To Save Our Marriage, We Separated … Our Finances. Here’s Why It Worked.
Like exchanging house keys or meeting the parents, mingling finances is something of a relationship ritual. That moment when “yours” and “mine” becomes “ours” is a traditional milestone many married couples share. But what happens after the bloom is off the rose of a relationship?
When my husband and I first started living together, having someone share my financial problems seemed romantic. And as a teacher with a heavy student loan burden trying to survive on a shoestring budget, I certainly had my share.
In the honeymoon stage of our relationship, we made every financial decision together. Were we buying more car than we could afford? Should we transfer balances to pay down joint debt? After marriage, we jumped feet first into a joint account and started sharing lines of credit because it seemed like fiscally responsible adulting.
Fast forward 20 years, and we’ve got established careers, two kids, a dog and a house in the suburbs. Money arguments are no longer about whether we have enough money to pay the bills. Instead, financial disagreements became silent acts of attrition where one spouse feels judged for their spending habits — and nobody is saving enough for retirement.
After two decades, we were no longer on the same page about household finances and resentment was building. So we decided to do something radical. We ripped the page up and started over. My spouse and I decided to stop arguing about money and separate our finances.
It’s been two years since we split into separate bank accounts. Despite what all the financial experts say about the benefits of a shared account, I’m convinced separating our money saved our marriage.
Keeping finances completely separate isn’t the right decision for every couple, but financial independence can be vitally important to the health of long-term relationships in some situations.
Can You Be Married With Separate Finances?
It’s fair to say that even if you’re maintaining separate bank accounts, in community property states the finances of married couples or those in long-term partnerships aren’t really separate. Most financial assets and debt are considered joint whether you have your own account or not.
Because of this legal practicality, it makes sense that many married couples or those in civil partnerships don’t bother with individual accounts. However, there is a stark generational divide between those with a joint bank account and those with separate accounts.
A study from CreditCards.com indicated baby boomers are the most likely to share joint accounts (49%), followed by Gen Xers at 48%. But 45% of millennial couples with an average age between 26 and 32 are keeping finances separate rather than sharing all their money. Even in states where the distinction only provides the illusion of financial freedom.
4 Reasons to Separate Your Joint Bank Accounts
Just because you’re going steady (or married) doesn’t mean you have to share everything. And that includes managing money. Here are a few reasons why separating finances — even after you’ve been merging them for years — can be a smart move both for your bank account and your relationship.
1. Your Family Situation Is Complicated
No judgment, but blended families can create budgeting chaos. If one partner has children from another relationship, child support and other financial obligations can get sticky.
And as families grow, priorities change. Keeping separate accounts eliminates some of the challenges and can simplify a parent’s personal finance decisions.
2. You Manage Money Differently
Just because you’re attracted to someone doesn’t mean you love their money management approach. Maybe they were raised in the lap of luxury, and you’re used to scraping by or vice versa.
If spending habits are a growing source of frustration in your relationship, remove the stressor by separating accounts and disentangling shared credit cards. Even though you’ve decided to share your lives, it doesn’t mean you have to share every spending decision.
3. Someone Has an Inheritance
Inheriting a big chunk of change? Congrats. Your spouse isn’t entitled to that money even if you have joint accounts. But it can be smart to create a separate savings account to manage the inheritance so there’s no confusion.
Be careful not to accidentally invest the inheritance in ways that create shared assets such as a car, home or other joint assets.
Got an inheritance and worried you’re not using it wisely? Dear Penny has tips on what to do with an unexpected windfall.
4. You Need Financial Autonomy
During the honeymoon period, having someone to share your financial goals with seems idyllic. Until it’s not. Add in babies and mortgages and you can create a recipe for stress and financial infidelity.
This was the dealbreaker for my marriage. He was the breadwinner. I stayed home with the kids. In the end, no matter how often he reassured me, I felt like I was spending “his” money, not “our” money. That kind of power imbalance can cause friction and exaggerate other dysfunctional relationship dynamics.
Ultimately, I wanted my financial freedom because I needed the confidence to take care of myself. Disentangling our joint finances after two decades was serious work, but a financial divorce was much cheaper than divorce.
