What are the arguments for couples to have joint vs. separate accounts?
December 6, 2006 5:29 PM   Subscribe

For a married (or otherwise similarly connected) couple, what are the benefits and drawbacks of keeping separate bank/savings/investment/loan accounts vs. having those accounts kept jointly? Do these benefits/drawbacks change if the couple has comparable incomes vs. disparate incomes?

My wife and I keep separate bank accounts, but have a joint savings account and contribute jointly to our mortgage. Our friends think we're crazy, but our system works well for us and we have not had any disputes or arguments about money. Of course, we have similar incomes; I suspect the situation is different for couples with one partner who earns significantly more.

Problem is, nobody has really been able to spell out for me the reasons for having joint accounts versus having separate accounts. I'm interested to hear both the logical arguments and any relevant anecdotes from people on either "side" of the debate.
posted by gwenzel to Work & Money (34 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite


Both of these askmes should be helpful.
posted by Amizu at 5:35 PM on December 6, 2006

My wife and I keep separate accounts, too. We've been together for, er (does some quick math), nearly eighteen years, and separate accounts have served us well.

Initially, we had separate accounts because I was a spendthrift. And we each wanted autonomy. We wanted to be able to spend our own money without accountability. My wife wanted to be able to buy shoes and plants and kitchen gadgets without me complaining. I wanted to buy comic books and computers.

Whenever we move to a new place, we divvy up the bills. Right now, my wife pays for the "practical" things (sewer, electicity, etc.). I pay for the "fun" things (cable, phone, etc.). We each contribute equally to the mortgage. I carry a home equity loan that is all my own because it represents my former credit card debt.

Only when we bought our new home did we establish a joint account. We have a pooled emergency fund, which we've had to draw upon a couple of times. (Stupid old house.)

This system works for us. We like it. Whereas many couples fight about money, we do not. I've heard some nasty rows between my friends with joint accounts, though.

My impression has always been that joint accounts work best for couple where there's an income disparity. Actually, I think separate accounts probably work best for couples who have roughly similar incomes, and where there's no agreement on spending patterns. (In other words, where one of the partners spends more than the other.)
posted by jdroth at 6:01 PM on December 6, 2006

...but our system works well for us and we have not had any disputes or arguments about money

I don't think there is any argument. What you are doing works - so do it. We have one account. Some would say if you are married you should be sharing everything, bank account included. I don't think it matters. You guys could be cashing your paychecks for a huge stack of $1s and splitting them between you and it would not matter. If it's working don't rock the boat.
posted by COD at 6:01 PM on December 6, 2006

Statistics show (no cite) that the number 1 thing couples fight about is money. My girlfriend and I have addressed this problem by keeping separate finances. She has her account, I have mine. This cuts down on a ton of minor bickering ("You know you can't afford that CD." "Sheesh, you bought new shoes again?!")

How to deal with shared expenses is up to you. One option is to have a joint account for paying bills, and the two of you can agree on how much each of you need to put into it on a monthly basis. If you're making sufficient money, you can even put in extra, and occasionally tap the account for shared events like vacations.

Good luck!
posted by browse at 6:02 PM on December 6, 2006

My wife and I (5 years) have separate accounts, mostly because we're too lazy to open a joint one. This works out really well for us - we split the bills relative to our income (I get rent/phone/cable/etc, she gets gas/elec/groceries) and take turns paying for restaurants and miscellaneous shopping trips. Whenever we eventually buy a house, we'll probably open a joint account to deal with the unexpected.

One advantage of the "separate but equal" method is that one person doesn't get stuck paying all the bills every month.
posted by sluggo at 6:16 PM on December 6, 2006

My parents have joint accounts - they have to, generally only one of them works, while the other is the stay-at-home layabout. When both my parents were working, they kept a joint account, because they already had joint accounts.

