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For young, childless marrieds like my husband, Mike, and me, the path of least resistance is to do what we did for years before our wedding: keep all our money separate. Post nuptials, we live in the same apartment, we have the same jobs, we're still earning similar salaries, and we buy the same overpriced vegetables at the local frou-frou market.
At the same time, we are beginning to think of the future. I can see the stroller that will block the narrow hallway outside our one-bedroom rental. Someday, after we have kids, we want to leave the apartment behind for a house—to follow that deeply rutted trail of American adulthood in a sensible, four-wheel-drive car. Combining finances in some way is part of this journey for most people, at least the ones who took my survey on how long-term partners manage their finances.
The longer couples stay together, the less likely they are to be Independent Operators, my term for pairs who keep their accounts entirely separate. In my survey, 57 percent of couples who were in a relationship for less than a year kept their money apart. The proportion decreased to 42 percent once they'd stayed together for more than one year but less than two. After that, each year of togetherness reduced the share of Independent Operators by about 4 percentage points, until the couples hit the eight-year mark. At that point, the percentage of couples who kept their money separate dropped to 20 percent and stayed that low or lower. For the survey population as a whole, the Independent Operator method was less popular than the other two choices (the Common Pot, for couples who pool all funds, and the Sometime Sharer system, for those who have some joint and some individual accounts).
Independent Operators I spoke to reinforced these statistics: Many of them saw their financial method as transitional. Some, like Kate, 28, looked forward to a turning point at marriage. She sees a Common Pot—or at least a Sometime Sharer system—as one of the few clear markers she'll have for the change of status. Kate's live-in boyfriend wants to combine accounts now, but Kate wrote in her survey response, "I guess I want there to be some difference between dating and marriage." Mike and I didn't even consider the possibility of combining money until the ink dried on our marriage license.
For other couples, having kids is the big existential change that will prompt them to combine funds. With particular interest, I quizzed my Independent Operator survey responders about how they maintain separate accounts with children, because that seemed fairly impossible to me. Do you really want to spar over who is paying for tiny jars of mashed carrots?
Most of the time, the answer is simply no. Even the couples I talked to who were deeply devoted to keeping their money separate gave up and became Sometime Sharers when the babies came along. Max, 49, and his wife use the joint checking account they opened when their daughter was born to pay for all of her expenses, though they still pay for their own costs from separate accounts. Max wrote that this method is both practical and flexible, giving him and his wife the "opportunity to buy things for ourselves without having to obtain spousal approval or justification."