Merge Your Money Seamlessly


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

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."