Why Married Couples Should (and Should Not) Share Their Finances

This past weekend, the Honeybee and I had one of those conversations that most couples who are married long enough tend to have from time to time. But that didn’t stop our 11-year-old daughter Nina from shaking her head in complete amazement after overhearing it anyway.

Although I can’t remember the exact words, the discourse went something like this:

“Hey Len, did you happen to take the –”

“Uh huh.”

“So can I assume that you told Sharon –”

“Yes, yes. She said she’d have it next week, Honeybee. By the way, did you buy –”

“Yesterday; while you were pulling weeds. Which reminds me, have you called –”

“Of course. Did you really think that I’d forget?”

“I don’t know, Len. Last month –”

“Hut! Don’t you dare say it!”

“Say what?”

“You know what I’m talking about!”

“You’re darn right I do!”

Yes, after 15 years of marriage, the wife and I are a well-oiled machine. And while many couples can brag about finishing each others sentences, the Honeybee and I have got things so fine-tuned now that we simply interrupt each other and move on to the next subject.

By the way, we’ve got our household running smoothly too, thank you very much, right down to our personal finances.

To Share or Not to Share

Now even you hopeless romantics out there have to admit that sharing money is one of the most challenging aspects of any relationship. It requires equal degrees of communication, trust, commitment and personal responsibility. That’s why, prior to tying the knot, one of the first big decisions any couple will make is how to handle the household finances. Basically, that decision comes down to one of three primary options:

  • Joint accounts
  • Separate accounts
  • Some combination of both

Of course, each option comes with its own pros and cons. Here’s my take on joint and separate accounts:

Joint Accounts

One of the biggest advantages of a joint account is the simplicity that it brings to managing your household finances. The Honeybee and I have used a joint checking account since we were first married. We pay all our bills from the same account, because we’ve agreed that every bill belongs to the household — regardless of who generated it.

Pros: A big benefit of this philosophy is that it requires the couple to work together as a team when managing the household finances. As an added bonus, it adds a critical check-and-balance system that encourages spouses to think twice prior to making unplanned or impulsive expenditures without first consulting their partner. This makes it much harder for one spouse to become financially irresponsible without the other one knowing about it.

Cons: Well, it’s definitely tougher to surprise your spouse with gifts for birthdays or the holidays, but I’ve found a way around that minor inconvenience — I simply tell the Honeybee to avoid looking at the credit card statement until she opens her gift.

Separate Accounts

Marriage may be a team sport but, believe it or not, sometimes it makes absolutely no sense to have a joint account. When one spouse is unable to control their spending, separate accounts help reduce the risk of the irresponsible spouse negatively affecting the good credit of the other. Separate accounts also may make sense if one spouse has premarital financial issues stemming from, say, a bankruptcy or trouble with the IRS. In two-income households where the higher-earning spouse wants to allocate the household’s resources in relationship to income, separate accounts can often help keep the peace too.

Pros: This approach permits each spouse to retain their financial independence, and helps each partner maintain separate credit histories. It also helps reduce arguments regarding how the household money is spent.

Cons: Separate accounts are not only inefficient, but they also make money management somewhat more complicated. They demand less financial accountability when compared to joint accounts too, which doesn’t help folks who have trouble spending less than they earn.

Then again, many couples choose to straddle the fence and take a compromise approach that utilizes a joint account for the household bills and separate accounts for personal spending purposes. I’ve even heard of folks that prefer to use two separate-but-integrated accounts where each spouse has their name on both accounts, but they treat one as “his” account and the other as “hers.”

Summing It All Up

You know, when I was younger I used to believe that married couples who didn’t share their finances were completely missing the point of marriage, but over time I’ve found that to be a grossly naive oversimplification.

Now that I’m older I realize that, in the end, it really doesn’t matter whether you keep your finances joint or separate. What’s really important is that you choose the option that’s best for you.

Photo Credit: Shelly Panzarella



Comments

  1. 1

    Chupacabras says

    I can see having a joint account for all the household finances and “joint” spending, but everyone needs their own “wants” account the SO has no say in.

  2. 2

    DC says

    My wife and I have been married 28 years and counting. We switched to a single, joint checking account after getting married and haven’t looked back. All income is household income regardless who earned it, and all expenses are household expenses regardless who generated it. We don’t play “games” like hiding cash from each other. (A friend of mine does that. Does he really think his wire doesn’t know?) Everything is above-board. Big ticket purchases — appliances, cars, etc. — are discussed ahead of time.

    To me, maintaining separate checking accounts, or insisting I get to have more “wants” money because I earn more, is simply the planting seeds of discontent that can lead to divorce.

