my two cents

When Two Bank Accounts Become One

Photo: Jamie Hodgson/Getty Images

When my spouse and I moved in together, we split our rent down the middle and wrote separate checks every month. Nine years later, we still do the same, except he sends the check and I Venmo him my half. We’ve never had a joint account of any kind. We share health insurance, but not a credit card. We file taxes together, but we don’t even use the same bank.

Our system is partly borne of laziness (we just never got around to merging anything), but also of function — if it works, why change it? Our reasoning is hardly unusual: According to a 2018 survey by Bank of America, 28 percent of couples between the ages of 23 and 38 keep their finances separate, a much bigger segment than previous generations. This trend is widely attributed to people getting married later, after they’ve already established their own financial habits and incomes. It’s also been drilled into our heads as a smart choice. In my teens, I watched finance gurus like Suze Orman prosthelytize about the importance of women’s financial autonomy. My parents kept separate bank accounts. As a kid, I remember my mom buying a lipstick at Nordstrom and smiling with satisfaction as she handed over her credit card. “It feels great to have your own money,” she said.

And it does — to support myself, obviously, but also to avoid potential conflict. (Would my spouse be horrified by how much I spend on cherry-flavored seltzer at Duane Reade every month?) Considering the oft-reported fact that money is the biggest source of marital discord, it seems more sensible to spare each other the details of menial (and sometimes dumb) daily expenses. Farnoosh Torabi, a personal-finance expert who hosts the podcast So Money, agrees: “In my experience, pooling all your money can create a lot of tension, because every transaction can become a conversation,” she says. “Do you need to talk about how much you’re paying for a haircut? That gets very cumbersome, and, for lack of a better word, annoying.”

Which is why I was surprised to see that new research found the opposite — that merging money with a partner is actually better for long-term conjugal happiness, and keeping separate accounts coincides with higher levels of divorce. At first, I chalked it up to a chicken-or-egg phenomenon — happier couples are probably more likely to merge their finances, as previous data has shown. But in a working paper that examines data from five different studies on the topic, researchers from UCLA, Notre Dame, and the University College of London found that couples reported higher levels of satisfaction after they pooled their money, not before, suggesting causality rather than correlation. What’s more, their data showed that couples who managed joint funds together felt closer immediately after they’d had conversations about it.

Even more interesting was the connection between the degree that couples pooled their money and how happy they were. Participants who pooled all of their bank accounts with their spouse were the most content, with a median relationship happiness score of 6.1 out of 7. Those with both joint and separate bank accounts had a median score of 5.82. And those who kept their finances entirely separate reported the lowest levels of satisfaction, 5.46. (It’s hard to say where kids — often a major impetus for couples to pool funds — factor into this, but it’s worth noting that couples usually experience a decline in relationship satisfaction after they have children, not an uptick.)

I was skeptical that simply dumping all your cash into one collective bucket could have such a direct impact on your relationship. And according to Cassie Mogilner Holmes, one of the paper’s co-authors, it doesn’t — or at least the money isn’t the important part. Instead, pooling resources can help create something called “financial togetherness,” and that’s the special sauce. “Financial togetherness means that people feel like they have shared financial goals,” says Holmes, a professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at UCLA. “That sense of togetherness is a strong factor in loving, happy relationships, even if it comes from activities that don’t sound particularly romantic. The more mundane aspects of merging money together influence how people feel like they are a ‘we’ instead of a ‘me versus you.’”

“Togetherness” also goes way beyond finances, according Holmes’s colleague Emily Garbinsky, a professor of marketing at Notre Dame. “People say, ‘I want to be my own person,’ but social psychology has shown that, at least in terms of marriage, a greater degree of overlap is generally a good thing,” she says. As an example, she cited another study showing that people who include their partner in their profile picture on Facebook feel happier about their relationship than if they have a photo of just themselves. “Simple, external things that reinforce the idea that you are a team, and marriage unites you, have been shown to increase levels of relationship satisfaction.”

When I told Garbinsky that her findings contradicted everything I was taught about maintaining financial autonomy, she explained that togetherness shouldn’t be conflated with giving up control. “The point is to feel like you’re on the same page with your financial goals, and to have open and regular discussions about money with your partner,” she says. Total financial transparency can be a shortcut to facilitating those discussions, she adds, but it’s not required.

And of course, pooling your money won’t do the work for you. “Transparency shouldn’t be confused with actual communication,” she says. It also shouldn’t mean that you police each other’s spending habits. “We’re not saying that couples who pool their finances should have to justify every single expenditure to their partner. Instead, they should ask questions like, ‘Well, how much is appropriate for us to be spending on certain things? Do we want to be saving for anything in particular?’” Money can provide a template for dealing with future sources of stress. If you can learn to navigate open conversations about your finances, then you can apply those same skills to other thorny topics, too.

Talking to Garbinsky made me remember another thing my mom once said to me. About a year ago, I was on the phone with her while buying groceries to host book club, and she asked if I paid for them myself or split the cost with my husband. “Oh, I definitely paid,” I said. “He won’t even be there.” She pointed out that he’d still get to reap the benefits — I love book club, he loves me, ergo book club is good for our relationship and could be seen as a worthwhile joint expense. At the time, her argument seemed like a stretch, and I shrugged it off. But now I see what she was getting at — the “we” mentality, or what makes one person happy benefits the whole.

In that sense, pooling money isn’t so much about relinquishing your own paycheck, or taking someone else’s, or sacrificing your individuality for your relationship — it’s about contributing to a shared life, and aligning on what that means. Maybe my seltzer habit has a place in there somewhere. For now, my spouse and I will probably keep our accounts separate. But we should talk more about what’s in them. It’s a start.

When Two Bank Accounts Become One