exercise when I was in the worst of it and was laughing at myself at how wildly unrealistic it was when I put it together. I looked at it occasionally, but eventually put it in a box. I came across it a decade later and it was absolutely uncanny how nearly every piece of it was something that I had fulfilled. Even if that doesn’t end up being the case for everyone, the process of going through it sparks introspection, reflection and optimism.
  5. Stretch yourself. Take a class, join a group, try dating, travel, dance, surfing, volunteer or whatever it is you’ve been curious about. I remember taking a local class during that time and the instructor drew a circle on the board and said, “this is your comfort zone.” She told us that as a child your job is to expand your comfort zone and it usually gets bigger as people go through into adulthood. But for adults, if you don’t make an active effort to keep enlarging it, it will begin to shrink and continue to do so over time. That always stuck with me and I tried everything from the ridiculous (as lovely as salsa dancing is to watch, I learned it is not for me!) to ambitious (I ran my first half marathon, marathon and Mount Washington Road Race) to giving back (I got involved in multiple nonprofits). Some of it was a one off and some of it has turned into a long term source of joy. Tread your own path and try to have fun with it.

The stress of a divorce can take a toll on both one’s mental and emotional health. In your opinion or experience, what are a few things people going through a divorce can do to alleviate this pain and anguish?

Talk about it! When you try to keep it in and don’t work through it, it doesn’t go away, it just manifests itself in different ways. There is no singular right way to process it, so it might take some trial and error to find what works best for you. Anything from reaching out to someone who has been through it before, to a support group, books, therapists, friends, family. Getting perspective is so helpful (and needed!). And perhaps most importantly: go easy on yourself. Be at least as kind to yourself as you would to a friend.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources related to this topic that you would recommend to our readers?

There is so much great content out there, it’s hard to pick just a few. Of course, I’d recommend the resources we put together in the Divorce Life Event that provides everything from checklists to webinars, help with modeling how you might split your money, tips on helping children through it, how to build a support team and more. Beyond that, it’s so highly personal: what is most needed can range from physical practices (running, yoga, meditation), to mental health (psychology, philosophy), relationship books or podcasts to better understand how they got here or educational resources to brush up on personal finance. It took you a while to get to this point, so be patient with yourself as you experiment with what helps you most, find your way through the process and rebuild in the aftermath.

Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I recently started classes in Sustainability as I’m passionate about the interconnection between business, the environment, and the humans in the system and believe there are ways to make those systems mutually beneficial. Environmental trends along with the wealth, racial and gender gaps are on unsustainable trajectories and I think it’s important that leaders in business, science, government and individuals work together to change the tides.

On the individual level, I hope people don’t get overwhelmed and give up. Even one person can make a difference with little steps. And when 10 1000, or 10000 all do the same step in the right direction, it can be powerful. No action is too small when it comes to leaving the world a better place for our loved ones and future generations.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them!

I’ve given so many answers to this over the years! Right now it would be either Mellody Hobson, Co-CEO of Ariel Investments or Mindy Lubber of CERES

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