In the words of my friend Erin Lowry, author of the Broke Millennial book series, “You’re going to get a lot of opinions about what is the “right way” to handle your money when you’re married. Ignore it. There is not one right way to handle money as a married couple. You don’t magically morph into a totally different person when you get married. So it is really important to have conversations back and forth about what feels right to us about how to handle money.”
You can listen to our full conversation here: “I’m Getting Married, Should I Combine Finances With My Fiancé?” and grab Erin’s latest book, Broke Millennial Talks Money: Scripts, Stories and Advice to Navigate Awkward Financial Conversations.
Whenever this age old question resurfaces on Twitter, the replies are rarely as diplomatic.
While trust is foundational to both a marriage and sharing a bank account, the idea that a singular framework of banking logistics are a proxy for the quality of your marriage is the kind of moralistic framing around money management that can make conversations around how to manage money with your spouse so difficult, uncomfortable and shame-ridden to begin with.
If the way you pay your bills is going to be judged as a reflection of your commitment to your partner, it’s no wonder conversations around how to share financial obligations can feel so fraught.
If you disagree with your partner about how much to spend on something, does it mean your relationship is destined to fail? If you earn less than your partner, does it mean you’re not “contributing” as much to the relationship? If you have different investment outlooks, what does it say about your future?
Not only do I find that these moralistic takes on financial logistics can do more harm than good, they also fail to recognize that the trust that underpins sharing money with a spouse is the same trust that spouses who have separate accounts to spend, save and invest, place in each other.
While financial differences in a relationship are important to discuss and come to a shared understanding around, they are not necessarily a measure of the quality of that relationship or the people in it. In part, because having separate bank accounts is not the same has having separate finances. And having separate money in a marriage is not the same as having secret money in a marriage.
My husband and I have a combination of joint and individual checking and savings accounts in addition to our respective investment accounts, or as Erin puts in the episode, we use the “yours, mine and ours” approach to managing our money.
Not only do our respective deposits and withdrawals from our individual accounts rest upon the same trust as those to our joint accounts, but our financial independence also makes our marriage a commitment that we continue to choose as opposed to feel trapped in out of economic necessity.
In other words, it’s our choice, as opposed to our money, that tethers us to our marriage.
This is one of the biggest problems with pointing to data that show married couples who pool their funds are less likely to divorce. Not only is it hard to parse out cause and effect, and isolate shared bank accounts as the experimental variable, but it also overlooks the ways combining all finances can leave partners, often women, feeling like they cannot leave a relationship because they don’t have the financial resources to do so.
A 2020 study of 2,000 married and cohabitating women found that two-thirds of respondents whose partners were the primary financial providers in the relationship felt “trapped”, and 64% said they felt pressured into having a joint bank account. A 2017 survey found that nearly 70% of millennial women have experienced financial abuse by a romantic partner.
According to research from the Centers for Financial Security, 99% of domestic violence cases involve financial abuse, and it is often a first sign of violence and other forms of domestic abuse. Financial abuse, like other forms of abuse is about power and control – in the case of finances, controlling a victim’s ability to acquire, use and access their own financial resources. It’s one of the most powerful ways of keeping partners trapped in an abusive relationship and one of the top reasons victims return to an abusive partner.
While in this particular Twitter thread, both men and women expressed support for a combination of joint and separate bank accounts, those pointing to separate accounts as a sign of marital mistrust were overwhelmingly men. While women were more likely to call out the value of a shared approach.
Given the long history of marriage as an institution where men were the primary decision makers and holders of economic power, while women exercising their financial independence were villainized, this gendered split may not be too surprising. Though I think we sometimes fail to recognize how much these ideas still exist and shape our respective financial expectations, and how deviating from that patriarchal model can still trigger backlash, see…
Which brings me full circle: while there’s no one right way to manage your money in a marriage, there is a way that’s going to be right for you and your partner. So if you’re looking for some strategies on how to figure out what that looks like in your own relationship, check out my full conversation with personal finance author, Erin Lowry, on this episode of Money Confidential: “I’m Getting Married, Should I Combine Finances With My Fiance?”