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When you’re at the stage of a committed relationship where you’re sharing finances, it may make sense to also share accounts. When you’re saving and spending together, why not keep money in the same place?
It’s no wonder that many American couples choose to stick with joint accounts only. However, it’s also not the wisest approach.
Here’s why it’s important to keep financial autonomy in a relationship—and how to do it right.
The problem with joint accounts
There’s nothing inherently wrong with joint accounts. They can make it easier to budget together and allow for financial transparency between partners.
It becomes a problem when a couple only has joint accounts, which is true for 43 percent of U.S. adults who are married, in a civil partnership or living together, according to a survey from Creditcards.com.
Older generations are more likely to only have joint accounts. The survey found 48 percent of Gen Xers (42 to 57 years old) and 49 percent of baby boomers (58 to 76 years old) who are married or live together only have shared accounts, compared to 31 percent of millennials (26 to 41 years old).
Younger people are also more likely to have only separate accounts. For instance, 45 percent of younger millennials (ages 26 to 32) who are married, in a civil partnership or living with their partner don’t share any accounts, compared to 20 percent of Gen Xers and 14 percent of baby boomers.
No matter your age or how long you’ve been in a relationship, it’s crucial to maintain at least some financial autonomy. While joint accounts are convenient, not having any separate accounts can lead to certain issues.
Consider the following potential problems.
When you share all accounts with your significant other, you rely on them to make the right financial decisions. Your personal financial health depends on the other person’s spending habits.
If your partner gets into debt without discussing it with you first, you’re still liable for it. If they overspend, your budget takes a hit too. Or, if you make a financial decision your partner disagrees with, you’ll be responsible for its impact on them.
Lack of autonomy
When you make a full switch to joint accounts, you may be giving away some of your autonomy.
If you and your partner both have established careers and financial assets, fully combining finances and sharing all accounts may be a challenge. If you’re not earning and spending equally, conflicts may arise. Further, you and your partner may begin to feel like you have to ask for permission before spending money, which can lead to frustration.
It’s wise to be even more careful if your partner is the sole breadwinner. When you fully rely on the other person to financially support you and have no accounts of your own, there may be a significant power imbalance. You may also feel like your financial well-being depends on your relationship, which is never a healthy dynamic.
Issues if the relationship ends
It’s not a pleasant thing to consider, but any relationship can come to an end. In the case of joint accounts, a breakup can get messy. If one of the partners wants to clean out all joint accounts, nothing is stopping them. Not to mention, these funds may be a headache to divide in case of divorce.
Things can get even more complicated when financial abuse is present. Not having any separate accounts leaves an abused partner especially vulnerable and may prevent them from leaving a dangerous situation.
How to successfully manage joint accounts
Despite all the drawbacks, a joint checking or savings account may be a useful tool for managing money in a relationship. You just need to know how to use it right.
Here are some tips for doing just that:
Maintain a healthy balance of joint and separate accounts
You can share a few accounts—for example, for shared expenses and savings—and have a few accounts of your own.
This way, you have plenty of transparency into shared finances but still can retain your autonomy.
Continue financial conversations
It’s rarely fun to talk about money, but it’s crucial whether you share accounts or not. Financial autonomy doesn’t mean such conversations should cease.
This is an ongoing struggle for many people. For instance, according to the survey from CreditCards.com, millennials are the most financially autonomous generation, with 69 of millennials with significant others having at least some separate accounts. At the same time, 48 percent of millennials who are married, in a civil partnership or living together have kept financial secrets from their current spouse or partner.
Current budget, goals, and obstacles should be an ongoing conversation for any couple. Whether you share all your accounts or none at all, keeping communication open and regular will help you reach financial transparency—and make such conversations less awkward with time.
Decide how you’ll contribute to shared accounts
Say, you have a few separate accounts, perhaps a joint checking account to pay for shared expenses and a savings account to save on a home. In this situation, the important thing to discuss is how much each of you will contribute to these accounts.
It’s easy if your incomes are equal—simply chip in fifty-fifty. However, that’s rarely the case. If either of you are earning considerably more, it would be hard on the other to pull the same weight. Instead, see how you can make it fair for both of you.
A good way to do that is to use percentages. For example, in the situation above, if your shared expenses are 35 percent of your combined income, each of you should contribute 35 percent of your paycheck to your joint checking account. Then, you can agree on the percentage you’re going to put toward your home savings each month.
You may come up with your own solution too. The main thing is to stay honest and make sure no one leaves the conversation harboring resentment.
The bottom line
Many American couples only have joint accounts. While joint accounts are convenient and allow for financial transparency, they can also cause issues both in your relationship and your financial life. Potential problems include lack of autonomy, shared responsibility in case of a partner’s missteps, and issues that can arise if the relationship ends.
To avoid these, make sure you maintain a healthy balance of joint and separate accounts, discuss how you’ll be contributing to shared accounts and keep the conversation going. After all, when it comes to shared finances—just like with anything in a relationship—communication is key.