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One, two or three checking accounts for couples?
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For couples who live together, but who are not married, separate checking accounts also make good sense, particularly since unmarried couples don't have laws to protect them in case they split up.

"If partners aren't committed emotionally or financially to each other, it's best to keep assets separate," says Debra A. Neiman, Watertown, Mass.-based financial planner, and co-author of "Money Without Matrimony."

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"Don't blend anything, including bank accounts ... Casually committed couples should operate as two separate financial entities that happen to cohabit," she says.

While financial experts agree that it's best to keep separate checking accounts, that doesn't mean an unmarried couple can't have a joint account for joint expenses. "For those couples who decide that a joint checking account for mutual household expenses is just too convenient to pass up, that's OK," Neiman says.

Again, with a joint household expense account, the best arrangement is to put one person in charge of it to avoid confusion. That way, there should be no questions about outstanding checks and balances.

Communication is key
When setting up a joint account, it's important to come to an agreement on the amount each person will contribute to it. Couples with similar incomes may wish to contribute 50 percent each to household expenses. When there's a big disparity in income, it may make more sense for the partner with the higher income to contribute more.

"The amounts that each contributes is determined by a number of factors," says Tonia Papke, president of MDI Consulting in South Orange, N.J. "If both are working and make equal salaries, it might be the same amount. If one member is not working in order to take care of the children, one person would put in most of the monthly requirement."

Setting up separate accounts so that each partner can access money that they don't have to account for is a good way to preserve domestic harmony. Each household member should have their own checking account for personal expenses, Papke says.

Communication can prevent misunderstandings. Besides setting general ground rules on how much each party will contribute to what account, it's also important to decide when and under what circumstances checks will be written against particular accounts. Also, make sure you set aside time on a regular basis to discuss the household budget.

Be sure to revisit your plan if your circumstances change. For example, the Thompsons, did just fine for a while, having the husband take care of the joint account since he wrote most of the checks. Then they had kids and Pamela Thompson stopped working full time.

"That led to a lower income and, for me, writing more checks," she says. "After a few overdrawn accounts -- thank goodness for overdraft protection -- I took over the family checkbook."

Today she pays all the bills and "I even do cash-flow projections that I share with my husband so he knows what the checking account balance will be for a few weeks out," Thompson says. "The trade-off is that he enters all of our information in Quicken and prints out regular budget reports that we review together, usually over a glass of wine."

For some couples, two separate checking accounts plus a joint account is just too much. Here's an alternative way to share expenses with just two separate accounts: Divide the bills and determine who pays what. Then each partner is responsible for paying those particular bills from his or her own checking account. Perhaps the wife can pay the mortgage while the husband picks up utilities, insurance and the monthly car payment. Or each partner can pay the other for half of a bill and then the responsible party cuts the check to the creditor.

The most important thing is to communicate your expectations, talk about your actions and devise a bill-paying plan that both partners can live with. A good plan will ensure happy togetherness, even when money isn't commingling in a joint account.

A poll for couples sharing finances

  How many checking accounts do you have in your household?

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: Nov. 4, 2005

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