How Joint Money Management Is Keeping My Marriage Together

I have recently been thinking quite a lot about career transitions, two-body problems, and money in marriage. Kyle and I keep completely joint finances, which I think is a key reason that we are living in the same city and working together to optimize our two-body solution.  If we had separate finances, things would probably look quite different…

 

joint finances keeping us together

 

How We Got to Where We Are

 

Kyle and I started dating when we were undergraduates, both graduating in 2007 and planning to get PhDs in our respective fields.  He started his PhD program right after graduation, while I worked for a year before entering my PhD program. My chief criterion by far for evaluating my grad school options was the quality of the advisor with whom I would work.  When I determined that the university Kyle attended was tied with another university as my top choices, I allowed his presence there plus the superior weather break the tie in its favor. I say that to emphasize that as a single woman I was not willing to compromise my career for a dating relationship.

 

Kyle wants to continue doing research in his current field as a postdoc (another step in the academic training pathway, and now a prerequisite for doctoral-level jobs in many fields), whereas I’m not very focused in my career goals and am open to a variety of paths. That difference plus our expectation that Kyle would graduate about a year before me led us to agree during our engagement that I would be the trailing spouse in our first post-PhD job search.

 

But then Kyle’s time in grad school became protracted and mine came to an abrupt end due to my advisor moving to another university, and I ended up defending only 2.5 months after Kyle did with no full-time job lined up.  Kyle’s advisor offered him a short-term postdoc in his lab, so he has had continuous employment.  Our original two-body solution was for Kyle to apply for top postdoc positions in his field in several cities while I simultaneously applied for jobs in San Diego, which is where we want to be in the long term.  However, Kyle’s advisor has suggested he hold off on applying for jobs until he submits 2-3 more papers so his CV will be stronger – meaning that I’m available to start full-time work now, but he’s not, the reverse of what we had planned.

 

Where does this leave me?  This month is my last one as a paid graduate student. Because Kyle and I have fully joint finances, we don’t distinguish between his income and mine in terms of how the money is spent, so I’m not going to be out on the street or anything. 🙂 But what would happen if we had separate finances?

 

Separate Finances Would Lead Us to Long-Distance Marriage

 

I believe that if we had separate finances (or rather, had a philosophy of marriage that led to keeping separate finances), we would be living apart now.  Living apart doesn’t spell doom for a relationship by any means – in fact, we had expected to live apart while I finished grad school – but it’s certainly not what we prefer.

 

Here is my train of thought: If we had separate or partly joint and partly separate finances, we would each be responsible for earning at least enough to provide for our basic living expenses, or pulling them from individual savings.  In that case, I would want to keep my career moving full-steam and not settle for a transition job right after grad school while waiting for Kyle to be ready to move. I’m very proactive about employment so if I only had myself to consider I’m sure I would have made time to find a job. Since we know we want to leave this area in the near future, I likely would not look locally for full-time work.  In fact, I’d probably leapfrog Kyle and try to get a job in one of our target cities before he has a chance to search for postdocs. So I would be living in that city while Kyle finishes up in Durham, and he’d be limited to postdocs in the city in which I found my job (and his ideal one might not even pan out). Or he’d take a better postdoc in a different city and we’d be living apart for even longer or I’d have to leave my job to move to where he found one.

 

In my view, keeping separate finances would lead to a kind of career competition between the two of us, with each rushing to find our own ideal job with little consideration to where the other already had or could find work.  That would likely result in us living apart, but even if it didn’t I think it would be a rather stressful mess with much wasted energy and time.

 

Joint Finances Allow Us to Live Together and Optimize

 

Because our money is totally pooled, I have the opportunity to be funemployed this fall.  I’d like to bring in some side income, but we can get by on Kyle’s salary alone, perhaps pulling a bit from savings.  I don’t feel one bit of guilt about relying on my husband’s salary and Kyle is of course not holding it against me in any way – just like when we used his savings to pay my student loans.  We are equals partners in our marriage, differentiated in these cases by circumstance rather than dignity.

 

My funemployment should benefit both Kyle and me.  I get a break from working full-time, which I desperately need after six years of a PhD program and a sprint to the finish.  Kyle gets to be the leading spouse; we’ll likely move to the city that can offer him the best postdoc position, unless it seems really awful for my career goals. We both get the benefit of living together instead of apart. I’m even hoping I’ll be able to get a better job after my funemployment than I would have right after grad school because I can use this period to hone skills, gain work experience, and take the time necessary to find a great-fitting job. I won’t have to rush into the first job I find just for the paycheck.

