Before I got married, I was financially independent for years. Not that I was in a position to give financial advice, as occasionally I lived lavish and other times I hunkered down to save. But I loved the freedom of being able to spend half my salary on oversize international fashion magazines, or homeopathic aromatherapy facials, or a gold-plated Pac-Man necklace (impulse buy!).
I lived with my husband for years before we were engaged, and we dutifully split the bills and rent right down the middle. We would send two checks each month to our landlord, go dutch at pricey restaurants, and keep track of whose turn it was to pay the housecleaner. When we got engaged, I never dreamed that financial arrangement would change. Why would it?
Let me start by saying there is no perfect way to combine money. What works for one couple is not going to work at all for another. Each person’s financial philosophy is going to be different and affected by their childhood, income levels, and current economy. Some people believe money should be scrimped and saved and only trotted out for large purchases like a house or a yearly vacation. Others feel that money is well spent if you can bring a tiny bit of joy into your everyday life. Your husband may have champagne tastes, while you want to stay on a beer budget.
Hopefully by the time you’re married, you’ve realized that you are somewhat compatible in spending habits with your spouse and you won’t be caught off guard by their secret spending or squirrely saving habits. Regardless, money seems to be a hot-button issue and the reason behind why a majority of couples fight.
Last year, a researcher confirmed that arguing about money was a good indication of divorce. So one way of dealing with that would be to keep finances private in order to alleviate those arguments. Out of sight, out of mind. With separate bank accounts, no one is in charge of the money, and this alleviates power struggles within the relationship.
When my husband and I first got married, we chose to combine a savings account where we would pop in the monthly expenses, but kept our other checking accounts separate. I didn’t want to know how much money my husband was spending on rare Brazilian funk records, and he definitely wouldn’t agree with the cost of my shoe collection. This definitely helped keep a sense of fairness in the relationship, and I know many couples who live blissfully unaware of what their other half is spending.
Additionally, if one partner has outstanding school loans, credit card debt, or bad credit, it might not be the best idea to merge. Adjusting to life as part of a couple is hard enough, and keeping separate accounts probably helps with that partnership. We might have lived happily ever after in that scenario, but all that freedom came to a screeching halt when we had a child.
The arrival of our precious baby was priceless. Well, not exactly “priceless,” as our son came with an exorbitant cost that added a layer of complexity into our freewheeling financial schema.
All of a sudden we needed to rethink and revise our money plan, as one of us (me) cut down on our hours, and one of us (my husband) became the higher earner. As we watched my bank account drain down to a gurgle, we knew we needed a financial makeover. The birth of children, a death in the family, or a job layoff can be common circumstances where revamping your riches and covering your assets are necessary.
It was a bleak winter day when we finally bundled up our newborn and dragged our feet to the bank branch to open our new combined checking account. We couldn’t agree on the color choice of our checks; how would we manage our cash flow? I can’t say it was an easy step in our marriage, but starting the conversation about money did not necessarily spell out divorce.
Putting our money together forced us to talk to each other about what we thought were important goals for our family, what expenses were important, and where we wanted our cash to flow. We ended up putting together a monthly budget for the first time, including a savings goal. And lo and behold, we had a good idea of what we paid in bills and where we could make cutbacks if necessary.
I’m sure that many responsible people will marvel at how we lived without a firm grasp on our finances for so long, but even for those money-minded folk, a life-altering event will always give an opportunity for new levels of communication (even if you’re already obsessively tracking all your receipts).
We learned to compromise on certain things, and realized gleefully that we wholeheartedly agree on specific ways we spend (i.e., vacations are expensive and worthwhile!). We started to look at our finances as more of a team resource; for now, there were three of us under the umbrella of one bank account.
Budgeting was a success, but we also missed the spontaneity of our previous financial life. Plus, tracking every morsel of dough that was spent didn’t leave room for buying surprise presents or impulse splurges. This is when we inserted our “play money” column on our spreadsheets, where we each got a sort of allowance that can be used freely without judgment from the rest of the team. Kobe beef burger for lunch? It’s your money. Overpriced baby shoes for a human who can’t walk yet? Why not? This alleviates the anxiety about what we’re spending and gives us all a little more freedom in our daily lives while still feeling secure that our joint goals will be met.
It’s been five years with one bank account and I can’t say that we never argue about money, because that would be a lie. But I can say that I don’t think that arguing about money is actually such a bad thing anymore. Bringing finances out into the open, and being forced to communicate and come clean on our spending habits has been an opportunity for honest discussion.
Arguing about money may lead to divorce a lot of times, but really a dollar is just a piece of paper. It might give you a paper cut, but in and of itself, it can’t break up your marriage!
Instead, the topic of money is a symbol for other issues: dependence, control, dreams, and power. Sweeping up this dust with joint accounts can feel messy, and often results in fighting, but once the debris has settled, it may result in a cleaner vision of your financial future, and an opportunity to really get to know who you’re sharing that DWR or IKEA bed with.