Like I mentioned in a previous thread, my parents keep a mutually agreed-upon budget with hobby money included. Gifts for each other come out of the hobby money. There's a general savings account, which requires agreement to spend. They rarely argue about money any more, because this is the way it's been done for more than 25 years.
posted by muddgirl at 6:18 PM on December 6, 2006

Mrs. Flabdablet and I each have our own bank account. I pay most of the mortgage and utility bills, she pays most of the grocery bill. Other than that, I save for stuff I want, she saves for stuff she wants, and we both contribute to saving for stuff we both want or Young Master Flabdablet wants. We have accounts at the same credit union, so if either of us runs short it costs us nothing to transfer money in either direction. You're not crazy. IMO it's joint accounts that are crazy, but clearly many people disagree.
posted by flabdablet at 6:25 PM on December 6, 2006

We have separate accounts, it works well. We both contribute to our IRAs separately. I pay the rent and land payment, she pays the utilities and buys the groceries. I think I pay for both our health insurance, but not sure.

I think it saves a lot of hassle. I think some people feel like they're not married unless they share everything (which is kind of the sense I get from some people who look astonished when separate accounts come up), we're not one of those couples.
posted by maxwelton at 6:27 PM on December 6, 2006

You've gotten some good answers here and I am sure will get more, but I have to wonder - if the impetus for this question is that your friends think you're crazy, why are you asking us and not them?

I think people who disparage separate accounts are maybe assuming incorrectly exactly how people keep them, or are meddling inappropriately in the details of how others manage their money. They may assume that there's no shared pool of cash, or there's some obsessive split-down-the-middle system going on when in fact that may be far from the case (like the way jdroth describes his fairly easygoing system above).

Every couple I know that has a cordial relationship where money is concerned does SOMETHING to maintain separate 'slush' accounts, even if they mingle all their money. That's a sample set exclusively of under-50s folk so maybe that has something to do with it, but from what I have seen it makes a big difference in people's lives if they don't have to deal with their partner's perspective on $3 vs $9 shampoo (or whatever your particular favored luxury is).
posted by phearlez at 6:28 PM on December 6, 2006

We have a joint account. It works for us because right now I make most of the money (though in a few months it will reverse and he'll make all the money). We generally have similar spending habits though, so I can't remember ever having arguments about money during our (admitedly short, 2.5-year) cohabitation.

I grew up with my parents only having a joint account, and it seemed to work well for them - occasional squabbles, but not any more than they bickered about work or the in-laws or those no-goodnick kids or all of those other things couples have to worry about.

Knowing that once we're both done with school his income will be around three times mine, I would not be comfortable only having 1/3 the money he does. I also would feel belittled receiving any sort of allowance toward my own account. But helping myself to "shared" money doesn't seem odd. I know the end result is pretty much the same, but it offends my feminist sensibilities less.
posted by twoporedomain at 6:35 PM on December 6, 2006

The only separation of monies between me and my wife is the cash each of us has in our wallets (usually minimal or none).

It's worked okay so far; we'll see if it lasts. (22 years so far...)
posted by Doohickie at 6:35 PM on December 6, 2006

if the impetus for this question is that your friends think you're crazy, why are you asking us and not them?

I should clarify: Our friends' opinions wasn't the reason for the question, it's just to point out that there are vastly differing opinions on the subject. My wife and I have our system, which works for us, and friends have very different systems. My focus is to look at what the benefits might be to both sides of the coin, so to speak.

Most of the responses thus far have been from like-minded (i.e. separate accounts) people. I'm honestly interested to hear from the people with joint accounts, and why their system works for them.
posted by gwenzel at 6:39 PM on December 6, 2006

We have a similar system to jdroth. We have our own seperate curent accounts, plus a joint current account which is used to pay the mortgage, and joint savings accounts. We previously agreed on how much each person would pay towards mortgage, which is weighted by relative salary. Each month we transfer that amount into the joint account, and then the mortgage is paid from it. We also split the bills to reflect the same sort of equation, so I pay for groceries, electricity, gas, water and phone, he pays for the TV, meals out etc. As others have said, seperate accounts means no arguing about money. Our salaries are pretty disparate, but I'm not sure that makes any difference.
posted by Joh at 6:57 PM on December 6, 2006

Joint accounts here. I'm the main breadwinner and she's the CFO of the our "company". We usually treat it like a business, including (attempting to) enforce budgets, etc. Decisions are made based on mutual priorities, but I earn enough that things like shoes or toys are never issues to squabble over. Whatever I wanna buy I just charge to a card that only I carry, and she pays it off every month when she gets the bill. I spend much more than her, but most of my larger purchases (power tools, shop equipment, computer equiment, etc) benefit the whole family.

