Marriage finance: Should couples pool all their money?

How couples manage their money.
Feb. 1 2011 8:22 AM

All Ours

Do couples do best when they pool all their money, old-fashioned as it may seem?

(Continued from Page 1)

What about women who don't work—does a Common Pot come with a bigger downside for them? That's a harder question for me to answer. On the one hand, it's no longer really socially acceptable for a husband to tell his wife she has no say over the way they spend money as a couple, the way it was acceptable for my grandfather to be the sole financial decision-maker. On the other hand, some women who don't work are unsettled about their traditional role. For every stay-at-home mom like Holly, 35, who says of her husband, "I'm thrilled he is able to provide for us," there is a stay-at-home mom like Rachel, 38, who wrote to me, "In general I've had negative feelings about my own lack of career and my work outside the home."

Stay-at-home moms aren't the only ones who are ambivalent about having a Common Pot. If you and your mate have divergent spending styles, this method can be a disaster. Take Beth, 40, an attorney, and her husband Alan, 39, who works for a cable company. (I've changed their names, too, for privacy's sake.) Alan keeps track of every penny they both spend with Quicken. Beth most definitely does not. "Every time I go to Target, he'll want to know what was that $100 spent on. Greeting cards? I don't know!" She appreciates that he is so diligent about their money, but she also feels like he doesn't trust her, even though she managed her own finances without going into debt for 10 years before they were married. "He thinks I would go crazy and drive us into the ground if he didn't know where every dollar was going," she says.

Beth says she feels micromanaged. And certainly, there are men out there who still use money as a way to control their wives—I got one heartfelt e-mail from a woman who said she would never share money with a man again because her abusive first husband froze their joint account when she tried to leave him. However, Tamara's friends don't have this worry about Peter: Instead, they think he'll be a mooch. Where does that assumption come from?

A recent survey from Pew (PDF) showed that 40 years after the women's liberation movement, Americans are still uncomfortable with the idea of a woman as the breadwinner. We're onboard with women working: According to the survey, 62 percent of men and women say the ideal marriage is one in which both husband and wife work and take care of the children. But beneath the surface, we're not quite ready for women's contributions to their families to be on equal footing with men's. When Pew asked about whether it was important for a woman to be able to support a family in order to be ready for marriage, only 33 percent said yes. When Pew asked the same question about men, 67 percent said a man should be able to support his wife before he gets hitched. Tamara's friends may reflect the widespread American belief that real men take care of their families.

There's a class wrinkle, here, though: People who make less money than high earners like Tamara's law school chums are more likely to say that it is important for women to be good providers : 44 percent of people who earned less than $30,000 a year believe that women should support their families vs. 28 percent who earned more than $75,000 a year, according to the Pew survey. Perhaps this is because, historically, low-income women have long had to work to support their families, while middle- and upper-middle-class women have been working outside the home in large numbers only for the past few decades. Or perhaps it's because wealthier women are less ready to upend old-fashioned ideas about masculinity. From the point of view of equity, it's discouraging that upper-income women aren't more supportive of arrangements like Tamara and Peter's. A Common Pot like theirs, and the two-way trust it's founded on, allows women to go for glass-ceiling-breaking gigs with a spouse who is in a position to take the lead on child care, when the babies appear.

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For couples with big income disparities, the Common Pot also can pave over the uneasiness that either spouse may feel about their uneven finances. If all the money coming into a relationship goes into a single set of accounts, no one has to constantly revisit what proportion is his or hers, and couples don't have to keep discussing who is paying for what. This can be true whether it's the man or the woman who earns more. A 27-year-old with a doctorate wrote to me about how her Common Pot makes it a nonissue that her husband now earns three times more than she does. "I don't feel like we fight about that disparity at all—the money all feels like 'ours,' " she says.

Because Mike and I were wary of combining any money before we were married, we still think of the money we earn as "yours" and "mine." But from the couples I interviewed, I heard over and over again about the psychological importance of "ours." Most Common Potters I spoke to believe that shared money is an inextricable part of a true union, with easing the awkwardness of income disparity as a side benefit. Brian, a 31-year-old in marketing and communications, offers this quote from Wendell Berry to explain his reasoning for the Common Pot he shares with wife Keri, 30, who is a stay-at-home mom:

There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. … To them, 'mine' is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as 'ours.'

The How-To Part: Managing Common Pot Accounts

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