Money and Marriage

Of all the things that people bring up in my office, one of the most frequent subjects is money. There are as many ways to deal with finances as there are individuals involved. One of those ways is to maintain separate bank accounts. Another way is to combine the money, no matter how much each partner makes. This presupposes an entirely different set of expectations than if each partner maintains the right to (and is solely responsible for) the money that he or she earns.

In any serious coupled relationship, the parties presumably want to share, because each values the other as a crucially important person in his or her life. In that case, it need not be a sacrifice for a couple to pool their money, so long as each party is productive to the best of his or her ability. Since income is typically a function of the market, two individuals can be equally productive even though one makes more money than the other. You might, for example, believe in your spouse’s art ability and support her work to develop her talent, even though for a long period she may enjoy little or no income.

Why, then, would somebody want separate finances in a marriage? Some people feel they have been taken advantage of in the past, and don’t want to repeat the experience. Others seek to shelter money in the event of a divorce. We live in a highly adversarial and litigious age, and to some extent this mindset has transferred itself to marriage and family.

Many women feel safer if they can keep their finances separate. They prefer the added sense of autonomy, as opposed to the traditional notion of a woman depending on a man for her livelihood. Some women make more money than their husbands, and want to keep finances separate for the same reason that many men do. Serious conflict can arise when one member of the relationship wants to handle finances differently from the other. One advantage to separate finances is that neither party can assume that he/she has automatic access to the others’money. It creates a sense of personal boundaries.

When it comes to monetary issues, it’s important to communicate, calmly and clearly, in the spirit of ensuring that both sides benefit. Make it clear — first to yourself, and then to your spouse — how you prefer to handle the money. If you both agree on the terms, then fine. If mutually agreeable compromises can be reached, then that’s fine too. Where most people go wrong is that they don’t even communicate to each other (or even to themselves) what they want. They proceed on either blind adherence to family/social tradition or on emotionally held expectations about the proper way to handle money. They assume everything should happen automatically with no effort or thought. When this fails, they become alarmed, go on the defensive and may conclude prematurely that the marriage is in trouble. This sort of haphazard, unexamined approach (to anything, in fact) can result in misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Disagreeing over money is one thing, but fighting over money is always a mistake. Hurtful things are said that can be impossible to reverse. Unfortunately, too many people are afraid to try something different. They won’t consider separate accounts, for example, ‘because that’s just not how it’s done.’ People cling to old ideas simply because they are old, and they end up paying the consequences.

People sometimes stew over money because they feel it shouldn’t be an issue in a marriage — until it all blows up. For example, parents-to-be should reevaluate their finances once a child is on the way. Financially and psychologically, children are the ultimate lifestyle change and a couple will need to share at least part of their income to cover the additional expenses.

Separate accounts are still not the norm, but more couples are considering this option. The knee-jerk reaction is to lament today’s ‘selfishness,’ but I don’t agree. It’s wonderful that people have more choices than ever before. Why follow the party line, blindly living by others’ standards or ‘tradition’ when it might not make logical sense to do so?

Keeping finances separate communicates that neither party is automatically entitled to what the other earns, just because they’re married. Any healthy marriage must operate under this premise, regardless of how the finances are organized. Some will approach their spouse with the idea that, ‘We’re married. So it’s your job to take care of me.’ This entitlement mentality is ugly and destructive. It’s one thing to care about somebody and want to be there for them, but it’s an entirely different thing to assume it’s someone’s moral obligation to take care of you, ‘just because.’ Nothing can take the romance out of marriage faster than that. No matter what the financial arrangement, if it brings peace to the marriage, try it.