 

This is one of the situations that convince me that having (even partly) separate finances in a marriage doesn’t make sense – I believe separate finances will eventually break down.  How can you make sacrifices to do what’s best for your marriage when you always have to fully provide for yourself?  I think that most spouses are more reasonable and compassionate toward one another and would very willingly financially support each other through job transitions or if one spouse needed or wanted to stop working.  So why keep up the façade of separate finances before that point?

 

It’s not really joint finances, after all, that is keeping us together. We’re still living in the same city and trying to optimize our two-body solution because we prioritize what’s best for our marriage above our individual career aspirations and financial wants.  Our joint money management system simply flows from that view of marriage.

 

How have you and your spouse prioritized your respective careers during moves? If you had a different money management system, do you think you would view your or your spouse’s career differently?

 

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31 Responses to "How Joint Money Management Is Keeping My Marriage Together"

  1. Alicia says:

    My fiancé is a few years older than me, but doesn’t have the career- and earning potential I will have. So when I finished grad school, I became the leading spouse, especially since I didn’t have anything except for a lot of schooling on my CV. It helps that my fiancé isn’t tied to a specific location for his work, but he wants to go back to school for a trade… which means I need to know we’re staying put for at least two years. And I can’t currently say that.
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    1. Emily says:

      Maybe with the next job move, though? I’m sure it would benefit both of you for him to be able to continue his education.

  2. We are in the same boat as you two–joint finances all the way. For us, combining our finances is a symbolic and practical means of combining our dreams and goals for the future. It’s the most honest action we can take to say I trust you and our lives are linked! Thanks for sharing this!
    Mrs. Frugalwoods recently posted..Travel Cheap By Eating Like a Local

    1. Emily says:

      I agree, joint finances and shared dreams/goals go hand in hand. And if you ever get off the same page, they force you to get right back on, which I love!

  3. MDN says:

    I’ve never really looked at it from this point of view. I’m not married yet, but I am engaged and have been living with my fiancee for over a year now. We have everything separate right now and since it’s been working fine for us we have thought of keeping it that way until we purchase a house together or have kids.
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    1. Emily says:

      I think many people take that “separate until it has to be joined” approach, but if you see yourselves joining eventually why not just do it when you get married?

  4. I imagine that for some people, completely joint finances destroy their marriage. It’s something couples have to work out on their own.
    nicoleandmaggie recently posted..Deaccessioning: A sad post

    1. Emily says:

      Anecdotally, the married couples I know IRL with separate or partially separate finances are doing it for historical or convenience reasons rather than philosophical. I think the marriage that would be destroyed by joint finances has a lot bigger issues than how the money is managed! It seems to me that not being able to agree on how to use money to a great extent should be a big red flag that needs to be carefully examined before a marriage is formed. Again, the couples I know aren’t necessarily unable to agree, but just haven’t had a reason yet like unemployment to force them to rely on one another.

      1. Anecdotally, my parents aren’t divorced yet (FORTY YEARS) and #2 on the blog is incredibly bonded with her partner and vice versa (TWENTY YEARS). A large measure of separation allows my mom to buy as many mystery novels as she wants while my father can be as skinflinty as he wants and #2’s partner to go crazy with comic books while she goes crazy with things he’d prefer not to buy. Among many other things. YOUR experience is not EVERYBODY’S experience.

        You can “not be able to agree on how to use money to a great extent” with joint finances. You can agree with how money is spent (as in, you get to do whatever you want with “your” money) with finances that aren’t completely joint. How you merge or don’t merge your finances is completely orthogonal to “bigger issues” in the marriage. Merging or not merging is a tool of convenience and should be figured out between members of a couple without judgment from random people on the internet who know nothing about the individual couple’s situation.

        And it’s really judgmental in a bad way to go and say there’s something wrong with anybody who doesn’t have completely merged finances. It’s pretty horrible, in fact. Disappointing.
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        1. Emily says:

          It seems to me that you’re taking my comments further than they were phrased and intended. Having individual spending money for books and other personal purchases, if that’s the majority of the separation, is still agreeing on your finances to a great extent IMO.

          I’m all for already-formed marriages staying intact, and if separate or partially separate finances is how it has to be, then that’s that. But I think it’s also prudent to carefully examine several important areas of life, finances being one, prior to marriage to make sure that both people agree (largely) or are flexible. If not, as I said that is “red flag” – not that the marriage definitely shouldn’t occur, but that it warrants further investigation and negotiation. And obviously people change over time as well so the system agreed on at the start may not be the same as the system in use decades later. I have stated before on EPF, for example, that Kyle and I may shift to a joint-with-allowances type of money management system when we have more disposable income.

