Marriage finance: Having joint plus separate accounts.

How couples manage their money.
Feb. 2 2011 3:46 AM

Separate/Together

Do couples who share some but not all of their money have a lot of hassle or the perfect compromise?

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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.

Before I started interviewing couples for my series on how long-term couples manage their finances, I assumed that my husband, Mike, and I would end up with a combination of joint and personal accounts—the Sometime Sharer method of financial organization. Then my interviews with Common Potters (couples who combine everything) made me see benefits I hadn't expected. And yet we both still cleave to the idea of keeping a share of financial privacy. I thought becoming Sometime Sharers would let us snuggle under a warm blanket of unity while breathing our own air. The best of both worlds, in my fond hopes. I found some research to back up my instincts. In a qualitative study of Swedish married couples, sociologists found that the way money was defined changed the way that money was used. "For women in particular," the researchers discovered, "having money defined as 'mine' versus 'ours' was an important source of economic independence."

Sometime Sharers.

Yet as I talked to married and cohabitating couples about their Sometime Sharer systems of joint and separate accounts, it all sounded pretty stressful. When a couple first decides to merge just a portion of their finances, they have to decide how to fund the joint account. How much money to put in? Do you contribute a percentage based on your comparative salaries, or do you each put in half of the pot? After that's figured out, then you have to discuss what constitutes a shared expense. For example, would the stylish new winter coat Mike just bought come out of our joint account? Or is he on his own, because his old winter coat is still perfectly serviceable? And what about the bodega coffee I buy every day on my way to work, in addition to the coffee we make at home? Does the shared fund bankroll it, or is my caffeine addiction my problem?

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Answering these questions, I learned, takes a lot of initial wrangling. The combination of frank talk and hassle seems worth it for a good chunk of our peers, since the typical Sometime Sharer method couple is just like Mike and me. They have been together a good while (an average of eight years, compared with 11 years for Common Potters), but they don't have kids (24 percent compared with 46 percent). They're like Brendan and J.P., a gay couple living together in Los Angeles, who started dating in 2002 and are both 31. Both working lawyers, Brendan and J.P. didn't want to combine all their money. J.P. worries that a Common Pot would lead him to be controlling. ("I tend to be more dominant," he explains.) The couple hoped that going Sometime Sharer would allow them to keep closer track of their spending and stop them from fighting constantly about who was paying for what, as they'd been doing while keeping their money separate.

For advice on how to merge, J.P. and Brendan turned to the teachings of perky personal finance guru Suze Orman, who instructs all couples to put in "equal shares, not equal amounts." J.P. was working at a "mega law firm" and making much more than Brendan at the time, so he put much more into the joint account—about 66 percent to Brendan's 33 percent.

J.P. insisted that they go in 50/50 on the mortgage on their two-bedroom craftsman, which would give each of them an equal say about the house. "I did not want to 'own' more of the house than he did and have it be a power issue," J.P. explains. This choice is unusual; most of the Sometime Sharer couples I talked to pay for all joint expenses proportionally based on salary. In 2009, J.P. and Brendan took new law jobs. Both J.P.'s and Brendan's salaries decreased. So they refigured the percentages they were putting into the kitty. Now J.P. puts in about 60 percent to Brendan's 40 percent. And yet in spite of all the tinkering, they're still fighting over money. Recently, J.P. went to the ATM to get money to pay the couple's cleaning lady, an expense they had budgeted for—and overdrew the joint account, because they'd underestimated how much they needed to put in. In the end, they racked up almost a dozen bank charges before realizing they had a negative balance. J.P. blamed Brendan for using the account to pay for things like movie tickets and freaked out. This led to an overhaul of the budget and a new rule: Each must check with the other before withdrawing a large sum, say, $200 from the joint account. They also padded that account so they'd be less likely to overdraw it. Both men say that the restructuring helped but concede that their Sometime Sharer method is still a work in progress.

Though they say they are happy with their Sometime Sharer method, my own diagnosis is that J.P. and Brendan—like Mike and me—don't enjoy the mechanics much. J.P. says that Brendan gets "grumpy" whenever finances are discussed—he even got a little grumpy on the phone with me about some of J.P.'s comments about their shared account. "I hate talking about money," Brendan says, bluntly. And yet the Sometime Sharer method requires them to discuss expenses often. This is the central conundrum of this method: It seems slick and modern, but it mires you in minutia most couples would be better off glossing over.

For Brendan and J.P., who are well-compensated, childless lawyers, keeping such close tabs is not essential. But for couples with the same issue of different spending metabolisms but less of a budget margin, the Sometime Sharer method seemed a godsend: The more profligate spender could be kept in check. Most of his earnings would be communal, yet he would still have the release valve of his own cash. Take Deb and her husband, Brett, the married marketing specialist and forklift operator I mentioned earlier who have a daughter and another child on the way. When the pair first got together, they kept all the money separate and split every expense 50/50, but over time, that proved too great a hassle. Also, Brett had a difficult time budgeting on his own and tended to buy impulsively. So the couple created a system in which they hold most of their money jointly, but each gets an allowance. This way, Brett can spend some money on baseball games with his buddies, or lunch out during the week, and the couple can still keep a very close eye on their finances for the long haul. "We only have so much," Deb explains, "So we have to make our lives fit within that budget, not the other way around."

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