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March 01, 2005

Separate Accounts, Separate Lives?

David Brooks muses on the nature of marriage and the growing prevalence of separate bank accounts:

...some of the people quoted in Shellenbarger's article seem unaware that there may be a distinction between the individualistic ethos of the market and the communal ethos of the home. A Texas woman celebrated her family's separate accounts, remarking, "It's so freeing to be your own person, and not feel like someone is looking over your shoulder." It's not clear whether she's talking about a marriage or a real estate partnership.

I went to the local bookstore and was startled to see how many personal finance gurus insist on separate accounts. "If you're part of a couple, maintain separate accounts - yours, mine and ours," writes Glinda Bridgforth in "Girl, Get Your Money Straight."

"Each partner needs his or her own money," writes the best-selling guru David Bach. "Regardless of whether or not you both work, each of you should maintain your own checking and credit card accounts." Bach says he doesn't need or want to know every detail of how his wife spends her money: "It's none of my business."

I'm not saying that people with separate accounts have marriages that are less healthy than anybody else's. I'm saying we should pause before this becomes the social norm. Private property is the basis for our market democracy. But private property in the home is an altogether trickier proposition.

For one thing, separate accounts can easily turn into secret accounts. A person's status and resources inside the home shouldn't be based on how much he or she is making outside it. A union based on love can easily turn into a merger based on self-interest, where the main criterion for continuing becomes: Am I getting a good return on my investment, psychic or otherwise?

The larger, far more important point is that in a society as individualistic as ours, it's especially important to protect and nurture the countervailing institutions. It's so easy for the powerful force of individualism to wash over and transform institutions - like family, religion and the military - that are supposed to be based on self-sacrifice, loyalty and love.


For most of our married life, we've had one bank account and most of the money that went into it came from my husband's salary. But by the same token, I managed the account and he really has never had any idea how I spent the money (nor has he asked). Not that I wouldn't have told him - the subject simply hasn't come up.

If I made a truly major purchase in the past, I generally consulted with him, but it wasn't unusual for me to spend upwards of $500 without stopping to "ask permission" first. I was the household manager and it was understood that I had purchasing authority. The truly odd thing about our financial arrangement was that unless he used the credit cards, my husband (who made the money) was more likely to have to consult with me before making a major purchase than I with him. Not because he needed to ask permission, but because I was more familiar with the budget and how much money we had in the bank.

We now have separate accounts. He has his own account (at my urging) and I still manage the main account with most of the money. But I don't think it matters much whether a couple has separate accounts or not - I think your attitude towards your money is more important.

We've always considered both our salaries as "ours", regardless of whose account the money goes into, and I've never inquired into his spending, nor has he inquired into mine. But then I don't think either of us spends money in such a way that would cause the other one to object, either. If anything, I wish my husband would spend more money on himself.

Posted by Cassandra at March 1, 2005 09:16 AM

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You know, that is funny you mention separate accounts. I am the guru and he asks me. But he does have a separate account that we put money into for gas, incidentals, (I don't ask)and other things.

He has it as a debit account so he doesn't need to carry cash.

It simplifies things so much.

Posted by: Cricket at March 1, 2005 10:16 AM

That's pretty much the way we run things, Cricket. He has an allotment and if he needs extra money he can just transfer it into his account (but he usually asks me to do it for him, and I always give him about double what he asks for).

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2005 10:18 AM

And I've never seen his checkbook and wouldn't dream of asking to see it - it's really none of my business what he spends money on. Why would I want to know? He's a big boy and I trust him.

I don't even know how much he was going into his allotment (although I can easily find out by looking at the bank statement, but I really don't care).

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2005 10:20 AM

Brooks has a point, if your marriage is about what's hers and what's his then you have a problem, but seperate accounts is not the problem, it is merely a symptom of the problem.

I use a debit card for nearly everything so I don't have to carry cash. Seperate accounts for me is a great way to avoid overdraft charges.

Posted by: Pile On® at March 1, 2005 11:50 AM

The only time I was asked to care was when he was in Kuwait. I got a nasty gram from the bank asking me if someone had taken his card and why I hadn't reported it stolen. Of course, I was all a flutter.

I told them that was where he was. He was getting me a present and had used it. Well, you know, even though it was SUPPOSED to be a surprise, I didn't say anything to him about it, cleared it up with the bank and just kept an eye on the account while he was gone, as he couldn't access it from where he was (he asked me to to make sure he had cash in there)only use the card.

Posted by: Cricket at March 1, 2005 12:02 PM

My wife has the bank account and bills. It didn't start that way, but evolved into that. Everything is in some Quikken program, too.

I charge just about everything to a BP credit card and pay it off every month. Then the "free" gas cards come rolling in. They make nice gifts and unexpected bonuses.

Well, gotta go to SLC, Utah. See y'all next week (unless I find unexpected time and a computer).

Posted by: KJ at March 1, 2005 01:45 PM

I defy anyone to say free gas three times fast.

Posted by: Pile On® at March 1, 2005 01:51 PM

Bye KJ. Take care :) We'll miss you.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2005 01:53 PM

Similar situation in my house. We do not have separate accounts, I am the bread winner but she does all of the book-keeping, bill paying. It is a major relief that I do NOT have to deal with that. If the price to pay is having to ask her when I want to make a major purchase, It is one I gladly pay.

I guess trust, love and being married for 26 years may have something to do with it also.


Posted by: Danjo at March 1, 2005 05:21 PM

Danjo, it's funny - once or twice my husband had made noises about taking back the finances.

I handed them over with alacrity. They were returned in relatively short order with even greater alacrity :)

Posted by: Cassandra at March 1, 2005 05:34 PM

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