Merge Your Money Seamlessly

Merge Your Money Seamlessly
Contributor
Self

Author Martha Baer does the math on sharing finances as a couple.

I remember my parents' checkbook. It was spiral bound with three checks per page and on each check it read: Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Baer. (It's a shame they don’t name boys Herbie any more; or for that matter Dad's middle name: Irving.)

When my parents established their first bank account together after their marriage in 1948, they made the "modern" gesture of including Mrs. Herbert on the checks—it was a cutting-edge joint bank account.

This little tradition has lingered for decades, with some minor changes. Mrs. has for the most part turned into Ms., and most women today actually have first names, but the basic practice of spouses sharing a checking account, from which all the household expenses, gifts, and fun money are drawn, has remained prevalent.

Sometimes there's a joint savings account, too, for those rainy-day needs or that new Chevrolet. Look more closely, though, and you'll find some surprises. Today, the dual account that experts still tout as a savvy marital setup and that some insist is the only honest arrangement for conjugal finances, is a far cry from the way many couples actually live.

Ask what once was a simple question—how many bank accounts do you have?—and you get the wildest range of answers. One woman says two; another says five; one happy husband says seven! And you find every possible configuration: some couples share one and keep others for personal use; some share everything.

The world of Mr. and Mrs. Herbie is gone for good. Like our childbearing choices and our wedding plans, our personal finances today are open to endless variation, and we're using them to reinvent life and love in our own images.

Take the case of Monika S., who worked for five years as a financial adviser and saw "people lose everything when the relationship went sour." She keeps cash from her inheritance in a separate, individual account—which makes the grand total of five for her and her husband: aside from her socked-away inheritance, there’s a joint checking account for the mortgage; joint savings for vacations; her personal checking for frivolous things; and his for gifts and cigarettes. She struggles to find the delicate balance between maintaining her autonomy, giving him his, and making sure both still have a stake in the marriage.

Tricia N. and her husband can top that: He has created seven different credit union accounts. "He likes to put things in buckets," Tricia says with remarkably lighthearted tolerance. He's got one account for travel, one for taxes, one for savings, and one for each of four kids.

"It's ludicrous," says his wife, who boasts an MBA and a job in finance as well as a heap of patience. "But I've come to accept the buckets. He's trying to force more savings by having more accounts. It's a guy thing. So I say, 'Sprinkle away, honey.'"

Sometimes many buckets are a clearer way of representing a couple's values or mapping out shared—and independent—goals. Research in the relatively new field of behavioral economics suggests that people can have different feelings about the very same number of dollars, depending on how the cash was obtained and what it's intended for.

It may be comfortable for Monika to write a check for a month of massages from her checking account, but she'd probably squirm at the notion of spending any of her inheritance on the same spa treatments. In this context, couples who set up a savings account purely for travel do more than move $100 from one account to the other. They are actually changing the nature of that cash.

It becomes, perhaps, more sacrosanct—much harder to blow on other things—and more shared. Now, spending that $100 on a nice lunch might not only be a violation of their savings plan, but also a belittling of their vacation time and, consequently—at the deepest level—of their commitment.

Personally, my partner and I aren't ones for a lot of buckets—which may be just as well. CPA Steve Deutsch in San Francisco points out that consumers can be easily fooled by hidden "convenience" fees and penalties when they sign up for multiple accounts. "How do you think the banks are making so much money?" he asks. "They're not doing extra paper work for nothing."

But when Tricia's husband puts money aside for each of his children, he's caretaking. Logically, there's no difference between a lump deposit of $400 and the separate $100 deposits he makes in each credit union account. But internally, for whoever is listening, he's saying something pretty profound about family.

Ultimately, though, the really sensitive banking area is not the number of accounts. It's the decisions that involve sharing. No choice at the teller's window is as freighted as the one about joint versus individual accounts.

Many partners immediately see the preference for separate accounts as indicative of a lack of trust. If both mates feel their union is for life and that their values, hopes, and dreams are shared, why split up the dollars? Unless we're unconsciously planning a breakup, they reason, each of us will want the same things and act in the interest of the marriage.

