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Shared Accounts in Marriage, or Nah?

By Janine Scott, PhD, CFP® 

Going from managing bank accounts on your own to merging accounts in marriage is not an easy leap for many couples. In fact, many married couples choose to use separate bank accounts rather than have primarily joint accounts. Millennials, especially, lean on the side of separate accounts more so than older age cohorts. But it’s important to be aware of the benefits and drawbacks associated with sharing bank accounts in order to make an informed decision.

Potential Benefits of Joint Accounts

  • Easier to manage and track income and expenses in one account 
  • Simplifies bill payments 
  • Simplifies estate planning (each spouse can still access funds if the other passes away) 
  • Reduces negative financial surprises in the long run 
  • Helps each spouse focus on household financial goals
  • Can help shape better money management skills and spending behavior in marriage as each spouse learns what works well and what doesn’t for managing household finances
  • Promotes greater unity in marriage through transparency
  • May increase feelings of security and financial power for a lower earning or stay at home spouse

Potential Drawbacks of Joint Accounts  

  • Each spouse has equal access (and equal rights) to funds in a joint account regardless of who contributes 
  • Each spouse’s contributions to the account can be lost due to overdraft charges, debt collection, liens, and judgments for which the other spouse is entirely at fault.
  • Reduces individual independence over finances and can increase feelings of vulnerability (due to greater financial interdependence)
  • May increase money conflicts due to different money personalities and financial behavior

The biggest benefit of having shared or joint accounts is greater transparency and unity in marriage which will ultimately promote intimacy and trust over time. If there are misgivings about sharing accounts due to vulnerability and/or fear concerning a partner’s money behavior, committed couples should take some time to reflect on whether they are truly prepared to enter into a lifelong union. A committed union requires vulnerability, honesty and transparency. If couples find that their money attitudes, habits and behavior are extremely different and potentially harmful or problematic in the long run, then discussing these money issues in depth (digging into each other’s ‘why’) is a necessary and vital first step. This is not a topic to sweep under the rug or postpone until a later time. Your future spouse will not change because of your efforts (i.e. nagging) or strong desire for them to change. 

So, what should couples entering marriage, or those who are already married do? First, carve out time to talk about money fears, current money management strategies, and financial goals. If one person has little to no knowledge about finances, consider reading a book that touches on the fundamentals of financial literacy, or taking a personal finance class at a local community college (online or face to face). Taking a class together can also be a good bonding experience—you can create or recreate a joint college experience! Also consider the added value of meeting with a qualified financial professional, such as an Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC) or Certified Financial Planner (CFP®). You may find that one meeting is enough to get you started on your financial journey or that an ongoing professional relationship is worthwhile. For example, a Certified Financial Planner can help couples grow together in managing finances as well as develop healthy financial habits and positive long-term financial behavior. He or she can also help devise, develop, and implement financial planning strategies across a variety of planning areas like budgeting, tax planning, and managing investments. 

So, what do you think, shared accounts or nah?