Personal Connections: What’s the best way for couples to share finances?

Money is a famously challenging area for couples. We each have different priorities about spending and saving, so when our partner does things differently, there can be tension and arguments.

There’s no way to avoid financial disagreements completely. But talking about what money means to each of you and how you want to manage it together makes things go much more smoothly.

The meaning of money

Money isn’t just the stuff that’s in your bank account and wallet; it’s also powerfully symbolic.

Having money to spend can make us feel valuable and important. We work hard, so we “deserve” to indulge ourselves. We may enjoy the social status that comes from buying nice things. We like feeling in control of our purchasing decisions. It’s fun to spend money. If we’re told we can’t spend, we may feel our partner doesn’t value us.

On the other hand, money can also mean security. Debt can be very stressful; it limits your options down the road. Fun as it can be to spend, it can feel very reassuring to have a solid savings account as a cushion in difficult times. You may also prefer to save up for an important goal (like buying a house or taking a trip) rather than spending freely now.

There’s always a need to balance the fun of buying things now against the security that comes with delaying gratification. That’s hard for many individuals and even harder for couples.

Talk with your partner about how money was handled in the family each of you grew up in. How does that affect your and their feelings about money? What’s important to you and to them about spending? About saving?

What proportion of saving and spending would feel right for each of you? Even if you don’t agree, it’ll help to understand where you’re each coming from.

Yours, mine and ours

Some couples opt to pool all their resources into joint accounts. Others keep their finances almost or completely separate. There can be good reasons for any of those approaches.

For most couples, though, the best arrangement is something in between. I believe every adult should have some amount of money that’s theirs to spend as they please. I also think it’s important to have shared finances, because couples are teams financially as well as emotionally. That’s why I recommend the “yours, mine and ours” approach.

Joint expenses

The “ours” part should cover all your ongoing household expenses: mortgage or rent, groceries, maintenance, utilities, etc. In most couples, it would also include car payments, auto insurance, and out-of-pocket health costs.

If you have children together, your joint account should cover their needs: clothes, childcare/babysitters, lessons, sports equipment, college savings and everything else.

You’d also include the fun stuff: family vacations, eating out, having friends over, shared recreational activities and improving your home.

Individual money

The “yours” and “mine” accounts cover things that apply to only one partner: clothes, hobbies, socializing without your partner, indulgences like expensive coffee or spa treatments, and the gifts you buy for each other.

Depending on your circumstances, the amount available for personal spending can vary widely. Some fortunate couples can afford to spend thousands a month apiece; for many other couples, what’s available may only be $10 or $20.

Whatever the amount, you each get a degree of control over your spending. If one of you has the money and wants to buy yet another tool, pair of shoes, fancy meal, piece of sporting equipment, or whatever, you can — and your sweetie can’t complain. And your honey buying whatever not-really-necessary thing they want isn’t a problem, because it’s their money, not from your joint account. See how nice this is?

(Now, I suggest one caveat to individual accounts: You can’t buy anything that would harm the relationship by betraying your partner’s trust — things like drugs and extra-marital relationships. But otherwise, it’s all good.)

Gray areas to negotiate

Sometimes it’s not obvious what should count as a joint expense. What if one person wants a premium cable package and the other never uses it? Are pets part of the family (a joint expense) or one person’s hobby (an individual expense)? Should gifts to extended family be joint expenses? What if one side of the family gives much more lavishly than the other?

How about student loans? On the one hand, the loans are in an individual’s name. On the other hand, the education that resulted should benefit both of you in the long run.

If one or both of you have kids from a previous relationship, how do related expenses factor in? How do the two of you handle child support payments and all the various costs that add up from feeding, housing and nurturing children?

I recommend including as many expenses as possible in the joint account. It’s easy to bog down in details about what’s “fair,” but then you lose sight of the bigger picture: that the two of you are a team in life. You’re together because you want to be; you belong to each other. What matters to your darling should also matter to you (at least most of the time).

Keep it equal

If partners earn significantly different amounts of money, they sometimes wonder who should get how much in their personal accounts. My answer: It depends whether you want your relationship to last.

It’s very important that two people in any couple be equals. You both are adults, after all, and you’re together because you love and respect each other. You both contribute to the running of your household in a variety of ways.

Therefore the “yours” and “mine” accounts should get the same amount of money every month, regardless of your individual incomes. This might not be true in the early stages of living together. But once you’ve decided you’re in it for the long haul, and especially if you’re married, you’ve got to be equals. Relationships can’t stay healthy if one person is a second-class citizen economically.

So, yes, there are a lot of moving parts here. I didn’t say it’d be easy to sort through all this. But when you make the spending-as-a-team effort and also allow room for individual decisions, you’re more likely to end up with a strong relationship.

Jill Whitney is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Old Lyme who blogs about relationships at KeepTheTalkGoing.com.

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