And there's certainly some basis for this belief. If there's going to be deception in a relationship, it will very likely involve a couple's finances. In a survey done for Reader's Digest in 2001, 48 percent of spouses who admitted lying to each other said they'd lied about the cost of a purchase (only 2 percent admitted to having lied about sex).

Fundamentally candid spouses who like to spend more than their partners do, often find themselves acting furtively--paying cash instead of using the joint credit card, forinstance, so as to avoid revealing certain purchases at the end of the month. When Eric E. moved the living room armchair and discovered a stack of shopping bags from Macy's and Club Monaco, he was surprised. And he was an extraordinarily good sport when he found out that his wife had gone to the ATM before shopping to avoid racking up visible charges on their credit card bill. Sometimes, of course, the problem is less the concealment than what the money's going for. Strip clubs? Booze? Lunchtime flirtations? Which is why many feel that the health of a relationship can be jeopardized by any secretive spending.In this view, every covert transaction, whether it's candy-bar consumption or a well-hidden porn habit, builds on others, creating a burden of guilt, an imbalance of power, and then a rift.Steve Deutsch, who in his experience as an accountant has seen numerous couples in conflict, believes this. "Everybody does things differently," he says, "but I think it's the healthier relationships that commingle everything. There's nothing hidden. There's a sense of humor. And the partners know money isn't everything."

Yet engaging in sneaky behavior and maintaining privacy aren't necessarily the same thing. A number of experts see huge emotional benefits in spouses keeping some funds in separate accounts. A marriage that makes room for personal growth and individuality, whether through separate vacations, separate friends, or separate savings accounts, might be the best sort of marriage to foster in a culture where independence is highly valued.

In fact, in contemporary America, too much coupling, too much commingling, can make people uncomfortable.Ellyn Bader, director of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California, considers all-joint arrangements a vestige of a pre-feminist age in which, as she puts it, "you had a lot of depressed women."The whole concept behind "pin money" (Monika's mother-in-law calls it "foxy money"; the Japanese, "belly-button money") was that husbands doled out small amounts of cash to their wives for managing the household (originally, in fact, for buying literal sewing pins that were pricey back then), rather than giving them actual access to the bank accounts.Bader believes the move toward more autonomy for women should be reflected in a couple's treatment of financial matters. "Money is so symbolic of control and power in a relationship," she says. "I think what you're looking for is some way that each person can do some independent decision-making and spending. Most couples don't know how to create a situation where there's some individual spending and joint sharing and privacy."

In Bader's own life, this balance translates directly into a style of banking that's recommended by many professionals: a joint account for household expenses and two separate accounts for private spending. What those separate accounts end up paying for, of course, varies from couple to couple.

Bader and her husband, for instance, pay for their clothes and recreational interests out of their private accounts. Monika's guy buys cigarettes. And a lot of couples spend a substantial portion of their personal funds on gifts for each other.

For many, in fact, the purity of giving is a key rationale for keeping those individual accounts. They feel that drawing money from a joint pool to pay for a gift dilutes or even destroys the gesture, not just by blurring the identity of the giver but by ruining the surprise.

David Bach, author of Smart Couples Finish Rich: 9 Steps to Creating a Rich Future for You and Your Partner, says of his wife, "If Michelle buys me a gift for mybirthday, I don't want to know what she pays for it." While others worry about knowing too little if they keep separate buckets, he worries about knowing too much if they don't.

But ultimately, in today's relationships, expert prescriptions make as much sense as calling my mother Herbie. Being wary of the pitfalls of multiple accounts is key: you don't want to get ripped off by your bank, you don't want your spouse copping drugs on the sly.

But our contemporary relationships—all the myriad, nuanced ways in which we come together and part, in which we meet, nest, forget, or don't—are blessedly free of assumptions and rules. Lovers weave their financial lives together in different ways to accommodate amazingly varied experiences and emotional needs.

So if it takes six accounts to sustain the magic of your union, or if three checkbooks is the best expression of your dreams and alternate selves, why not go with it? Sprinkle away, honey.

