Whether you’re engaged, married, or simply spending all of your time with someone, figuring out what to do with your bank accounts as a couple can be a challenge. As your relationship becomes more serious, the conversation often moves from “Who’s paying for drinks?” to “How are we going to split rent payments?” to “How are we going to save for the down payment on a house?”
When the stakes get higher and your joint expenses become larger and more complicated, pressure and anxiety can rise, too. Which is why it’s important to have a financial plan. Not sure where to start? Don’t worry: You’ve come to the right place.
There are three types of paths that you can take as a couple: completely separate accounts, completely joint accounts, or a combo (having both joint accounts and personal accounts). How do you know which strategy is best for your particular scenario?
“The trend is to move toward combining at least some accounts, especially if you get married, because your financial life tends to be more complex at that point in time, but it’s not necessary. It’s more important that you understand day-to-day money management, whichever way you decide to go,” says Alison Norris, a Certified Financial Planner at SoFi.
Take a closer look at the pros and cons of each approach so you can stress less and get excited about what the future holds for both of you.
Completely Separate Accounts
This is most common among people who aren’t married, especially among those who haven’t been dating for very long, says Norris.
Pros: You don’t necessarily have to open up any new accounts, so you can continue doing whatever you’ve always done. You predetermine which expenses each of you covers. You can still split expenses with your partner (say, splitting rent 50/50, or a percentage that reflects both of your incomes), you’ll just pay for things from your different accounts.
There’s also less judgment about your spending habits since your partner isn’t logging in and looking at your bank statements. You have full control over your money and you don’t need to check in with anyone to spend it as you see fit.
Cons: If you have a joint savings goal—such as trying to save for a vacation or wedding—it’s harder to know right away whether or not you’re making progress. You have to communicate more with your partner and make sure you’re both contributing in the way that you’ve agreed upon.
Some Joint Accounts, Some Personal Accounts
This is what Norris does with her partner, and it’s the approach that she sees couples take most often.
Pros: You might see this as the best of both worlds, because you can keep your individual accounts for judgment-free discretionary spending. But you can also have joint investment or savings accounts for things like a down payment or a shared car. With joint accounts, you can always see how much your partner is contributing to make sure you’re on track to meet your goals. You get the feeling of teamwork without losing all of your financial independence.
Cons: You’ll have to open some more accounts, which will make your finances a little more complicated than they were before. Beyond just remembering more user names and passwords, you’ll need to monitor all those accounts regularly to have a complete picture of your finances. It requires a little more time and effort than the first approach.
This means combining every single account that you have—all checking, savings, and investment accounts—except your retirement savings accounts (government regulations mean those have to be individual).
Pros: It’s simple in the sense that once you make the switch, you have the smallest number of accounts to monitor and you have the clearest picture of how you’re doing financially as a couple.
Cons: It may feel drastically different from what you’ve been doing in the past—and more limiting. For instance, sharing a checking and savings account can be tricky if you don’t budget ahead of time with your partner. Let’s say you have $800 in the account, and you each go out and make a $500 purchase without consulting each other—you’re looking at overdraft fees.
Another downside: In this scenario, your partner can see every single transaction that you make and you may not want him or her weighing in on your discretionary spending. Does he really need to know just how often you hit up Starbucks or what your regular haircut actually costs?
Questions To Ask Yourself
Before you make a decision, consider these factors.
1. Are you 100% comfortable giving your partner insight into all of your purchases? If so, then #3 may be best for you. If not, then go with #1 or #2.
2. Are you actively saving for something large and further down the horizon beyond just next month’s rent? That’s a scenario in which having at least one joint account may be helpful, so you might want to consider #2 or #3.
3. Are your incomes and expenses roughly the same, or very different? If the latter, try to find a way that you are both able to save a proportional amount of your income. Consider your take home pay minus fixed expenses and minimum debt payments. Then use that figure to determine who should pay for what. Remember that fair doesn’t always mean equal, and you will likely keep separate debt obligations and retirement accounts for all options.
No matter which strategy you choose, make sure that you and your partner are both comfortable with it, and set up ground rules. The goal is having clarity about your financial situation so there’s no confusion or resentment. Communicating about it might feel awkward at first, but it can help reduce friction down the line.
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