Sharing money in marriage: The mutual payoff

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Feb 1, 2018

A healthy marriage requires a willingness to share your heart, your home, and, if you believe what some family therapists suggest, your hard-earned cash, too.

Couples who commingle at least some of their money for shared expenses, set financial goals together, and tackle debt as a team may be better positioned to build a relationship based on trust, said Syble Solomon, a marriage counselor in Hamilton, Montana, and founder of Money Habitudes, a program that helps partners initiate dialogue about money. Importantly, she said, they may also be more likely to rely on each other, instead of friends or family, when the going gets tough.

“Trust is a major part of being in a relationship and part of trusting another person is believing that they will be there for you when you need them,” said Solomon, in an interview. “If you can’t share your money, or have financial conversations, it diminishes that trust.”

Solomon is quick to note that healthy interdependence does not take the shape of a patriarchal or matriarchal money management system, in which one partner controls the cash. On the contrary, both parties should be equally involved in decisions related to the household budget, she said, regardless of who actually handles the day-to-day bill paying.

Married couples who have lived and learned say that’s a good practice to adopt. A Fidelity Investments retirement survey that asked couples for their best piece of advice to newlyweds about handling their finances found the top two responses were to “save for retirement as early as possible” (57 percent) and “make all financial decisions together” (41 percent). It’s worth noting that the survey found a disconnect in financial decision-making roles. In the vast majority of marriages where one party is the primary decision-maker, that person believes his or her partner would not want to be more involved. In reality, however, one-third of couples disagree on this answer, suggesting respondents might be underestimating the extent to which the less-involved spouse would like to function better as a team.1

Separate versus shared accounts

Failure to mix your money, of course, does not itself portend a divorce. Couples who keep their income divided do so for many reasons, said Solomon, and some of them good. For example, those with a complex financial picture (kids and assets from a prior marriage) may simply find it easier. Others may be married to a partner with a history of reckless spending or addiction.

“If partners are both actively involved in making financial decisions that affect them as a couple and respect each other’s perspective, keeping finances totally separate doesn’t have to create walls,” she said. 

But be forewarned: Separate bank accounts do force couples to participate in ongoing dialogue about who pays for what, including family vacations, the higher heating bill, and the new couch, which can create stress and resentment if one partner earns less. From a practical standpoint, it can also become difficult to sustain when kids enter the picture. Who pays for child care and braces?

A rigid financial system of “yours and mine” may also send a message (whether intentional or not) about your level of commitment or willingness to compromise when it counts, said Solomon. By keeping your financial affairs tangle-free, you and your significant other may feel there’s an easier “out.”

The ‘you, me, we’ system

When it comes to marital banking, there is no single solution that works for everyone. Many partners, especially younger couples who have minimal assets to combine, find success with a single account system, in which all household income is lumped together and used to pay for all expenses.

Solomon said, however, that evidence suggests the "you, me, we" financial management system, in which couples pool their money for joint expenses, but maintain a separate account for themselves, often yields the best results.

Roughly 42 percent of couples who have a joint bank account also maintain individual accounts, according to a TD Bank survey. Why? Some preferred to keep a separate account to maintain independence, for convenience, or to ensure that they have enough funds available for emergencies and personal spending.2

That’s important, said Skip Johnson, a financial advisor with Great Waters Financial in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in an interview. Regardless of the financial system they adopt, married couples should ensure that each has some spending money of his or her own, or even a credit card, for discretionary spending that need not be justified. (Need budget advice? Contact us)

Some of the benefits of both the blended and the ‘you, me, we’ system is that they force spouses to work together toward common goals, he said. Partners with joint savings must also learn to compromise when disagreements about spending decisions arise, which gives them an opportunity to practice flexibility, a character trait that helps in all facets of their relationship.

Tackling budget decisions and debt as a team can potentially yield other benefits, too.

A University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture report by James P. Marshall, assistant professor of family life, and Laura Hendrix, an instructor in family resource management, cites several well-known truths: Couples with debt are less satisfied in their marriage; couples who spend time worrying about debt have less opportunity to focus on their relationship and future goals; and newlyweds who bring debt to the marriage are less happy than couples who have little to no debt. The report notes, however, that car loans and credit card debt have a disproportionately larger negative impact on marriage than student loan debt.3

“Couples who share assets and checking accounts enjoy more stability, compared to couples who keep separate accounts,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, in an email interview. “Such commingling both expresses and reinforces a sense of trust, mutual dependence, and commitment.”

Partners who choose not to pool their money, or have trouble trusting their spouse with finances, can and should still hold monthly budget meetings to discuss cash flow, priorities, and future goals. As they reach major milestones together, like buying a house and paying down debt, their trust in the marital team will naturally grow, which may encourage them to lean on each other for support and advice.

Communication is key — potentially more so for women. (Related: 5 reasons why women should be selfish, financially)

A TD Bank survey on “Love & Money” suggests that women find talking about money to be more important to a happy relationship than men do: 75 percent of female respondents feel that it’s “very important,” compared to 67 percent of male respondents.4

When working with new clients, Johnson said his firm insists that both partners be present for at least the initial decision-making meeting. “It’s so important that everyone is on the same page,” he said, noting couples who clarify both their goals and tolerance for risk are more likely to avoid costly knee-jerk reactions when market conditions change. “Couples often have different risk profiles and we want to create a portfolio that factors in one partner's need for financial security and the other’s desire to chase bigger gains. Both need to be comfortable when market corrections occur.”

In a culture that values self-reliance, it may sound contradictory to suggest that spouses who merge their money have a better shot at marital bliss. And, indeed, that isn’t always true. But financial professionals say one thing is clear: money management can greatly influence relationship outcomes. Couples who work together to tackle debt and fund future goals can potentially cultivate a healthier interdependence that may help smooth any potholes they encounter down the road, said Wilcox.

More from MassMutual…

Surviving retirement with your spouse

Newlywed tips for blending insurance benefits

Building your Financial Pyramid

1 Fidelity Investments, “Couples Retirement Study,” 2015.

2 TD Bank, “TD Bank Checking Experience Index,” 2014.

3 University of Arkansas Family and Consumer Sciences, “Financial Smart Start for Newlyweds: Debt in Marriage” 2008.

4 TD Bank, “Love & Money Study” 2015.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.