Before we married, my spouse and I trudged our way through all of the premarital conversations you’re supposed to have. The one about family (we established early on that we absolutely did not want to have children); the one about spending (we are both savers); the one about the future (like where we might live after retirement — I’m eager to flee the United States and never look back, he less so).
We did not, however, discuss whether to actually merge finances. There was no need for an in-depth conversation about this; for me, it was a no-brainer. I’d always somehow known that I’d keep my financial life mostly separate from my future spouse’s. Five years before I said “I do,” I graduated with an advanced degree and hardly a penny to my name. Over the next six years, I’d opened up my first retirement account and started investing the small amount my paycheck allowed. My sister and I are the first women in our family in a position to build generational wealth. Having married at 39, I’d seen too many women left financially devastated to entertain not keeping my accounts in my name.
Merging my finances with someone else’s, to my mind, eliminated all traces of my efforts to achieve financial independence. It was a nauseating prospect.
A recent viral Reddit post, in which a woman admits to pulling all of her contributions (more than $8,000) out of an account she shared with her husband (and leaving him with his own money, which totaled less than $1,000), reminds me of how contentious this issue can be — particularly when a woman decides to protect her own earnings. The author of the Reddit post described how her husband “refused to stop making comments” about her unemployment — a situation she said she was actively trying to change by “searching endlessly” for a new job.
Most users commented that she was right to remove her money (and property, such as her car) from a toxic relationship. One redditor laid it out as follows: “Keep your money in your account and take your car back, too. If he wants to play the ‘mine’ game like a temper tantrum-ing 2-year-old, just show him exactly how much is his.”
The heated nature of the topic was not necessarily in this specific conversation where it’s easy to side with the author of the post. The viral Reddit thread — and all of the encouragement the author garnered — seemed to support the idea that women are, by default, taking a tremendous risk by merging their money. But this thinking is not universal. My 84-year-old aunt staunchly believes in merging finances with a spouse. “When you get married, you’re supposed to be all in,” she said to me during a recent phone call. “And if the marriage goes downhill, you simply split it up and walk away.” It’s certainly an ideal outcome, should a relationship fail. But is it realistic?
I’m sure that such differences in opinion are, in part, cultural and generational: My generation has never known a world where — at least in the United States — women were not legally allowed to open up their own bank accounts and take out their own credit (including mortgages). Merging finances with a spouse made sense at one point; what else was a woman to do? Still, even today it’s not difficult to find plenty of (dubious) research that suggests that couples merging their finances is to the benefit of the relationship. And despite relatively recent advances in gender equality, we continue to live in an age where some banks still require a husband’s approval in order to speak with women about their own accounts.
A recent Cornell University study reported that married couples who pool their money experience greater relationship satisfaction and are more likely to stay together, although the results should give pause. This meta-analysis included data in which participants rated their level of relationship investment using items like “I have put a great deal into our relationship that I would lose if the relationship were to end” and “Many aspects of my life have become linked to my partner (recreational activities, etc.), and I would lose all of this if we were to break up.” As an academic researcher by trade, I’m forced to wonder whether elements of this study actually illustrated the cost of cutting ties. The price tag of divorce can run into five figures or more, and staying together — for some — might appear more attractive than the alternative. How romantic.
So I conducted my own research, asking a small group of women where they stood on the topic.
Meg Stone, a nonprofit executive director in Massachusetts, described how she and her spouse were among the first LGBTQ+ couples to have access to legal marriage in 2004. “I found that as soon as we announced our wedding plans, a heap of expectations got thrown onto us,” she told me. This included merging finances. “We didn’t mingle finances because we didn’t see a need,” she said. Stone explained how she and her spouse refused to be sucked into the expectations of an institution that had historically excluded the LGBTQ+ community. On the other hand, merging finances made sense for Jen Simon, a writer and New Jersey–based mom of two. “I just don’t make enough money to need a separate account. I did inherit some money when my grandmother died, and we put that in our shared savings account,” she said. Simon’s husband financially supports their family and this arrangement works best for them.
For other women, the decision of whether or not to pool finances is a lot less straightforward and comes with its fair share of stress and resentment. Nicole Cain, an Arizona-based mental-health consultant, explained how her spouse “had been the one to take ownership of our finances based on what he theorized was best. And my lack of ownership meant my way of doing things wasn’t happening.” Cain said that she and her husband had been encouraged by faith-based premarital counselors to merge finances “in order to make everything even and fair.” The result of this arrangement, as Cain described it, was more complicated than she’d anticipated: “I am a saver, and my partner is a spender. I am still wearing bras and underwear from when I was in college, while Amazon packages arrive daily for my partner.”
It’s for these reasons (and many more, ranging from minor philosophical differences to life-altering financial infidelity) that Suze Orman, personal finance expert and host of the Women and Money podcast, does not advocate merging liquid assets (defined primarily as bank accounts and investments). “The key to a naïve and dangerous outcome is sharing 100 percent of your money,” she said. Orman advocates for a separate joint household account to which couples contribute a small portion of their earnings equitably to pay for shared expenses, such as utilities, rent, or mortgage.
She also doesn’t put much stock into studies reporting a correlation between pooled money and relationship satisfaction. “The problem with these studies is that they often represent a moment in time when the relationship was good,” she said, noting that economic vulnerability is often the main reason that women in particular stay in harmful relationships.
When my husband and I married, I saw no practical (or emotional) need to merge my finances with his. Three years later, I still don’t. We share a home, and I’ve taken his name, which had been a tremendous identity shift for me — a sacrifice, even (since changing my name, I’ve not been able to secure a new credit card as institutions refuse to recognize me, despite my extensive credit history under my previous name and my near-perfect credit score). To my mind, merging my finances would be akin to giving up my independence, so the prospect isn’t even on the table — not that he’s asked. Besides, it’s also a boundary issue, and “no” is a complete sentence. The thought of unnecessarily merging everything I’ve worked for feels suffocating at best — at worst, dehumanizing.
Thankfully, I consider myself to be in a healthy marriage with a wonderful man. We have ongoing discussions about equitable household contributions, and he is the sole beneficiary on all of my accounts in the event of my death. In a symbolic sense, our financial lives have merged. But I needed a tangible piece of myself to remain untouched by my decision to marry. My hard-earned life savings was that piece.
The financial insecurity I watched the older women in my family live through is baked into my DNA. I come from a long line of working-class women made to scramble after their primary earners left the household. Most of them were not property owners and none of them had retirement plans, so there weren’t homes to sell off or accounts to borrow from in order to make ends meet. In my teens and 20s, I witnessed older family members hit up the younger ones for cash at every visit while their phones rang hourly with bill collectors on the other end.
These experiences shaped me: For a long time, even the notion of falling in love and getting married seemed too economically dangerous. In a lot of ways, merging lives with a significant other still seems to pose an outsize and unnecessary risk. I’ve decided to hedge my bets, on my terms, anyway. While I’m secure in my decision to merge my emotional life with my husband’s, a world where women pool the entirety of their life savings with a spouse in the name of love and unity is not a risk I’m willing to take.