          I agree with you that a couple’s money management system is a tool, but not that it is completely orthogonal to their overall view of their marriage. Similarly to how your spending/saving habits reveal your priorities, how you choose to manage your money with your spouse make some kind of statement about the relationship. That statement may be “we agree that we don’t have to agree on x% of our spending,” or it may be “we have conflicting views of money that we are not able to reconcile.” The former could be a choice made to give some independence over a trivial amount of money, while the latter could grow into major problems if perpetuated for many years.

  5. E 2 says:

    I think what you say at the end, that it isn’t the finances but the prioritization of your marriage, sounds more sensible than putting it down to money management! If you had separate finances and prioritized your marriage first, then in a situation where one of you were unemployed, you’d do the practical thing and pool, wouldn’t you? (That’s what we’re planning on doing this fall, because my husband is starting a postdoc so our incomes won’t be more-or-less equal anymore, and because we are planning in case I need to take unpaid time off after childbirth and during my job search.) Separate finances wouldn’t lead you to living separately unless you were more concerned with your careers or independent finances than being with your spouse first. The finances would just be a symptom.

    1. Emily says:

      That’s the point that I was making about separate finances and your example fits exactly with it. I’m arguing that the vast majority of couples who keep separate finances aren’t actually committed to that system philosophically and will abandon it as soon as it becomes unreasonable. What I’m imagining here is if we had the type of marriage that actually was committed to separate finances and therefore our individual careers/incomes were prioritized ahead of optimizing our careers together. A two-body problem is hardly even a problem in that type of marriage; I know a few and have heard of many dual-academic married couples who choose to live apart for the indefinite long-term so they can each pursue their careers.

      Did you decide to stay at your university and TA?

  6. My boyfriend and I joined finances when we moved for the second time. We had already been living together, and splitting everything had proven to be inconvenient. I know it’s not for everyone (especially before marriage), but it’s worked for us.

    My boyfriend purposely took a job that would eventually relocate us, so we have been focused on his career for the last year and a half. Now, we’re living on his salary and (technically) my savings, while I give freelancing a go (and work out what I want out of a career). Both of us are fine with this and there’s no resentment at all. If anything, we’re more in tune with our goals than before, and my boyfriend has been incredibly supportive.
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    1. Emily says:

      That’s great that your change in employment has brought your goals together even more in line. I’ll have to see if the same happens for us in the fall in terms of choosing the city we’ll move to.

  7. We have always had joint finances with no problems. I honestly can’t imagine doing it any other way!
    [email protected] recently posted..Saving For My Dream Goal

    1. Emily says:

      There wasn’t any other method we considered when we were preparing to be married, and now that I have been exposed to the other methods through the PF blogosphere I’m glad we didn’t try any others!

  8. jefferson says:

    my wife and I have always shared finances as well, Emily..

    and to me– that’s part of what marriage is all about. openness and trust, and sharing in the decision making.
    jefferson recently posted..Where Do You See Yourself in 25 Years?

    1. Emily says:

      Yes, I agree. Having joint finances is actually a great way to stay connected, which is why we would try to practice it even if we were living apart.

  9. This post is very timely for me! I am getting married in October, and my fiance is also in an academic field (I was, too, when we first met). He is the leading spouse in terms of job searches: he’s going on the faculty market in the fall, and there are only a few places that would work for his weird niche of a subfield. I can keep my current job and work remotely, or from another office location, and I’m a lot less tied to my current career than he is to his.

    We are also joining finances (we have been gradually doing so over the course of our engagement and plan to finish up as soon as possible after the wedding), but I have a question that I’d really like your input on! How do you think it should be handled if one spouse inherits a significant sum of money or makes a bunch of money by selling a business? My fiance is likely to spin his research off into a start-up at some point, and I just can’t really figure out what to do in the (unlikely) event that he ends up with like 10x my earning potential. Thoughts? We have been talking about it, but it’s complicated!

    1. Emily says:

      Best of luck to your fiance on the academic job hunt! That is great that you have the option of keeping your job through that move.

      As for your question about a windfall, the first consideration would be who the money belongs to legally, which would depend on what state you live in when it occurs. It may be that he is able to keep it legally separate from you, or he may not. An inheritance I believe you can usually keep separate if you never mingle it with your joint money, but in most states money you earn during the marriage would belong to both. Definitely need to check it for your specific (future?) state though.