I remember my parents' checkbook. It was spiral bound with three checks per page and on each check it read: Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Baer. (It's a shame they don’t name boys Herbie any more; or for that matter Dad's middle name: Irving.)

When my parents established their first bank account together after their marriage in 1948, they made the "modern" gesture of including Mrs. Herbert on the checks—it was a cutting-edge joint bank account.

This little tradition has lingered for decades, with some minor changes. Mrs. has for the most part turned into Ms., and most women today actually have first names, but the basic practice of spouses sharing a checking account, from which all the household expenses, gifts, and fun money are drawn, has remained prevalent.

Sometimes there's a joint savings account, too, for those rainy-day needs or that new Chevrolet. Look more closely, though, and you'll find some surprises. Today, the dual account that experts still tout as a savvy marital setup and that some insist is the only honest arrangement for conjugal finances, is a far cry from the way many couples actually live.

Ask what once was a simple question—how many bank accounts do you have?—and you get the wildest range of answers. One woman says two; another says five; one happy husband says seven! And you find every possible configuration: some couples share one and keep others for personal use; some share everything.

The world of Mr. and Mrs. Herbie is gone for good. Like our childbearing choices and our wedding plans, our personal finances today are open to endless variation, and we're using them to reinvent life and love in our own images.

Take the case of Monika S., who worked for five years as a financial adviser and saw "people lose everything when the relationship went sour." She keeps cash from her inheritance in a separate, individual account—which makes the grand total of five for her and her husband: aside from her socked-away inheritance, there’s a joint checking account for the mortgage; joint savings for vacations; her personal checking for frivolous things; and his for gifts and cigarettes. She struggles to find the delicate balance between maintaining her autonomy, giving him his, and making sure both still have a stake in the marriage.

Tricia N. and her husband can top that: He has created seven different credit union accounts. "He likes to put things in buckets," Tricia says with remarkably lighthearted tolerance. He's got one account for travel, one for taxes, one for savings, and one for each of four kids.

"It's ludicrous," says his wife, who boasts an MBA and a job in finance as well as a heap of patience. "But I've come to accept the buckets. He's trying to force more savings by having more accounts. It's a guy thing. So I say, 'Sprinkle away, honey.'"

Sometimes many buckets are a clearer way of representing a couple's values or mapping out shared—and independent—goals. Research in the relatively new field of behavioral economics suggests that people can have different feelings about the very same number of dollars, depending on how the cash was obtained and what it's intended for.

It may be comfortable for Monika to write a check for a month of massages from her checking account, but she'd probably squirm at the notion of spending any of her inheritance on the same spa treatments. In this context, couples who set up a savings account purely for travel do more than move $100 from one account to the other. They are actually changing the nature of that cash.

It becomes, perhaps, more sacrosanct—much harder to blow on other things—and more shared. Now, spending that $100 on a nice lunch might not only be a violation of their savings plan, but also a belittling of their vacation time and, consequently—at the deepest level—of their commitment.

Personally, my partner and I aren't ones for a lot of buckets—which may be just as well. CPA Steve Deutsch in San Francisco points out that consumers can be easily fooled by hidden "convenience" fees and penalties when they sign up for multiple accounts. "How do you think the banks are making so much money?" he asks. "They're not doing extra paper work for nothing."

But when Tricia's husband puts money aside for each of his children, he's caretaking. Logically, there's no difference between a lump deposit of $400 and the separate $100 deposits he makes in each credit union account. But internally, for whoever is listening, he's saying something pretty profound about family.

Ultimately, though, the really sensitive banking area is not the number of accounts. It's the decisions that involve sharing. No choice at the teller's window is as freighted as the one about joint versus individual accounts.

Many partners immediately see the preference for separate accounts as indicative of a lack of trust. If both mates feel their union is for life and that their values, hopes, and dreams are shared, why split up the dollars? Unless we're unconsciously planning a breakup, they reason, each of us will want the same things and act in the interest of the marriage.

