Should you join your finances when you marry your households?

By Sarah Damon

If you share a household with a significant other, how do you handle the finances? Have you kept separate accounts or pooled your resources (and checking accounts)?

According to a Slate survey of 5,858 readers, it depends on whether the couple is married or not. In the survey, 48 percent of married couples combined their finances, while only 9 percent of cohabiting couples did so. That makes sense, since it's unwise to merge money until there's a serious commitment. Almost 61 percent of married couples with kids combined finances.

Maybe you haven't given much consideration to the pros and cons of each method, but figuring out the best way for the two of you to handle income and expenses might mean the difference between a peaceful household and arguing about every purchase. There's no one right answer for every couple, so consider the following methods for getting the bills paid as a team to figure out what might work best for you:

Separate finances

In this system, all accounts are kept separate. Usually, one partner will pay the bills and the other will write a check or pay cash for half. Other times each partner might take on specific bills that are roughly equal.

Separate finances can be ideal in a lot of situations, such as when:

  • Circumstances mean it's easier to keep accounts separate.
  • Each partner is responsible with money.
  • Both partners make roughly the same income.
  • Both partners have similar spending habits (i.e., one isn't a saver while the other is a spender).

As long as you have a good system for paying joint expenses, separate finances can work well.

Joint finances

A more traditional system for couples, joint finances mean you share everything--every savings account, checking account, and investment account.

Joint finances make sense when:

  • You want an easy way to manage your money.
  • You like handling the finances, and your partner is less interested (or thinks buying lotto tickets is a retirement plan).
  • You don't feel as comfortable as your partner with managing money.
  • You have children.
  • One partner is a stay-at-home parent.
  • Saving on account fees is important (fewer accounts means fewer fees).

This doesn't mean that just because you have kids that combining your finances is the only way to go, but for many couples with children, separate accounts can be more work since child-related expenses would need to be split.

Separate and joint finances

There also is a third, hybrid option, where a couple keeps their separate accounts and opens a joint account to save for big expenses or pay bills. Often the amount each contributes is a percentage of their salary.

The Slate survey found that couples who use a hybrid system seem to fight more than couples who use one of the other two methods, though the survey author hypothesizes that this may be because the hybrid method requires a lot more communication. The hybrid system is worth consideration when:

  • You want your own money, but you have a lot of joint expenses (kids, saving for a house, etc.).
  • You and your partner have different spending habits.
  • You like a balanced checkbook but don't want to scrutinize your partner's every expense.
  • Separate finances have worked well in the past, but you'd like an easy way to pool money for bills.

Again, it's most important to do what works best for you and your partner. As J.D. Roth of the blog Get Rich Slowly said in his post on couples and finances, "What's most important is honesty and communication. Any system in which the partners are open about their money habits is a good one."