Marriage and Money: Joint Accounts, Separate Accounts or Both?

There’s been a lot of talk on the blogoshpere lately about whether or not married couples should have separate or joint money. Some experts are strongly convincing that joint money means a more unified marriage. Other experts insist that joint money is a recipe for disaster. So who’s right?

Money and Marriage

Money and marriage, when lumped together, is a touchy subject. Depending on the individual personalities and odd habits of each marriage partner, each of the money options could be disastrous.

The Benefits of Joint Money

Total Transparency

When all of your money is lumped together as married people, things are pretty transparent. Unless your spouse is taking out boatloads of cash each month, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea about what he or she is buying. This can be nice because if things are out of hand you know pretty quickly.

Even if they’re wracking up huge credit card bills you’ll see the auto-payment from the checking account to “X” credit card company each month.

Forced Unity

The other thing about joint money in marriage is it has great potential to force you to work together to manage your money – unless one spouse is super controlling and will let you see the money but not make decisions about it.

The Benefits of Separate Money

More Freedom and Independence

Separate checking accounts mean you don’t have to explain to your spouse what you spent on clothing, makeup or sports games. As long as each person pays their required bills it’s all good, right? I know people who live with separate accounts and it works out fine.

Protection From Financial or Other Disasters

The other benefit that separate monies in marriage can offer is protection from an AWOL spouse or a spouse who is bad with money. I saw this firsthand when my parents got divorced. Although their divorce was a result of mistakes on both of their sides, my dad worked full time and mom stayed home with us kids, which meant that after dad left mom had ZERO money. That sucked. A lot.

Mom and Dad weren’t great savers at the time and she was left to rely on child support and the welfare check.

A Compromising Solution?

Because of my childhood fears (and his – his dad was controlling with money), Rick and I have set things up so that we have joint accounts, but still access to our own money. He takes a specified amount of cash out of the checking account each month, and so do I. He keeps his in his stash in the house, I keep mine in a separate checking/savings account.

This way we both have freedom to spend what we want up to a point. We’re both pretty frugal, so there’s no real money issues, however there can be real dangers with money and marriage that although they may seem like those dangers are the result of what kind of money set up you have, they’re really the symptom.

Money Controllers – Financial Abuse

Ever heard of financial abuse? I didn’t until just about a year ago. We know what physical abuse is, and emotional abuse is finally getting a spot on the radar with psychological experts, but financial abuse is still considered pretty unimportant. However, it can have huge ramifications on people.

Financial abusers handle their money in a way that helps them control what their spouse does. A financial abuser might refuse to pay for groceries or cut a spouse off from checking/savings account access if that spouse isn’t doing things the way the controller/abuser wants them to.

If your spouse doesn’t treat you as a full fledged partner regarding money handling – and there’s not a good reason for that – he or she may be a financial abuser.

You Have to do What Works for Your Situation

Sometimes spouses have to have total control of their family’s money, like if one spouse is a gambling addict or a shopping addict and isn’t willing to work with experts to conquer their addiction.

In other cases, some spouses don’t want anything to do with money management. Rick is like this. He wants absolutely nothing to do with managing our money.

I don’t believe in letting him off the hook entirely, however. He needs to know what is going on in our finances, for a plethora of reasons. So I’ve created a spreadsheet that shows him incoming money, expenses (individualized), and balances on all of our asset and liability accounts. The spreadsheet is updated regularly and is always available for his viewing.

Sometimes I have to force him to look at it, but mostly he’ll take some time to glance at it on his own.

What’s the Answer?

So how should married couples manage money? Since each couple is different there’s no right or wrong answer, however there are some key factors that you can look for to see if they fit in with your money management system, whatever it is.

  • Transparency. No “hidden” money or expenses. If you need to hide money from your spouse something is wrong and it needs to be addressed.
  • Joint Control. One person should not be lording money management over the other in an abusive manner.
  • Individual Spending Money. I believe this is very important. Spouses shouldn’t feel like they’re committing a crime if they buy the occasional latte’ or some new underwear. You are PARTNERS.
  • Joint Responsibility. Both marriage partners have an obligation to set and reach financial goals together. And to avoid debt together.

If your money management system in your marriage is working well for BOTH of you, you’re likely doing great. However, if there is some strain, tension or lack of transparency, you may want to have a talk………….

What are your thoughts on money and marriage?