And there's certainly some basis for this belief. If there's going to be deception in a relationship, it will very likely involve a couple's finances. In a survey done for Reader's Digest in 2001, 48 percent of spouses who admitted lying to each other said they'd lied about the cost of a purchase (only 2 percent admitted to having lied about sex).

Fundamentally candid spouses who like to spend more than their partners do, often find themselves acting furtively--paying cash instead of using the joint credit card, forinstance, so as to avoid revealing certain purchases at the end of the month. When Eric E. moved the living room armchair and discovered a stack of shopping bags from Macy's and Club Monaco, he was surprised. And he was an extraordinarily good sport when he found out that his wife had gone to the ATM before shopping to avoid racking up visible charges on their credit card bill. Sometimes, of course, the problem is less the concealment than what the money's going for. Strip clubs? Booze? Lunchtime flirtations? Which is why many feel that the health of a relationship can be jeopardized by any secretive spending.In this view, every covert transaction, whether it's candy-bar consumption or a well-hidden porn habit, builds on others, creating a burden of guilt, an imbalance of power, and then a rift.Steve Deutsch, who in his experience as an accountant has seen numerous couples in conflict, believes this. "Everybody does things differently," he says, "but I think it's the healthier relationships that commingle everything. There's nothing hidden. There's a sense of humor. And the partners know money isn't everything."

Yet engaging in sneaky behavior and maintaining privacy aren't necessarily the same thing. A number of experts see huge emotional benefits in spouses keeping some funds in separate accounts. A marriage that makes room for personal growth and individuality, whether through separate vacations, separate friends, or separate savings accounts, might be the best sort of marriage to foster in a culture where independence is highly valued.

In fact, in contemporary America, too much coupling, too much commingling, can make people uncomfortable.Ellyn Bader, director of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California, considers all-joint arrangements a vestige of a pre-feminist age in which, as she puts it, "you had a lot of depressed women."The whole concept behind "pin money" (Monika's mother-in-law calls it "foxy money"; the Japanese, "belly-button money") was that husbands doled out small amounts of cash to their wives for managing the household (originally, in fact, for buying literal sewing pins that were pricey back then), rather than giving them actual access to the bank accounts. Bader believes the move toward more autonomy for women should be reflected in a couple's treatment of financial matters. "Money is so symbolic of control and power in a relationship," she says. "I think what you're looking for is some way that each person can do some independent decision-making and spending. Most couples don't know how to create a situation where there's some individual spending and joint sharing and privacy."

In Bader's own life, this balance translates directly into a style of banking that's recommended by many professionals: a joint account for household expenses and two separate accounts for private spending. What those separate accounts end up paying for, of course, varies from couple to couple.

Bader and her husband, for instance, pay for their clothes and recreational interests out of their private accounts. Monika's guy buys cigarettes. And a lot of couples spend a substantial portion of their personal funds on gifts for each other.

For many, in fact, the purity of giving is a key rationale for keeping those individual accounts. They feel that drawing money from a joint pool to pay for a gift dilutes or even destroys the gesture, not just by blurring the identity of the giver but by ruining the surprise.

David Bach, author of Smart Couples Finish Rich: 9 Steps to Creating a Rich Future for You and Your Partner, says of his wife, "If Michelle buys me a gift for mybirthday, I don't want to know what she pays for it." While others worry about knowing too little if they keep separate buckets, he worries about knowing too much if they don't.

But ultimately, in today's relationships, expert prescriptions make as much sense as calling my mother Herbie. Being wary of the pitfalls of multiple accounts is key: you don't want to get ripped off by your bank, you don't want your spouse copping drugs on the sly.

But our contemporary relationships—all the myriad, nuanced ways in which we come together and part, in which we meet, nest, forget, or don't—are blessedly free of assumptions and rules. Lovers weave their financial lives together in different ways to accommodate amazingly varied experiences and emotional needs.

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So if it takes six accounts to sustain the magic of your union, or if three checkbooks is the best expression of your dreams and alternate selves, why not go with it? Sprinkle away, honey.

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