    Both my wife and I exercise self-restraint. I don’t see how self-restraint can be learned if, for example, I insisted on controlling my wife’s expenditures by regulating “her” checking account.

    @Chupacabras: An alternative to actual, separate checking accounts is to create budget categories like “Wants – His” and “Wants – Hers”.

  3. 4

    says

    Len, it is so not like you not to have a strong opinion. You been hitting the Prozac lately???

    We share everything in our house too. My wife keeps the books and pays the bills. I handle all the investment stuff.

    She likes the control of having the checkbook…I get play money that usually lasts me for a whole month, cause I never go anywhere to spend it…

    • 5

      Len Penzo says

      I know, Dr. Dean. I’m normally much more opinionated — and I suppose it would be a more interesting post if I took a strong position, but I sincerely believe that it is pure folly to insist that one size fits all here.

      If I was married to someone who was unable to control their spending habits, I guarantee you that I would not have a joint account. Then again, as long as two people have the same financial philosophy, I see no reason why folks wouldn’t take the joint account approach because it is not only much more efficient, but it simplifies management of the household finances.

      • 6

        says

        If you’re married to someone who is unable to control their spending, then I would set it up to where the get either a pre-paid credit card, or their own checking account that you put money in. Its sad to have to manage someone like that, but its better than having separate checking, and each being responsible for a set amount of bills. What happens when one party doesnt have the money? The other has to cover, and that just sets up a habit.

        My wife and I have had joint since we were dating and living together in college. She’s a spender, I’m a saver, but she’s not bad enough to where I have to worry about money. We decided to have one joint where our paychecks were deposited for bill paying, a joint savings that is automatically transferred to (also the “round it up” feature that cards offer go here, and then our own private accounts that we take a percentage of our joint income and split between us every paycheck. We also have our own credit cards.

        Bills, fun activities, and pretty much everything comes out of our joint account. If she wants to go shopping or I want to buy some tech toy, that comes out of our personal/credit card, no questions asked. It also makes it easier at christmas time to transfer X amount to our personal ones, so the other can’t see where you spent money.

        • 7

          Len Penzo says

          Sounds like you have a good system going there, Josh. In this case, I think you prove that the best system is one that works for both parties.

  4. 8

    says

    We have a joint account for household expenses, and our individual accounts for our own expenses. I’ve considered merging completely but it’s a deep talk we’d have to discuss.

  5. 9

    says

    My parents always had everything completely shared, so I always kind of thought that was the only acceptable way. But they had the kind of marriage where my father had the career, and my mother worked part time, in lower-paying jobs so she could be home when we got home from school. She wasn’t earning a salary for her contribution to the household, so it seems more natural that she would definitely be able to access the money my father earned.

    Now that I have my own career, and with the high divorce rates, I would be scared to give up my own sense of financial independence I think. But I bet after a few years of marriage to the right pesron, I could totally change my mind.

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      That’s pretty much how it was in my house, although my mom was a full-time stay-at-home mom.

  6. 11

    says

    I’ve been married for over 10 years and together with my spouse for 15 and we still have separate accounts and each pay different bills. The reason? Pure laziness. We just never got around to changing our system once we got married. We’ve only gone as far as putting the other person’s name on our accounts. It’s just now after 15 years we’re like..hey, maybe we should simplify this a bit but that was like 2 months ago and I still have done a thing yet.

    • 14

      Len Penzo says

      Agreed, it sucks … but it’s also a great check and balance that can stave off bigger issues down the road, Robert.

  7. 15

    Kat says

    Thanks for helping me realize I’m not crazy and our marriage is doomed for not having a joint checking account.

    My husband and I started off with a joint checking account and knowing so much about my husband’s spending and bothering him so much almost lead to divorce. Now, we have separate accounts he transfers me what I want/need for certain expenses and HE can drive himself nuts over the bills not getting paid because he overspent. Needless to say, he’s changed on his own and I no longer nag :)

  8. 16

    khaye_hart says

    For me, I grew up with parents sharing an account even though my mom stop working to be a full time mom at the age of forty and only my father earned for the family. It is hard to be married, like now, with a bad feeling that we have separate account. For me, marriage is about being as one, sharing almost all things and that we do not have. If we are just living together then maybe I understand but this makes me feel untrusted at all. If somebody is afraid about divorce, I can’t blame you because it is also true but in my case, the feeling can just add up for reasons to be divorce and I’m very willing to go with only what I have before marriage and find the right man who have the same idea of marriage that I have.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>