16 comments on “Marriage and Money: Joint Accounts, Separate Accounts or Both?

  1. Great thoughts, Laurie, and I think it’s especially valuable to bring up financial abuse. I think Femme Frugality has several good articles someone who thinks they may be in a financially abusive relationship can reference for getting help.

    Jon and I started off keeping our finances completely separate but have merged them over time. Some of this is just that we were older (38/46) when we got married and were used to managing our own stuff. Some of it was probably that we were both cautious about letting someone else have control.

    We still have separate investment accounts, but the credit cards and bank accounts are all joint now and largely consolidated. We still make individual decisions but discuss a lot of them ahead of time.

  2. Such an important topic – that people really don’t seem to want to discuss. Which ever way you choose to deal with the issue of money and marriage, combining or separating, the most important thing you can do is communicate about it!

    We combined as soon as we were married. And things have, obviously, morphed and changed over the past 20 years. The one thing we’ve always done right (in my opinion) is to be completely honest and transparent. That doesn’t mean we always agree 100%, but it means we’re talking about it and making compromises as needed. Decisions about anything significant are made together. It works for us, but I can also definitely see how keeping separate accounts works well for other couples too – it all depends on the relationship and individuals involved.

    1. I totally agree about the honesty/transparency part. If a couple is not being honest about money, there are probably other transparency issues too, and that’s not good. So happy for you guys that you’ve found a great way to make it work!

  3. This is a toughie! I think it’s up to a couple on how to best manage their finances. I don’t understand it myself, but I know people who keep their money separate and have perfectly happy, stable marriages. Joint accounts make more sense for us since it’s less crap to take care of. I hated having to split utilities, rent, and groceries while we were dating. Combining our money just makes sense, but I can see how it could get messy in the case of divorce.

    1. It definitely can be easier just to mesh things together, but like you said, the divorce thing can make it tough. I’ve known people who have gone through it, and the money seems to be one of the main areas of conflict. Separate monies could definitely help diminish that issues. Great comment!!

  4. So true that it depends on the couple. Just because financial abuse occurs doesn’t mean every one needs to separate their finances. And just because married couples should work together on their finances doesn’t mean everything has to be joint.

    Having some accounts separate–like IRAs or other investment accounts, will allow you to invest more since each individual can try to max out their account.

  5. My husband and I operate exactly the same way as you and Rick. I handle the finances, he has access to everything (for the multitude of reasons you alluded to), and most of the time, he couldn’t care less. =)

    1. Funny. 🙂 Most people think that is weird. Rick is just not interested in handling our money. He’s always talking about his preference to just stuff it under the mattress. Yeah, we’re earn a GREAT profit there. 🙂

  6. My husband and I were the opposite from you and Rick. I was the one who couldn’t care less. I think you’re right in saying there are no absolutes here. I think it’s OK if one person in the couple has more interest and aptitude for finances – as long as both take ownership of decisions made. I think it’s ideal to have joint accounts with small separate discretionary accounts. But again, everybody is different. Thanks for drawing attention to financial abuse, Laurie.

    1. Yes!! The financial abuse is a huge one for me. I see it so very often, especially in the world of the stay-at-home mom. It’s important for both spouses to be involved in making decisions, taking responsibility and knowing what is up.

  7. The one line the struck me odd was “As long as each person pays their required bills…” This doesn’t sound like a marriage to me, more like a roommate. What about in a situation where one spouse makes a lot more than the other? We have always had joint accounts, We’ve had some early bumps with our money, but have learned to work together and it has improved our relationship. I understand that every situation is different, there are many factors, past experience, interest in the topic, etc, but each partner should at least agree on how money should be spent.

    1. Yeah, it’s foreign to me too but it works for many couples. My mom and stepdad are both on their second marriage and have separate money. He makes more than her by a far stretch, so he pays 70% of household bills and she pays 30%. It works for them……

  8. I used to be pretty dogmatic about one bed, one bank account, but I’ve recently started to see a little more nuance. I think healthy marriages are built on “interdependence” rather than independence or codependence. In general, that means that I depend on Rob and Rob depends on me. We depend on each other equally, but differently.

    When it comes to money, interdependence could look like joint checking, but we could see healthy couples adopting other practices based on their history and situation. Joint is the easiest solution that works for the most couples, but I’m willing to concede that there are exceptions.

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