      As for whether you would want to consider a windfall joint money, that’s quite a personal decision and I think it’s great you’re working through these potential scenarios now. Since you said you are joining finances, what is the reason why you would want to keep high earnings separate? Are you hedging against divorce? Do you think the higher earner should be able to decide what to do with the money, even though it would be for both of you? Should it be reinvested? Is there some mistrust if the stakes are high? Do you want to have a pre-nup? Not that you need to answer these to me, but I’m sure you’ve been talking them over.

      For me and Kyle, we keep everything pooled so it doesn’t matter who brings the money in. Kyle actually received a small inheritance recently and we put it right into joint savings to start a down payment fund (after a double-checking discussion that he still felt that way). We decided that we are going to have unity in our finances and have no interest in keeping money allocated individually. What would Kyle do with the inheritance money on his own, after all? Have a better retirement than I will? Buy toys for himself and none for me? Drive a nicer car? None of those are how we want to run our lives.

      You didn’t mention whether it was you or your fiance (or both) who had trepidation about the potential windfall. I would expect that it would naturally be the ‘earner’ who might have an issue sharing, but I’ve seen in some of my friends that it’s actually the other spouse who might have a problem accepting the windfall because he/she feels undeserving. Definitely explore that if you haven’t already. Also keep in mind that the situation could very well be flipped someday with you receiving a windfall – would you come to the same decision if it were?

      It’s such an interesting question! Please keep me updated on what you decide and the job hunt.

  10. Tarynkay says:

    My parents got married in 1972. They started out with joint finances, but discovered that this irritated both of them, so they separated all of their money. They have maintained separate finances ever since. My mother stayed home with us kids for 12 years, during which time she made no money at all. My father just transferred money from his account into hers every month. My dad never resented my mom for not working. They both really wanted her to be home with us. I used to think that the money was not shared fairly, since my dad always seemed much richer than my mom. But I recently found out that no, he has always transferred half of his income to her account, she just enjoys being really frugal.

    My husband and I got married in 2001 and have had completely joint finances from the beginning. If someone asked me for marriage/financial advice, I would say, “have joint finances! It is easier and forces you to communicate more!” But if people prefer to keep things separate, I can’t say that is going to necessarily spell doom for them. My parents have been at this for 42 years, after all.

    That said, we have friends who kept an actual spreadsheet of who owed who what. If he borrowed money for a candy bar, that 88 cents went on the spreadsheet and came off her portion of the light bill. It was intense! She could not understand how we could have joint finances bc, as she said, “If he spends $20, you have to spend $20. Otherwise it’s not fair.” Anyhow, they were married for less than five years. I don’t know that separate finances was why, probably it was just a symptom of much larger issues.

    tl;dr Joint finances can be an indicator of good financial communication in a relationship. But even if checking accounts are separate, the important thing is that both people in the couple share and agree upon their financial goals.

    Or you know, whatever works for people. We have neighbors who have been dating seriously for the past fifteen years or so. They maintain two separate houses, two blocks apart. Works for them!

    1. Emily says:

      Those are very interesting examples. Your parents especially have quite an unusual system and are a counter-example to my paragraph about separate finances eventually breaking down. I have a hard time classifying their system as totally separate, since for a while anyway they were sharing one income and they didn’t do the splitting as intensely as your other friends. What expenses did they keep separate and what did they share? And if your mom was more frugal, does she have access to savings that your father doesn’t? When they were both working, did they split both incomes or did they each just go off their individual incomes? With your mom’s post-child-rearing income, does she get a supplement from your father for lost earning potential from her time out of the work force? (No expectation that you’ll answer these, just my mind running away with the logistics.) Anyway I am glad that they have a system that works for them, especially since they did give the joint approach a shot at the beginning.

      The fair vs. equal issue is a really tough one to learn. Somehow I think that both parties come out ahead in the long run when you don’t try to make things equal, though.

      1. Tarynkay says:

        I think that for my parents, it was mostly started out as a way of tracking the money. Keeping it in separate accounts made it easier to keep the checkbook balanced back then. But it was also the early 1980s when my mom was staying home with us, and that was difficult for her. She had considered herself a career woman and has said that she struggled with feeling irrelevant and not quite respectable. She used to call being a mother “the second oldest profession.” But she and my dad both felt strongly that it was important to have a stay at home parent. As an engineer, my dad had far greater earning potential. So he was transferring half of his salary to her as a way of communicating that what she was doing was valuable. Maybe it was a weird way of saying that, but I guess it worked for them. I guess if he had been paying someone to take care of his house and kids, it would have come out the same.

        Had she been disabled and unable to do any of that, I really can’t see that he would have done the money differently. But I do think that continuing to have her own money made her feel more secure in staying home. I hear that from mom friends a lot- they quit working and suddenly they feel like they are asking their husband’s for allowance.

