The lesson, then, is that in other countries as well as the United States, the longer couples stay together, the more likely they are to pool some money, and this is still true in places where people cohabitate more often than they do here. It is also good news. Research shows that when couples have children together, it can be a bad deal for women to keep their money totally separate from their partner's. What looks like increased independence bears a cost. "Children are seen as a woman's responsibility by many couples," says British sociologist Jan Pahl, the author of a study called "Individualisation in Couple Finances: Who Pays for the Children?" The answer to her question, Pahl finds, is that often women do, particularly when they make less than their partners. Regardless of how many accounts a couple shared, the women surveyed in a national study that Pahl analyzed were the ones forking over money for 85 percent of their children's clothes and 78 percent of their child care and school expenses. The men got to spend much more money on themselves.
For Mike and me, kids are a winking pinpoint on the horizon. When they come along, I suspect we will have a discussion about changing our strategy—and that we'll end up pooling even more than we will now.
The How-To Part: What Mike and I Decided
For the month of January, Mike and I have been keeping track of our individual spending. He's been tallying his expenses on an Excel sheet. I have an account at the personal-finance Web site Mint.com. In early February, we plan to sit down and look at our expenses together. We'll have a reckoning about what constitutes a joint expense and come up with a figure that should cover these expenses. Then we'll each contribute 50 percent of that figure. For now, we will put the remainder of our salaries into our existing individual accounts and keep our savings separate. I'll publish a follow-up next month with all the nitty-gritty.
I've already said to Mike that I think we should err on the side of putting too much money into the account. I'm thinking here of the Sometime Sharer couple I interviewed, J.P. and Brendan, who underestimated their expenses, overdrew their joint account, and fought about it. A recent New York Times article convinced me that budgets are like diets—they're impossible to stick with if they're too restrictive. I know that if Mike and I don't give ourselves a cushion in our shared account for Friday dinners out and taxis home when it's too cold and late for the subway, we're going to end up growling at each other over a stack of overdraft fees.
When I embarked on this project, I felt anxious about our decision—no matter what Mike and I chose, it seemed as if there would be some marriage or financial expert or women's magazine telling us that we were doing it wrong. Suze Orman and Dr. Phil would read this and demand a TV intervention. Talking to real couples gave us the pivotal details Mike and I needed to feel certain that we were making a thought-through decision. My readers provided the all-important long view.
And so the biggest lesson I take from this project is that we should all talk to each other more about our money strategies—the nuts and bolts of who pays for what, when. It's a cliché that talking about money is taboo, but I hope that shibboleth is evaporating. Every time I mentioned that I was working on this series at a party, I'd come back with a head full of stories about how a guy hid receipts from his wife or a woman refused to pay for her husband's cigarettes. If you're willing to ask, you won't just hear stories about financial bad behavior—you'll also learn how other couples negotiated their particular circumstances, and some of it will apply to your relationship.
To that end, I want to hear from the readers: What's the one piece of advice you would give a newly married couple about finances? Post your responses in the comments; I'll wade through them and create a poll so we can decide together what is the most important bit of wisdom to impart. I've been married for only six months, but here's mine: Never talk about money on an empty stomach.