Money. It’s one of the three things, along with religion and politics, considered rude to talk or ask about. So it’s no wonder that money is often a tricky topic for couples. Since conversations about money are often awkward, emotionally-driven, or even avoided altogether, it makes sense that financial concerns are often cited as the number one reason that couples argue and get divorced—yes, even more than infidelity.
Many people are surprised to learn that money is such a relationship dealbreaker—I know I was when I learned this in my training to become a marriage and family therapist. Why money rather than other relational concerns? Money is a common stressor in relationships and potential cause of divorce because of what it means to people. (This is also why people tend to get emotional and/or reactive when discussing money.)
To each person, money is usually a sign of control, security, status, or enjoyment. (Of course, money may signify more than one of these things to an individual.) Someone might be very uncomfortable putting her money into a joint account because she views money as control and thus sees the primary benefit of money as being able to influence others. To the woman for whom money is a sign of security, having money in savings is of the utmost importance, and she would rather have extra money in the bank than make a new purchase. She may also prefer moderate-risk investments to higher-risk, high-return investments. The person who believes that having high-quality belongings reflects well on him, or who thinks highly of others’ opinions about his major purchases, might see money as status. Someone who enjoys spending money on experiences might see money as enjoyment.
When money means something different to members of a couple, it can lead to different preferences for handling money. However, even couples for whom money signifies the same thing may have different ways of handling money, often ways they learned from their families of origin.
And yet, while money remains such an important topic for married couples, some still opt to keep their finances separate. Millennial couples—both pre-marital and already-married couples—with whom I’ve worked as a marriage and family therapist often shy away from the idea of having a joint bank account. Maybe it’s the fear of money driving a wedge in their relationship that makes some couples prefer to keep their finances marked “mine” and “yours”— but having a joint bank account can actually help marriages, for several reasons.
Why Joint Accounts?
The first way that having a joint account can benefit couples is obvious—the transparency. Financial infidelity can be more difficult for married couples to overcome than relational infidelity. So, the transparency of a joint account that both partners can see and access is an easy first step in avoiding secret spending—and can quickly help identify harmful financial habits such as gambling or excess spending.
Even if detrimental financial habits aren’t an issue for either partner, money is still likely to mean something different to each of them. The transparency of a joint account can help the couple identify these differences by both having knowledge of what they both tend to spend money on—and how the other partner feels about that. For instance, maybe money is a sign of enjoyment to your husband, who likes to play golf as much as the weather allows. If money is a sign of security to you, his spending forty bucks on a round of golf every weekend might be alarming and even anxiety-producing for you. Being able to see via your joint account how much of your monthly budget his golf is actually costing you allows you to bring up this concern to him, so that you two can discuss a solution that works for you both.
Shared Knowledge and Responsibility
A joint account allows both partners to have knowledge of and access to their finances. This promotes trust and a balance of power in the relationship, as one partner is not the “bookkeeper” for the couple’s money. In her book Marriage in Modern Life: Why It Works, When It Works, clinical psychologist, marriage and family therapist, and “financial therapist” Dr. Anne Brennan Malec explains that when one partner carries most of the financial burden, it can put that partner in almost a parental role over the other regarding relationship finances. This is particularly true when the other partner chooses to remain uninformed about the couple’s finances, as this communicates that he or she is not responsible for (or even interested in) financial decision-making. The financially-uninvolved partner is essentially abdicating his or her financial control, and the overall power in the relationship may shift to mimic this dynamic.
It’s fine, and common, for one partner to have more knowledge or show more interest in handling finances, but the other partner should still be informed and responsible. Dr. Malec advises this not only because of the potential shift in power that may occur, but also because the financially-responsible partner may become the perceived “bad guy,” having to say no to requests for spending or making tough financial choices.
On the other hand, in her book, Dr. Malec also advises against being a spouse who micromanages your partner’s spending. For a partner to whom money is a sign of control, this can be tempting. “If you earn more than your partner, have a stay-at-home spouse, or simply believe you are better equipped to manage the family finances, be careful about claiming the right to be the family’s financial decision maker,” Dr. Malec warns. “You are an equal partner to your spouse, not a parent to them. If a couple decides that one partner will stay at home, work toward an academic degree, or pursue another goal, it is because both partners jointly made this decision. The work done outside of a traditional workplace should be valued for what it is, a contribution to the family.” When a couple shares a bank account, it is less likely that one spouse will micromanage the other’s finances.
When a couple says “I do,” they join all aspects of their lives—their home, their bodies, their future, their goals, and their family, among others. It makes sense, then, that a married couple would also join their finances. As with these other aspects of marriage, this is yet another way of saying and showing that “you” and “me” are now “we.” Saying “United we stand, divided we bank” seems counterintuitive, given a couple’s wedding vows. As the couple joins their lives, joining their bank accounts also signifies both partners saying, “What’s mine is yours.”
A couple’s sense of “we-ness,” or identity as a couple, is widely acknowledged by couples therapists to be a positive sign for the couple’s relationship. Sharing a bank account offers another opportunity to strengthen that identity: the bank account is now “ours.” On the other hand, keeping finances in two completely separate accounts makes it easier for the couple to justify parting ways should difficulties arise. Although merging into one account may seem like a hassle at first, the difficulty of separating a joint account down the road could help incentivize a couple to work through the inevitable hard times.
If merging all finances into one joint account right after the wedding feels overwhelming for a couple, having a joint account and individual accounts could serve as a manageable transition. When a mortgage or children come along, however, merging all the finances usually makes more sense. Another option some couples choose is to have all their money in one account, but add a personal monthly budget into your family (couple) budget. Dr. Malec suggests that this be an agreed-upon amount for each partner to spend freely—granted that it is legal and consistent with your shared values and wedding vows—that the other partner will not question. This may be especially helpful for spouses to whom money has different meanings. For instance, this would allow a husband to whom money is a sign of status to use his “personal money” to buy the latest clothes or tech gadgets, while his wife—to whom money is seen as security—could choose to put hers into a retirement account.
Whatever a couple’s decision on how to handle their finances, they should weigh the pros and cons of having a joint bank account. While merging your finances may seem more difficult up front, the payoff throughout your marriage may be worth it.