Marriage finance: Couples who keep all their money separate.

How couples manage their money.
Feb. 3 2011 7:04 AM

Yours. Mine.

Once you get married and have kids, can you really keep all your money separate from your spouse's?

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Another Independent Operator approach, from Clarissa, 39, who works in publishing, and her husband, Alex, also 39 and a lawyer, involves going roughly halfsies by dividing up expense categories. (Their names have been changed.) Alex pays "the mortgage, cable, and car insurance, which leaves him in roughly the same position as I am after paying for groceries, utilities, and expenses for the kids," Clarissa says. This accounting method is not as precise as Carol and Richard's—Alex pays for takeout, for example, without insisting that Clarissa pay him back. Clarissa glances at the balance on Alex's bank statements when they come in to make sure they're coming out more or less on par. "If the accounts get too unbalanced because of a change in expenses, "I adjust who is responsible for what payments," Clarissa says. For example, Alex pays the mortgage, which more than doubled when the couple moved recently. So Clarissa has taken on more of the other bills, so that they both have nearly the same amount left over at the end of the month.

Unlike Clarissa and Alex, Carol and Richard think of their income and investments as private information, so they know the gist of each other's assets but not the nitty-gritty details. In case of emergency, Carol says, "We each maintain a list of accounts, investments, and assets that the other should know about when one of us dies." Carol acknowledges that her method of choice is "a little schizo or compartmentalized." It's worth noting that of all the I.O. couples I spoke to, they were the only long-term pair that was so obsessive about financial privacy.

To me, there's something sort of perverse about wanting your partner to know about your investments only after you're dead. While I might not want Mike to know about every coffee I buy or dress I nab, I do want him to know about my investments. I also want his input on any major purchase I might make. I would never feel comfortable shelling out for private school for our kids, for example, unless Mike supported my decision. In the big ways, I want us to behave as a unit.

Also, after talking to the couples who are committed to the Independent Operator system, I realize that our "choice" to keep money separate is sort of an illusion: Choice implies that this is an active decision, rather than the left-over status quo. Now that we've actually thought through how getting married affects how we feel about money, it makes sense to truly choose one of the methods I've written about. Tomorrow, I'll tell you what Mike and I decided.

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