We also have a loose "$100 rule". We agree to discuss purchases over $100 with each other. Neither has ever veto'd a purchase, but there have been occasions where the desired item was re-prioritized.
posted by Bradley at 7:05 PM on December 6, 2006

We have joint accounts. I work outside the home, he doesn't. I have a SSN, he doesn't. He does have a separate account in the mother country, but he barely uses it. Having separate accounts would be infeasible.

I pay all the bills and handle the paperwork. He hates paperwork. It works out well. I'm the spender in the relationship, he is the saver. Since he doesn't go over the paperwork, I don't get hassled on spending. I do, however, give him an oral report on the state of our accounts at least monthly. I've reformed some of my spender tendencies since I became the sole keeper of the household income (which keeps us lawfully in the country). Doing verbal reporting keeps me honest.

I think that part of the reason this works out well is because he came into the relationship with assets that we are using, so he definitely feels like he is contributing (and spending his own money).
posted by crazycanuck at 7:07 PM on December 6, 2006

Even with separate accounts (which mrs. beagle and I do) it may be good to have each of them be joint accounts. On my account, the holders are listed as Mr. Beagle and Mrs. Beagle. On her account, it's Mrs. Beagle and Mr. Beagle. I am told, but IANAL, that this is advantageous in the event of one partner's death or disability, at least in terms of simply getting at the money, though there may be an estate taxes benefit someone can explain.
posted by beagle at 7:11 PM on December 6, 2006

Others have said it, I'll repeat: Since you've got a system that works, keep doing it.

We've got joint accounts, mostly, but we have a couple of random accounts that we just never bothered to put my wife on. They're backup funding sources and retirement accounts (she's named as the beneficiary).
posted by Alt F4 at 7:36 PM on December 6, 2006

Why choose between joint and separate? Having both works great for us.

Mrs. Enrevanche and I have a joint checking account and a joint investment account; we also maintain individual checking and savings. We follow a strict household budget and investment plan, each contributing a monthly amount into the common kitty for agreed expenses (rent, food, utilities, phones, etc.) and for joint investment, and then we each do what we damn well please with the rest.

Works for us.

Do what works for you. My point of view is that anyone who presumes to tell us how we should be managing our money is gonna get told to go fuck themselves right quick.
posted by enrevanche at 7:43 PM on December 6, 2006

Separate and joint accounts here.

My wife and I had separate account before we married because we were separate people. We still are. It didn't get in the way then, and it doesn't now.

Since we have enough money and neither of us is stingy or possessed of poor financial judgment, it reinforces our belief that we belong with each other, not to each other.

Late first wife and I had joint accounts and too much togetherness in some ways. Looking back, I found things more restrictive and it felt very confining, but that's me and that's "back then".

Whatever works, works. Don't worry about what's "normal". Set fashion in your own life, don't follow it.

That said, as a joint economic unit from a social and legal perspective, it's wise to have a lot of well-justified trust in your partner, in either business or marriage.
posted by FauxScot at 7:51 PM on December 6, 2006

We're trying joint accounts, though we both still have separate credit card debt that we're working on paying off together.

My father has really strong feelings about couples having joint finances. He likes to make this analogy: many families today can afford to have a TV in every room of the house. When they have this, each person in the family can go to their own room in the evening and watch whatever show he or she wants to watch. That's all fine, except that nobody ends up spending any time together, or having those small (but meaningful) conversations about what show to watch, what they thought of the show, or any shared experience from something as everyday as watching TV. Finances are kind of the same way. Yep, it can be easy and convenient for each person in a couple to do their own thing. But it's more meaningful to the relationship if you share and have the conversations that help you work it out.

I think it's an interesting theory. I can't say it's exactly why we decided to join everything, but we're working it out. And for a couple dealing with private & educational debt, I think it's helpful that we keep each other accountable for our spending habits.
posted by pril at 8:41 PM on December 6, 2006

I am not married but I would opine that ideally, it is wise to have both a joint account and individual accounts. The joint account can be used for things that are shared, ie: mortgage payments, bills, going out to eat, etc. The individual account could be used for personal items and maybe to each the other spouse gifts for xmas or birthdays without the other spouse knowing about it.

