Money and marriage: Should you keep separate checking accounts?

Marriage is the union of two lives into one–at the same time, maintaining independence and autonomy is an important part of a healthy relationship. How does money and marriage factor in? Wall Street Journal blogger Rachel Louis Ensign tackled this controversial topic last week. Her article features interviews with couples, lawyers and financial advisers who have found that sometimes not sharing everything can be the best situation for the marriage.

I was surprised to read in a follow up post that some commenters had been extremely critical of this idea, even accusing spouses who split up their assets as “definitely NOT a couple” and asking “Why even get married in the first place? Marriage is about trust and compromise, two people as one.”

Comments like these actually reveal why separating money and marriage can be a good thing: money is one of the most sensitive, argument-inducing, and controversial subjects around. In fact, money is one of the top argument triggers in relationships and the frequency of money arguments can actually predict your odds for divorce!

Perhaps one of the reasons that money starts so many arguments is that people have so many different attitudes towards it. Some of us are coupon-clippers; some of us enjoy the finer things in life. Some of us have problems with money such as gambling, debt, and compulsive purchasing. If you and your spouse’s different approaches to money are causing tension, some form of separate checking accounts can be helpful. Ensign gives a good example of a couple who constantly argued over spending. As a solution, they keep separate checking and savings accounts. They pay for joint expenses with a shared account and credit card and both contribute to shared savings. “As long as our bills are getting paid and we’re saving, if she wants to buy another white shirt that looks like all the other white shirts she owns, that’s fine,” says the husband.

money and marriage
Money and marriage can be a difficult combination.

Some of the commenters on Ensign’s original article felt that spouses should share everything as a sign of trust. It’s very true that trust is critical in a relationship. At the same time, having separate checking accounts can be just as much a sign of trust as pooling everything together. In addition, couples should be prepared to think about some sad realities of married life where trust can only go so far: death and divorce.

While PO2 tries to stop as many divorces as possible, separation is a very real and sadly common end for a relationship. No couple goes in to a marriage expecting to get a divorce. During those first few months or years of happiness, there can be no clue that one day you will be dividing up assets. Divorce can be a long, drawn-out process of figuring out what belongs to who. Even worse, you will most likely be making these decisions while you are mad at each other and communication in a relationship is at an all time low. That’s why it’s best to approach money and marriage matters when you are in a calm and loving stage of your relationship. Perhaps there is an inherited property that you would like to remain in your side of the family. Or maybe your partner has started her own business she wants control over. Decide how you would arrange things in the event of a divorce or death. These topics are unpleasant to talk about, and at the same time extremely important–just like having a will written out. Each of these decisions made early on can save you a whole lot of grief later.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what other people think about how you deal with money and marriage. What matters is how it works to keep your relationship healthy and happy. The key is to communicate with your spouse clearly and openly about what matters to you.