1 Big Reason to Keep a Joint Savings Account
Time for some real talk. While separating finances can be best in some situations, there is one very good reason for couples to stick with the commitment they’ve made to joint finances. Studies say people who manage their money together, stay together.
Research from Cornell indicates that pooling resources helped partners in the U.S. and UK shift their thinking in ways that go beyond managing money. Couples who merge their finances are more likely to use collective nouns like “we,” “us” and “our” and demonstrate a stronger connection and better communication.
That doesn’t mean you have to keep everything in the same account though. You could keep a few joint accounts, like one for the house or kids or common savings goals, and separate the rest.
How to Separate Accounts in 7 Steps
If you’ve decided that it’s time to separate finances and strike out on your own, there are some steps you should take to ensure you’re both on the same page. Here’s what I did to separate finances from my husband and embark on a new era of financial freedom.
1. Discuss Why You Want to Keep Finances Separate
Yes, this is the “it’s me, not you” conversation. Your partner deserves to know why you want to start managing money separately and what your goals are. And if you’ve been keeping some secrets about joint debt, now is the time to fess up and ask to start over. We have plenty of ways to help you pay off debt that’s weighing you down.
2. Decide How You’ll Keep Finances Separate
If you decide to separate finances, remember you don’t have to divide everything. Many couples embrace a hybrid approach with separate bank accounts or savings accounts and one joint checking account to tackle shared bills and household expenses.
3. Make a Plan for Paying Joint Bills
Part of the benefit of sharing living space is sharing living costs, including rent or the mortgage. Decide how you’ll divvy up household bills like utilities and who is responsible for paying them moving forward.
Don’t forget to safely share passwords to access online accounts and take care of switching over any auto payments.
4. Budget for Shared Expenses
You can plan for some expenses like utilities, but others, like grocery bills, are harder to pin down. Decide who handles different categories of monthly expenses, from food and dining out to gym memberships. Set aside some money and track those expenses monthly to adjust accordingly.
5. Talk Discretionary Spending
Separate isn’t equal. It’s tempting to divide all your expenses down the line, but that rarely works in relationships where partners are at different income levels. Instead, divide your expenses based on the portion of income to ensure fairness no matter what your partner earns.
If you find your partner wants to live a lifestyle you don’t have the budget for, have a hard conversation. Be clear about what you can contribute, and don’t get coerced into spending more than you can afford.
6. Set Some Shared Financial Goals
Just because you’ve separated finances doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work toward shared financial goals. Focus together on saving or investing to knock out some future financial priorities like establishing an emergency fund, building retirement savings or becoming debt free.
7. Reevaluate Often
Communication is key to any healthy relationship, and finances are no exception. You should have regular check-ins about how you’re spending money as a couple and any upcoming major financial decisions.
If your other half is in financial trouble, there are always a few ways to bail each other out, even when you keep things separate.
How We Divide Expenses But Keep Finances Separate
Our approach won’t work for everyone, but it might spark some inspiration. My spouse and I keep different savings and checking accounts. We don’t share credit cards. But when it comes to financial assets, both our names are on the big stuff, like the mortgage and the cars. That helps us both keep a solid, healthy credit rating.
Living expenses are tricky when one person makes double or triple the income, but we resolved this by shifting responsibility for big-ticket items to the breadwinner. This means he pays the mortgage, car insurance, health insurance, car payments and saves for retirement. I handle most of the variable expenses like utilities, clothing and personal care, household supplies and grocery bills. My savings is our emergency fund.
One snag we hit early on after separating finances was that my partner enjoys eating out more often than I can afford. Because I was fronting the costs for food, the ballooning budget became a problem. After tracking expenses for a month, I showed him what percentage of my income went toward dining out, and he agreed to pay those costs or curb the takeout habit.
How to Decide If Separate Finances Are Right for You
Separating finances was absolutely the right call for my marriage, but your experience may vary. My advice is to carefully consider your own needs when merging finances, especially if you’re financially incompatible due to divergent spending habits. If you’re the kind of person who appreciates autonomy in a relationship, consider keeping at least some of your money separate.
While it might be a tad tougher to work toward shared financial goals, you’ll find the benefits of no longer arguing about money are worth their weight in gold.
Kaz Weida is a senior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder covering saving money and budgeting. As a journalist, she has written about a wide array of topics including finance, health, politics, education and technology for the last decade.