In addition, there are situations when one spouse's money should not be co-mingled with the other spouse. For example, let's say that one spouse received an inheritance from a relative. If the inheritance money was kept separate and there was never any co-mingling of the funds, then in the event of a divorce, in some states, the inheritance money cannot be touched.
posted by pikaboy202 at 8:45 PM on December 6, 2006

My husband and I have joint accounts. The reason it works for us is (I think) because we have similar attitudes towards spending and budgeting. We have a general budget, and every pay day we go through and also budget in extra expenses like birthdays, train tickets to see parents, etc. After all of our bills are paid and our savings taken care of, we divide up the rest to spend on ourselves (but apart from maybe a cd or book every few weeks, we use most of our discretionary income on eating out and beer).

neither of us are "things" people, which is probably why the joint account works for us. Also, working out who pays what just seems like too much work.
posted by gaspode at 8:54 PM on December 6, 2006

seperate and joint here, too. the joint account is used for household expenses (and the occasional joint). it's been very successful for the 4 years we've been together. ms puppet does make considerably more money then mr puppet.

ironically, though, ms. puppet hates dealing with finances ... and so i end up handling most aspects of her private account, as well as the joint account.

as a side note: our money arguments are few and far between. the $100 dollar rule is a very good idea--and we follow it in principle. and with previous experience with an earlier ms puppet showed me that the less money the household has, the more they argue about it.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 9:02 PM on December 6, 2006

She has her account, I have mine. We have a separate joint account where all the wedding money went into, but for tax purposes (RRSPs) it got split up again anyways. We split the bills and split expenses, but besides that who wants to start piddling over dollars and cents. However, we're both good with spending and saving, and make about the same, which makes this a lot easier. If one of you two is a weak point, putting your accounts together could either make things better, or make them worse.

Holy crap, I just wrote all of that without reading your "more inside"...well, if it ain't broke then don't fix it. As you get older you'll realize that your friends aren't always the wisest decision makers.
posted by furtive at 9:24 PM on December 6, 2006

I've been married for 10 whole days now, and we're still trying to work this out ourselves. Here are some things to consider. Some of these may not apply in your area or could be completely wrong. I am not a lawyer or an accountant.

For the everyday uses for your accounts, keep on doing whatever works for you. It's usually the things you don't want to plan for because you hope they won't happen where it could be better or worse.

In some places, when you die all your bank accounts are supposed to be frozen until they are cleared in probate. This means all your accounts, even joint accounts you may have with your children can be frozen. In reality I'm not sure that this happens very often or if there is an official mechinism in place to do this automatically. I've seen cases where a spouse died and the other had to borrow money for the funeral expenses because their joint account was frozen. You may want to check with a lawyer or estate planner to see if this is the case in your area.

If one spouse A becomes incapacitated and does not die, then Spouse B may not have access to Spouse A's money when it is needed (medical care, emergency flights, medicine) if they do not have a joint account.

A lot of marriages end in divorce. People get angry during (and usually before) divorces. You do not want to have someone who is really angry at you with full access to your cash stash.

For loans, will it benefit the credit histories for both of you to be on the loan together. You already have a mortgage together, so it probably doesn't matter at this point.

I think your current situation of the seperate + joint account is a good one. You may want to check with a lawyer about will/living will/power of attorney options and how you can best cover all your bases if the unthinkable happens.
posted by Yorrick at 10:34 PM on December 6, 2006

My husband and I keep separate accounts, because we'd drive each other crazy if we put it all in one pot.

He has an innate ability to save about 20 percent of his take home pay every year, no matter how much his salary goes up and down, and he doesn't have to think about it. It just happens. If he starts to think about it too much, he gets stressed and grumpy.

I have the intense need to track every penny I make and every penny I spend, to categorize it, to look for patterns, to set goals, to check my balances and recalibrate my adherence to goals on a daily or hourly basis. If I don't keep a close eye on my money, I get stressed and grumpy.

There's just no way to reconcile our two ways of dealing with money without one of us being miserable. We keep our money separate, but not secret. I can look over his statements and feel reassured that even without a budget everything is in line. He can look over my statements and see that despite my rabid calculating, I'm still spending and saving at fairly reasonable rates.

We pay mutual bills on an income-proportionate basis, and whoever's making more money is the one responsible for a slightly bigger proportion of our larger joint purchases (like furniture).