        When they were both working, they went off their separate incomes BUT my dad continued to contribute all of the household expenses to my mom’s account since my mom paid all of the bills. He made far more money than she did, but she did all of the housework and most of the childcare in addition to working. So I guess they thought that was equitable. I don’t think that she has access to more money than he does now, no. She is just naturally very cheap. He is always trying to convince her to spend more money. She is retired from teaching, so her retirement income is like, $1000 a month. So he is again putting half his paycheck into her account, which I guess you could see as compensating her for her years of lost income/career opportunities.

        It is not a strategy we followed, but everyone sees money a little differently. And I don’t know how to classify it either, but it does seem like a little more than just a facade of separate finances, since it was somehow pretty important to my mom’s sense of identity.

        1. Emily says:

          Thanks for this response! What an interesting system. There are both separate aspects (your mom’s income/half) and joint (your father paying all the household expenses). I definitely see how tracking would be easier separately before Mint. 🙂 I see a lot of similarities between your mom and mine, actually. It would sort of go with my mom’s independent personality to have at least some separate money, although my parents have always kept joint accounts.

  11. […] How joint money management is helping Emily’s marriage […]

  12. Simon says:

    On the issue of couple finances, no size fits all. Some couples are better off keeping their finances seperate. Yes, there are benefits to keeping finances jointly, its the ultimate show of openness and trust, but there are also downsides. It comes down to the couple and what they are trying to accomplish.
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    1. Emily says:

      How do you think a married couple with separate finances should navigate unemployment or short-term disability?

  13. SP says:

    I think there are two aspects to the joint vs separate debate. The first is “under normal circumstances”, and is more about the tactical way that a couple approaches everyday spending. In this case, I don’t really think it matters. Different personalties have different ways that minimize day-to-day stress. For some, it is the ability to see in detail where every penny goes. I’m a bit like this. For others, it is the ability to NOT have to see little transactions for things that you think are frivolous but your partner enjoys / values (and you are OK with because you love your partner, but you just don’t want to think about it).

    The other aspect is how you view your total income (family vs. shared), leading to how you would handle loss of income for unemployment, staying home with children, disability, etc. Personally, I want a marriage where we are a team, and I have that. Most marriages are like this, you just may not see it in their day-to-day managing system). But the other way works for some. You’d handle unemployment and disability the same way a single person might – emergency funds, unemployment / disability insurance, etc. You’d just have a partner there for emotional support. (I suspect even in these cases if you went broke and had no income, they wouldn’t kick you out. It is more about the expectation that you’d provide your share.)

    I don’t understand why just because someone will support their spouse if circumstances make it the best choice, they also should combine all of their accounts for day-to-day management. They are really two different questions.

    1. Emily says:

      You know, my brain must really work differently from you/anyone actually practicing separate-under-normal-circumstances finances because to answer your question of why it’s okay to keep separate sometimes but know that you would share money if pressed is just “Isn’t it obvious?” Haha! This is a harsher word than I really mean but I find it hypocritical. Maybe what I used in the post, facade, is better, or inaccurate. I’m just really into self-consistency! I think that you should try to make your account structure ownership match as closely as possible with how you view your accounts in reality. One of the tools I learned as a physics major is to use extreme values for variables like 0 or infinity to test equations to see if they give the expected answer – that’s why I think about the extreme situations of unemployment or disability to ‘test’ how couples really view their finances. And if joint is how you REALLY view it, why not practice it all the time? I think that’s the best I can do in explaining my opinion! I understand your point about how couples might want the day-to-day stuff to be out of sight, but I would just ask why not start with joint money and separate part of it? I also tried to think of how I would react if I were the still-employed half of a couple who day-to-day practices separate finances but in reality would financially support one another. I think I would feel much more resentful of my non-working spouse than I would in the case of joint finances, because I likely had individual plans for that cash flow and savings that now has to be diverted to support the other person. That’s probably another aspect of my personality that is not shared by all – if I have plans forming for something, I really hate when they are changed! So to me the way to avoid those negative feelings would be to keep joint in day-to-day as well.

      1. SP says:

        I think I value pragmatism more than self-consistency. 🙂 I won’t go out of my way to change something that is working if the “other way” isn’t superior for the current circumstances. For you, it sounds like it is superior because then you have a plan, and the plan is less likely to be disrupted.

        Re: extremes. In industry, we don’t typically want to design something for the extremes, we want to design it to exactly to the defined requirements. Anything more is waste. (Not to say over-designing isn’t extremely common, but managers hate it!)

        1. Emily says:

          Thanks for your response! I’m glad to have your perspective.

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