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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Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Whenever my husband, Mike, and I talk about merging all our money, I flash to the purchases I don't want him to know about. For instance: I don't want him to know I blew $400 on a Rachel Comey blouse to wear to his birthday party. I imagine what he would say if he saw the receipt. "Is it made of gold?" or "I like you just as much in a T-shirt." I can justify the expense to myself. I can afford occasional fripperies; it's important to me to feel attractive at big events. But that's me, not him. As for his habits, do I really want to know how much he spends on DVDs, when most of them are sitting in the corner of our living room, still in their plastic wrapping? The question recalls for me Elizabeth Weil's quip in the New York Times Magazine  about her foodie husband's predilection for purchasing haute staples like Blue Bottle coffee at $18 a pound: "We spent far more money on food than we did on our mortgage."

In our quest for a system of financial management, my fear that Mike and I will judge each other is one of my hang-ups about the Common Pot method, my name for putting all our money in joint accounts. Another worry is that I'd lose some fundamental, hard-won autonomy.

Common Potters.

Later this week, I'll explore what I call the Sometime Sharer method for couple finance, a combination of joint and individual accounts; and the Independent Operator system, which entails strict financial separation. Today, I'm focusing on the Common Pot, and what I have to report comes largely as a happy surprise for me. The Common Potters I spoke to, drawn from the survey I posted on Slate last fall, were largely accepting of each others' spending habits. And rather than feeling confined by old-fashioned mores, many couples said that sharing all their resources is a tangible demonstration of their bond to each other. At the same time, my reporting didn't assuage all my concerns that this method stifles individual freedom—particularly for women.

I'll start with Tamara, 28, a lawyer, and her husband Peter, 27, a paralegal. (I've changed their names at their request.) Tamara and Peter met as trumpet players in their high-school marching band, which means they've been together since before they had driver's licenses. They started pooling their money when they moved in together during college. They continue to pool all their earnings and savings, and though at the moment Tamara makes nearly four times what Peter does, she does not begrudge any of his spending. "I can't see myself getting mad at him for splurging on a little something," she says. This is Peter's last month at his job: He just quit so he can figure out his true calling, and Tamara says her attitude toward his spending will not change even when he's not bringing in a salary. "All money is our money," she explains. When she was in law school, Peter supported her—now it's his turn.

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And yet, some of Tamara's friends from law school are not so comfortable with her financial arrangement. They tell Tamara she's a "fool" for becoming the sole breadwinner and make comments like, "I couldn't be with anybody who didn't work as hard as I do." The peanut gallery didn't say a word when Peter was working and Tamara was in school. So why does the couple's Common Pot bother them now?

Perhaps Tamara's friends got messages like the one I got from my grandmother—women should have their own money—and, like me, they hadn't thought through the way advice like this actually applies to their modern lives. My grandmother had a Common Pot by default, not by choice, because she never earned her own money. If she and my grandfather had divorced, she would have been in major financial trouble. She was living the norm for the time: Only 32 percent of wives in 1960 were in the labor force (PDF). Even though circumstances are different now, many women have internalized the message. Like Jill, 29, who wrote to tell me that her mother was left with nothing when her parents split and drilled into her, "Keep some money separate so if the 'spit' hits the fan you'll have a little something to fall back on."

Does this advice still make sense, now that 61 percent of wives work, and divorce law in most states provides for equal or equitable distribution of assets? For me, the answer is, not really. Talking to Common Potters like Tamara and Peter made me see something I'd missed before: There is a difference between earning your money and keeping your money, and the former is what is actually important to me. In my marriage, I feel like I'd have decision-making power over any shared pot, which my grandmother did not. And if something happened to Mike, or to our relationship, I would not feel helpless or screwed over. I would be able to support myself, as I always have.

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