It wasn’t that long ago that the banter on a popular national morning news show went like this:
Expert number one, host of a cable TV show about money, said, “I don’t think financial infidelity is all that bad. I mean, women need to have independence in their relationship and they need to be able to have private [money] that they can do whatever it is they want with.”
Expert number two, a personal finance author, said, “Let’s acknowledge that we’re each going to have this pool of money that we can do with what we want and we don’t have to talk about it.”
She believes couples should keep three bank accounts: “One for me, one for you, one for the house. And the house gets taken care of first.”
To which expert number one responded, “Oh my gosh, without a question you should have separate bank accounts. I mean you should be able to do with your money whatever you want to do with your money.”
The host concluded the segment by saying, “Good advice.”
The way of the world
That seemed to accurately represent the cultural mood about the joint accounts/separate accounts issue. When I used to teach a lot of pre-marriage financial workshops, it often felt like I was running hard against the culture to suggest that couples will be better off if they combine their accounts.
So, it was wonderful to see a new secular study that found it is, indeed, generally better for the health of a marriage if the spouses will combine their finances.
The study, from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, found that couples who combine their finances tend to be more satisfied with their marriage compared with couples who don’t. They also report being more in sync with each other on financial issues.
Indiana University assistant professor Jenny Olson, one of the co-authors of the study, told the Wall Street Journal, “Money is one of the main reasons couples argue, but having joint accounts may actually help improve the quality of many couples’ relationship.”
The study tracked 230 engaged or newly-married couples for two years. They were divided into three groups — one group was asked to keep their finances separate, one was asked to combine their finances, and one was given the freedom do as they wanted (most in this group kept their finances separate). The couples were surveyed several times throughout the two-year period.
Other research has found that marital happiness typically declines during the first two years of marriage. And that’s what happened with groups two and three in the Indiana University study. However, in group one, where the couples combined their finances, happiness increased.
The Indiana University study looked at both financial harmony and relationship quality. It found that higher scores on financial harmony questions (i.e., “When it comes to our finances, my partner and I see eye to eye”) predicted which couples would also score higher on relationship quality questions (i.e., “My relationship with my partner makes me happy”) 75% of the time.
Olson said, “It’s likely that people with joint bank accounts had to be more transparent about how they spent money, and that made them feel more aligned financially and better about the quality of their relationship.”
The ripple effect
In a separate study, the same researchers surveyed about 500 people who have been married for an average of 15 years. They were asked whether they keep their finances separate from their spouse, use joint accounts, or some combination. They were also asked questions about their financial goals to see if they agreed on which ones were most important. And lastly, they were asked several non-financial questions designed to gauge the couples’ “communal-norm adherence” — that is, whether they responded to each other’s needs without expecting the other to reciprocate.
The study found that couples who combined their finances scored 43% higher on goal alignment and 29% higher on communal-norm adherence.
None of this is to suggest that couples who maintain separate accounts can’t have a happy marriage. But it does suggest that engaged and newly married couples would generally be better off by combining their finances from the beginning of their new lives together.
What’s been your experience with this joint/separate accounts question?