We set the big picture goals together, and each handle the details in our separate ways.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:45 PM on December 6, 2006

We have a joint account for household stuff (including bills, mortgages, holidays, presents for family, etc.) into which our salaries are paid, and then we each have individual current and savings accounts, which are entirely up to each of us how we manage.

I too have heard of far too many friends and colleagues complaining about the spending habits of their other half; we never argue about it - I just grumble occasionally as the missus is better at hoarding her money, whereas mine seems to evaporate... :)
posted by Chunder at 3:35 AM on December 7, 2006

My partner and I are entirely joint on everything. Even assets I brought into the relationship were converted to joint ownership. Mind, we're gay, and don't have the automatic advantages that straight married couples have.

He earns the vast majority of the money. I'm the one who gets to read Metafilter all day and make all the difficult decisions. Either of us gets to veto any expenditure of whatever amount we accept as 'significant'. He's the saver, so I encourage that. We're a bit odd, no doubt about it.

We've had almost no problems arguing over money. Except for the first couple years (It's been 9 years) we've not had any lack of money we found difficult. (The first year I made money, he was in school. Then we moved to Germany where I wasn't allowed to work) We can afford the things we want, in part because we adjust our desires rather well. Our biggest problem is Christmas: There is almost nothing we have any desire for, we tend to just buy what we want, when we want it. We even save money.
posted by Goofyy at 5:54 AM on December 7, 2006

i have used both approaches in multiple long-term relationships and have evolved what i feel is the best compromise (assuming each partner has regular sufficient income).

my wife and i have a joint account into which we deposit equal amounts - roughly half of our monthly expenses. we *also* have our own accounts and thus can spend our extra money however we like.

the result: no conflicts over finances whatsoever.
posted by jjsonp at 6:46 AM on December 7, 2006

My husband and I have separate checking accounts for our day-to-day expenses (including bills and household costs), and a joint savings account for saving towards larger purchases (like the $100 rule Bradley mentioned).

The reason this works for us is that by keeping separate accounts, we both can depend on how much is in the account, where if there was a joint account, we would worry about accidental overdraws. He pays rent and utilities from his, I pay loans and insurance from mine, we both pay our own credit card bills, and if one of us need more money to cover something, then that person takes it from the joint savings and the other transfers some into the savings to make up the difference.

The reasons for the joint account are twofold:
1. It's an easy way to transfer money to one another
2. It's a way to increase the amount immediately available to either one of us, which could be helpful in an emergency situation.

This second reason might be why your friends "think you're crazy" - because you don't have full immediate access to each other's accounts.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 7:30 AM on December 7, 2006

Joint accounts here. Current, credit card, mortgage, all in both our names. No profound insights, we just both have about equal attitudes to spending or saving and fewer accounts is simply less effort to track and manage. It does mean that we both have to be completely comfortable about one knowing exactly what the other has bought, no secrets. We like it, others might not. I don't think the mechanics matter all that much. What does matter is being able to honestly communicate about money.
posted by normy at 7:45 AM on December 7, 2006

We have joint accounts. We got married in college when my husband had nothing but a tiny savings account, and I just added him to my accounts. I do everything with money, because it stresses him too much. He's bipolar, so that's part of it - I don't want him spending all our savings in a manic phase. It's worked for 12 years with no problems.
posted by buildmyworld at 7:51 AM on December 7, 2006

Separate accounts, he gives me a certain portion of his paycheck and then I pay most all of the bills (he pays health insurance, gym membership, his life insurance, plus he buys at least half the groceries and random things).

Advantage is that he's bad with money, I'm anal, so I like to know where every penny is going (even though I also like to spend it!).

Disadvantages: none! We have a joint money market account that we don't use, so that's not a problem, but otherwise there really is just no reason for us to have a joint account because then I couldn't keep track of every penny for my elaborate monthly reports I do.
posted by forensicphd at 10:04 AM on December 7, 2006

I probably don't need to remind you that, in general, our culture is still only a generation or two away from the assumption that couples will "naturally" have only one account because the man makes money and the woman doesn't.

Even as that idea grows cobwebs, it's still informing conventional wisdom, and it will keep doing so for a long time. Even progressive people may have the instinct to label something perfectly logical as "crazy" just because they've been conditioned to think the traditional way is somehow more natural.
posted by allterrainbrain at 4:53 PM on December 10, 2006

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