Money. It has been blamed time and again in studies and by experts for marital conflict. Even divorce.
Part of the problem is that many people have deeply held beliefs about the purpose of money and how it should be used. We’ve all grown up with a certain relationship with money, and sometimes our ideas and expectations don’t align with our partner’s. So. Given the fact that money is such a volatile issue, it may be important for couples to ask the question: Are married couples better off keeping at least some of their finances separate?
On one side are those who say many couples need separate bank accounts to maintain harmony in their relationship. Others believe that having separate accounts simply opens the door to selfishness. Spouses have to put the "team" before themselves, they say, and one of the best ways to do that is for couples to combine all of their assets and liabilities. We found two experts who feel differently on the subject, but each offer insightful points to consider.
Kelley Long, a certified public accountant and financial planner, argues that separate accounts are good for a marriage because they help prevent clashes over differences in spending styles.
"Some people believe that couples who keep their finances separate after marriage are setting themselves up for trouble. I think the exact opposite is true: that many couples need to have separate accounts to maintain financial and emotional harmony in their relationships.
With the average age of first marriage in the U.S. now about 27, according to an analysis of Census data by the Pew Research Center, many people already have had five years or more of total financial independence before saying "I do." Marriage is the joining of two lives and forsaking all others, but it isn't the forsaking of one's separate identity, and it certainly isn't the forsaking of premarital money habits and mind-sets.
That is why even if a couple has a joint account from which household bills are paid, each spouse needs a certain amount of money over which they have complete control. This gives each partner a sense of autonomy and financial independence, potentially saving them from endless hours of petty money fights.
Money arguments crop up most often in relationships where a "spender" marries a "saver." Separate accounts allow the saver to scrimp and penny-pinch without resentment from the spender, who also will feel less guilt or anxiety about splurges. This isn't a sign of marital problems to come. It is simply an acknowledgment of a fundamental difference in money attitudes, much like couples have different religious views yet find a way to make it work for them.
That said, money secrets have no place in a marriage, and couples should have a shared household budget and financial goals. If each person has a clearly defined idea of how his or her saving or spending will aid in the achievement of the family's goals, both people feel more empowered and responsible for their choices.
Communication is key. Couples need to agree on how much each will contribute to shared household expenses and savings. They also need a set of ground rules, such as no new credit-card debt and a dollar amount that can't be spent without a spouse's input—say, buying a new car.
One of the biggest reasons I advocate separate accounts is the fact that at some point more than half of married people will become financially independent again—not only because of divorce but also due to an unexpected death.
Losing a partner can be devastating enough without having to relearn how to manage daily finances. Having separate accounts helps ensure that both spouses remain financially literate and able to manage money on their own if need be.
The point of separate accounts isn't to keep couples from sharing and growing together. It is to remove a barrier to happiness in marriage. I've yet to meet a couple who says they've stayed together because they combined their money, but I've met plenty who attribute their marital success to separate accounts."
Holly Johnson, co-founder and author of the Club Thrifty personal-finance blog, says separate accounts do nothing to foster financial teamwork and could be a prelude to marital problems yet to come.
There are many advantages to combining financial assets with a spouse, and one of the biggest has nothing to do with actual money at all: It is the trust and teamwork that's built when a couple discusses and compromises on an issue so integral to their marriage.
In an ideal world, couples who marry are combining two lives into one. They are making the commitment to succeed or fail together. Holding their assets and liabilities together serves to bind a couple to their common goals, forcing them to look beyond their personal wants and needs to see what is best for their family, their "team."
Couples who pool their resources learn to compromise on simple issues like who pays the bills and balances the checkbook, so that they can agree on more complex ideas like budgeting, entertainment spending and retirement savings. And when issues pop up, as they always do, couples with combined finances tackle them together.
Having combined finances makes even more sense when children arrive. The costs of raising a child can be staggering without having to haggle over who will pay for diapers or day care. When all responsibilities are held jointly, spouses are less likely to argue over things like soccer lessons or the cost of college. It makes perfect sense: A child brought into the world by two parents should be the equal responsibility of those two parents, financially and otherwise.
Couples who keep their finances separate may tell you that they do it because they trust one another or because they like to maintain some level of autonomy within their relationship. Maybe it's just what they have always done or perhaps they see it as a way to keep the peace.
Having separate "allowances" may defuse money spats to some extent, but the opportunity still exists for spouses to resent what the other is doing with is or her funds. The reality is, married couples who separate their finances usually do so because they cannot fundamentally agree on how the family funds should be spent, a prelude to marital problems yet to come.
That said, having combined accounts doesn't mean one spouse makes all the financial decisions, while the other is left in the dark. Being part of a team means each person contributes. As long as both spouses remain actively involved in managing the day-to-day household finances, neither risks becoming financially illiterate.
My husband and I have always had joint finances, even though he brought $20,000 of student-loan debt into our marriage. I never saw it as "his debt." I saw it as ours. How could I rationalize benefiting from his high-paying job without sharing the burden of the schooling that got us there in the first place?
Having joint accounts hasn't been the source of stress or contempt that "separate-finance apologists" might argue. Instead, it has forced us to overcome small issues and brought us closer together. The fact that we pool all of our resources has kept us accountable to each other, and in turn, to the goals we've decided on as a family.
The danger in separate accounts is that it eliminates the element of financial teamwork—opening the door to the self-indulgence of one."
At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way to run your household. A couple’s solution should be as unique as the couple itself.
The keys are communication, patience, and always assuming the best from each other.