Are Separate Checking Accounts a Harbinger of Marital Problems?

by Joe Plemon on March 12, 2012

In my financial counseling practice, I occasionally meet a couple who operates their household budget from two separate accounts: a “his” account and a “her” account.  When I ask them why, they normally respond with,  “I am not sure” or “We have always done it this way” or “I like to control my own money” or even “I don’t trust him/her with my money”.   My counsel is for them to try closing one of those accounts and run all family finances out of a joint account.

Why this advice? 

One account will simplify budgeting.

This couple will normally be splitting the bills; each being responsible for certain payments.  While this process may get the bills paid, it is a huge hindrance for an effective family budget.  Why?  Because a budget is more than paying bills; it is a tool for achieving financial and marital goals.  A unified budget, with both parties on board, needs to operate from one — not two — accounts.

It will strengthen the marriage.

A marriage is a partnership, not a joint venture.  When the preacher declares a couple to be “one”, that new unit, by inference, includes their money.  Until each relinquishes their grip on “my money” and willingly commingles it into a joint account, this couple has not  fully bought into the marriage.

It forces trust.

Some couples state upfront that they keep separate checkbooks because of trust issues – a clear harbinger of marital problems.  Creating a joint account will not automatically resolve the trust issues, but should serve as a catalyst for working through whatever issues are undermining that trust.

It eliminates secrets.

I like to control my own money.” could be code for “I don’t want my spouse to know what I am doing with my money.”  Obviously, this mindset is a recipe for keeping secrets.  A spouse who keeps money secrets from his/her partner will likely be keeping other secrets as well.  Sounds like marital problems to me.

No more power plays

Because one spouse normally earns more money than the other, the practice of keeping separate accounts tends to give more power to whoever has the biggest account.  One hears statements like, “I will buy that Harley if I want.  It is my money.”  or “If I want a new living room suite, I will buy it.  After all, I earned the money.”   Both are missing the point of a healthy marriage where all household assets belong equally to both spouses.  With this power play mentality, if only one spouse brought home a pay check, that spouse would have 100% control of all family finances.  Bad idea.

What about business accounts?

I said in my opening paragraph that a couple who operates their household budget out of separate accounts is asking for marital problems.  I understand that separate accounts are needed when one spouse is operating a business in his/her name.  But even then, all profit from that business needs to be transferred to the household account and spent in accordance with the family budget.

Am I saying that all marriages who operate with separate accounts are destined for disaster?  Of course not.  But I am saying that those separate accounts are either an indicator of existing problems or a formula for future problems.

In my opinion, they aren’t worth the risk.

Readers:  Do you and your spouse operate your household budget from two separate accounts?  Why?  How is is working? 

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Money Infant March 12, 2012 at 5:16 am

My wife and I have always had 3 accounts, 1 for her, 1 for me and 1 for household expenses. 6 years into the marriage and everything is fine, I can’t recall the last time we had an argument about money, and yes we do talk about it as needs change. Separate accounts can work. Oh I should mention that even though the accounts are separate we both have access to all 3.

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Joe Plemon March 12, 2012 at 6:31 am

Actually, I see nothing wrong with the way you and your wife handle your finances. Both of you have access to all accounts (no power plays or secrets) and you talk regularly about your money.

I probably did not make it clear enough, but I intended this post to be about couples who do not have a joint account or access to each other’s money. That was what I meant when I said “I occasionally meet a couple who operates their household budget from two separate accounts: a ‘his’ account and a ‘her’ account.” in my opening sentence.

Anyway, I am glad that you two have a financial plan that works!

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TekGems March 12, 2012 at 11:28 am

We have four account. One we share, one for her, one for me, and one for my business. We each get a personal allowance of $100 a month for whatever we want to use. She bought me an iPad 2 for my birthday using the personal account. Its a good way to buy each other gifts without the other knowing. Some shielding is good, but we also have a lot of trust between each other. She has full visibility to all my accounts through Mint.com. While I think it is dangerous to give someone else your login, using a proxy service like Mint.com or PageOnce.com gives your spouse the visibility without compromising your account security.

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Joe Plemon March 13, 2012 at 7:37 am

It is obvious that you two have put a lot of thought into your family finances. I like the aspect of “some shielding”, especially when trust level is high. Like you say, it is a good way to buy gifts for each other without the other knowing…an iPad2 is sweet! My wife and I also budget a monthly allowance for each of us. It is amazing how often we spend it on each other.

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Hinkey March 25, 2012 at 3:20 pm

This is an interesting article. My husband and I each have a separate checking account and a joint savings account. I also have a savings account separate from the joint account. He knows this and for us it is a good thing. He does not like to tell me when he is low on money. (He works for himself and when he has few or no clients is low on money.) We don’t argue about who’s money it is as we both believe it’s both of ours. It just forces us to have more discussions about what we have and how we will spend it.

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Joe Plemon March 26, 2012 at 9:48 am

It sounds like you two are trying to stay on the same page (no secrets and open communication). But I am curious: how do you manage a household budget and arrange paying your bills with two separate checking accounts? Is there any reason why you don’t want a joint checking account?

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Natalie December 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm

Such an intersting article! So true!
We got married not so long ago. Right now I am not working but my husband does. So he pays all the bills from his bank account and I have no access to it. And he thinks it is ok, telling that when I get a job I will have my own money and he is not obliged to buy me something that I want.That definitely makes me think that he hides something from me or helps his ex-girlfriend because they communicate still. Or that he is not interested in owning a house and having kids in future. I understand that we have a problem of trust here. He never tells how much he earns or spends.
The only solution I see is that when I get a job, we will have my own bank account and I will insist on creating a new bank account for us, where the payment of bills will come from. My husband is very protective about his money and has very expensive hobbies that he is not going to give up on.
How do you think, what type of budgeting is best for us? The only one I can see is having 3 account – mine, his and ours. Or just mine and his, but I will help with some bills directly putting money on his account?

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Sun January 3, 2013 at 12:41 pm

I guess he has no concept of we and what marriage is about. You need a joint account where his pay check is directly deposited into. From there, you two can agree on what funds are transferred to your own accounts (monthly allowance). Regardless of who makes the income in our family, the money is ours. We discuss how every penny will be spent. To me, that’s the only way to have a trusting relationship when it comes to finances. Both people need full visibility to accounts, except for the allowance account. You can use that how you want, but it also wouldn’t be a huge sum of money.

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Joe Plemon January 8, 2013 at 7:42 am

Sun — I totally agree!

Natalie — I am not being overly dramatic here, but the way your husband controls the money is an indication of a deeper problem…a trust problem and a marriage commitment problem. I urge you to seek marriage counseling.

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