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?

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Though Tamara is the main breadwinner, it is Peter who does more of the work of managing the couple's Common Pot. Once a month, Peter uses a simple spreadsheet to run the numbers for the couple's regular expenses. He divides the money that he and Tamara earn monthly into 13 categories, using a column for each category: rent, electricity, landline/Internet, cell phones, transportation/fuel, entertainment, emergency fund, student loans, credit card, savings, IRAs, Peter's spending money, and Tamara's spending money (click here to see the couple's spreadsheet). The credit card is used for miscellaneous expenses such as groceries and clothing. After checking with Tamara, Peter pays the bills from the couple's checking account. They discuss and decide together on student-debt repayment and investment strategies.

Thirty-five years ago, women mostly managed the domestic budget, even though (or perhaps because) they then earned much less of it. In a 1975 Roper Organization poll, 58 percent of married women said they paid all or most of the monthly bills, compared with 47 percent of men. Several women I spoke to remembered their mothers sitting at the dining room table balancing the family's checkbook, sometimes with thick-framed glasses perched on their noses.

Now that earning is more equal between men and women, money management seems to be more evenly divided, too. In the responses to my survey, almost 50 percent of married women with a Common Pot said they mostly manage the money in their household, eight percentage points lower than the older Roper survey. Nearly 50 percent of married men with a Common Pot say they're the ones who are up late paying the bills. Almost 30 percent of married men and women said they managed the money together with their spouses.

The couples I talked to in which one person mostly managed the money said that he or she had better math skills or was more meticulous. In Tamara and Peter's case, Peter does the brunt of management because he has more free time. Sociologists call this "voluntary specialization." They key word here is voluntary: Both halves of the couple should be comfortable with one person taking the lead, or else it leads to strife.

Occasionally voluntary specialization can lead to couples relying on some old-fashioned gender stereotypes. Sometimes when wives were the ones managing, my interviews with couples had Judd Apatow moments. As 27-year-old Ryan says about his wife, Anna (names changed for privacy), "The way that we present ourselves to friends and families, we're both adults, but she's the more responsible one, and I'm the sillier one."

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The Common Pot works well for Tamara and Peter because they have the same attitude toward each other's spending. They even go shopping together for clothes, and Tamara can't understand why anyone would freak out over, say, a $400 Rachel Comey blouse. Though I was initially skeptical of the touchy-feely couples shouting "ours" from the rooftops, I was ultimately rather moved by Tamara's invocation of the word. Tamara and Peter's attitude toward money seemed healthy, and their bond solid and sweet. The Common Pot hasn't smothered their individuality—it has allowed Peter and Tamara to pursue their personal intellectual dreams. I do trust my husband not to spend money we don't have, and he trusts me, too. I can feel my resolve against merging my money with Mike's beginning to soften.

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