This series is now available as an eBook for your Kindle. Download it today.
Two days after Christmas, my husband, Mike, and I were stuck at the airport in Los Angeles. Thumbing through a women's magazine, I found a quiz that was meant for engaged couples: It included all the things you're supposed to have figured out by the time you get married. At least three of the questions were about finances—budgeting and savings strategies. Mike and I had discussed precisely none of this before we got married. We flunked.
Oh, well. One of the main lessons I've learned from reporting on how couples deal with money is that this aspect of their relationship often evolves along with everything else. The progression often goes something like this: When they start living together, couples keep all their accounts separate, as Mike and I have. As the years pass and concrete commitments arrive—marriages, mortgages, babies—partners merge more and more of their resources. The data from my survey show this trajectory: About 60 percent of couples who had been together for less than a year identified as Independent Operators—they kept their money completely separate. For every subsequent year of togetherness, that rate dropped by 4 percent, until the eight-year mark. At that point and onward, no more than one in five couples stuck with strict financial separation, and after couples had been together for two decades, the rate dropped to nearly one in 10. By the time couples near retirement, almost no one remained in neatly separate mode. That makes sense: Are you really going to make your 75-year-old life partner pay you back for the money you sink into his angioplasty?
Mike and I have spent four years in stage one, as Independent Operators—and we're ready to move on. It's time to practice for making nursery school payments by merging some money now. In spite of my discoveries about the benefits of the Common Pot method, though, we are still wary of mergingeverything we each have. At the outset of this project, I didn't want to do that because of my grandmother's proto-feminist counsel; she always told me to hang on to my own money because money is power. But I realize now that for me, this decision isn't about that. Instead, both Mike and I are concerned about holding on to a different kind of autonomy. Here's one of the first quotes I read from a Common Potter who answered my survey: "My wife and I are one. There is unity in our marriage and this can only be the case when that unity is emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual, and financial." To me, this sounds like a cult of marriage that subsumes the self. Mike and I would like to remain separate people, thanks very much.
Initially, we were put off by the Sometime Sharer method of having some joint and some separate accounts, because deciding which expenses to put in each basket seemed like a headache. But we've decided that it's worth the fuss. As much as neither of us loves discussing money, Autonomy With Benefits, as I've come to think of it, outweighs the potential strain and annoyance.
In this, we're more typical than I thought at the outset of my research. For decades, marriage rates have declined while cohabitating rates have risen; there are now 16 times more couples living together than there were in 1960. Yet moneywise, things have not changed much. The bottom line is that most couples who stay together for the medium to long term pool at least some money, just as they have for 40 years. I'm missing one nuance: I can't tell whether people are more likely now than they were in previous eras to be Sometime Sharers than Common Potters because I don't have the proper comparison data. But my hunch is yes. The Sometime Sharer method would be much harder to manage without modern banking technology, so it's hard to imagine many couples using it back in the day.
Let's say current trends continue, and even more couples cohabitate. Will the pattern finally change, as they increasingly tend to keep their money separate? Data from Norway and Denmark, countries with much higher rates of cohabitation than the United States, suggest otherwise.
Denmark has a similar rate of marriage compared with the United States, but a much higher rate of cohabitation. Yet a 2007 study of about 1,700 Danish couples found that they were less likely to keep their money entirely separate than American couples: Fewer than 6 percent of Danish couples were Independent Operators compared with more than 20 percent of the couples who took my survey. The authors did not distinguish between married and cohabitating couples, but it probably doesn't much matter, because as the authors of the study note, Danish couples who live together behave a lot like married ones.
Norway provides a greater potential contrast with the United States: The country has a higher rate of cohabitation but a much lower rate of marriage. But here again, a study of cohabitating and married Norwegians from the European Sociological Review showed nearly identical results to my survey: For each year a union has lasted, regardless of whether a couple is married, the odds of pooling income increase about 4 percent.