As the wedding date nears and the reality of married life sets in, couples are often surprised at the number of decisions that must be made as part of being a married unit. Where will they live? Who will be responsible for paying bills on a monthly basis? In addition to these concerns, new couples must also consider whether they plan to maintain separate or joint bank accounts, or a combination of the two. As part of pre-marital counseling, couples should discuss how they plan to manage their finances to minimize conflict after the wedding day.
When setting up a new bank account, there are several options for how names can be added to the account. A joint account is a common choice for many married couples, which means that both spouses’ names are listed on the account, and they fully share the benefits and responsibility for its contents. In contrast, a bank account can be set up with only one account owner. If this choice is made, the account owner may decide to specify a survivor that would receive the account balance if the owner were to pass away.
In past decades, especially in the mid-1900s, when traditionally only one spouse was employed, joint accounts were very popular. A recent article by thebalance.com reports that older generations are more likely to prefer joint accounts, while millennials did not share that preference. Instead, in a culture where the divorce rate is high and it is likely for both spouses to work, it is not surprising that separate bank accounts have become more popular partially due to the fact that they make it easier to divide assets should the marriage fail in the future.
Communication is the Key
Many engaged couples are often advised to go through pre-marital counseling, and that experience should include an in-depth discussion of their finances. Both parties should fully disclose any assets and debt they are bringing into the marriage, as well as their strengths, weaknesses, and preferences in managing money.
For example, some people prefer to use cash over debit cards, because it provides a visual reminder to help them curb their spending. It may also be necessary for the engaged couple to develop a budget for their first year of married life, as this may help to make important decisions like where they will live. A budget will clearly indicate how much the couple may be able to afford.
Once the couple marries, communication continues to be important. For those who choose to utilize joint accounts, it is important that both parties be aware of financial limitations and the budget for everyday spending. How often will the couple be able to eat out? How much is available for spending on extraneous items such as trips to the movies or clothes shopping? While these may seem like straightforward issues, keep in mind that money is typically one of the leading causes for divorce. Smartphone apps, spreadsheets, personal finance software, and online banking apps are some commonly used methods for tracking financial accounts.
Choosing separate bank accounts does not eliminate the need for clear communication. In this case, the couple must decide who is going to pay monthly bills for things like rent and utilities. This decision can lead to conflict, as very few couples have a situation where both spouses earn the same amount. When the spouses have inequitable income, the decision of how to split the bills can become more difficult, and can lead to feelings of competitiveness and divisiveness. Separate bank accounts can also create trust issues between the spouses due to a lack of disclosure regarding spending.
Unity as a Couple – Unity in Finances?
The decision to get married is often about unity. The individuals entering into the marriage relationship love each other and endeavor to start a new life as one marital unit. With marriage comes a level of physical, spiritual, and emotional intimacy that is unique to the marital relationship.
If the purpose of marriage is to unite two individuals, then is it counterintuitive to leave the couples’ finances divided? Only the couple can decide what is right for their relationship, but regardless of the decision, finances create a need for open, clear communication in order to avoid conflict and financial crisis.
By Jamie Stowe, DBA, CPA
Associate Professor of Accounting at Liberty University School of Business