Merge Your Money Seamlessly


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

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.