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Sarah Anne Ward
Sarah Anne Ward
Money

Should Couples Have Joint Or Separate Bank Accounts?

Finance expert Jean Chatzky has the answer.

Every Thursday this month, AARP Financial Ambassador Jean Chatzky is answering questions from Girlfriend readers.

Q. How do you feel about separate bank accounts for couples?

A. In my new book, "Women With Money," I lay out about a dozen examples of how real-life couples manage their money. Some have separate accounts across the board. Some have joint accounts for banking and brokerage accounts (though separate retirement accounts because that’s the nature of the beast). Some have a mixture of joint and separate accounts. One woman describes an, as she put it, “totally retro” period of her marriage when, because she stepped out of the workforce to care for the kids, her husband gave her a monthly allowance. I described this wide array of systems intentionally because all of them are working.

So when you ask how I feel about separate bank accounts for couples — and I will answer that question in a moment — I have to tell you that I think the more important question is: How do you feel? The mere fact that you’re asking makes me think maybe they’re either something you want and don’t know how to ask for or establish, or something you have but really don’t like.

As for me, in my first marriage we merged everything. We were just starting out. Both of our parents had merged their finances. We really didn’t consider doing anything else. Then I got divorced and, eventually, remarried, and this time around we kept everything separate for the first couple of years. My new husband was in the process of paying college tuition for his children. Those expenses in my life were further down the pike. I owned the house we lived in. He rented an apartment we used in NYC. Merging didn’t seem to make sense. Over time, though, we opened an account for our joint household expenses and applied for a joint credit card. (Frankly, alternating who picked up the tab in restaurants got annoying.) That yours-mine-and-ours system is what we’ve stuck with to this day.

My strongest feeling on the topic is that each person in a relationship needs to have some financial autonomy. Each needs to have the ability to make a purchase, an investment, a charitable contribution — not of a size that will wreak havoc on the family finances, of course — without asking for permission. Permission is parental and unromantic, which of course is the furthest thing from the goal. You can accomplish that by having separate accounts. But you can also accomplish it by just having a conversation about where the line in the financial sand is (dollar-wise) that you won’t cross without talking about it, and then respecting that line. Having joint financial goals goes a very long way, too. As long as you’re both moving in the same financial direction, you’ll both be happier with whatever system you’ve set up.

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Sarah Anne Ward