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Joint accounts can make for marital accord

By Fletcher Doyle

While I was dating this wonderful woman, I owned a fun but flawed car. Tiring of the constant difficulties, I traded it in and took my new ride to show to my future bride.

She was not happy. She was living in a lousy apartment and driving a beat-up car so she could save for our life together, and I had bought new wheels without consulting her. We came to an agreement then that all money would go into one pot and no one would make unilateral spending decisions.

Doyle Family

I have read conflicting opinions about the best ways for couples to manage their finances. Those who advocate separate checking and credit card accounts usually say they allow the spouses to pay their share of the expenses while maintaining some fiscal autonomy and serve as a form of insurance in case the marriage ends. This flies in the face of Catholic teaching, which says that the gift of self to the other must be total and forever. That includes the fruit of our labor. Autonomy is not in our marital playbook and we should never enter marriage with an exit strategy.

This advice comes with a caveat. If one of the spouses has a gambling or a shopping addiction, steps need to be taken to make sure the bills get paid.
There have been several things that have allowed my wife and I to keep our agreement. She is not a shopper and my priorities have been spent on my athletic shoes and strings in my tennis racket. Without expensive habits to support, it has been easy to set aside a few dollars for ski passes and court time, which have been used jointly.

Also, one of my friends was a budget analyst. He taught me to outline a spending plan that took into account not only the rent money but future expenses such as car insurance and replacing aging appliances. He told me to look at money saved to pay for those things as if it didn’t exist since it was, in a sense, already spent. This approach tempers the temptation to fulfill all your material desires now. We faced one such situation early in our marriage. We wanted to take a trip to Ireland before we started a family but we needed a box spring – ours was too big to go up the staircase of our new house – and we didn’t have a stove, only a microwave and an electric frying pan. There was money to pay only for a travel fling or for these household things. The vote was unanimous on the first ballot; we would take the trip.

The Irish really do treat pregnant women well. My wife was at the end of her first trimester for our visit, and at one stop for tea the shop owner brought a pitcher of milk when she heard of my wife’s condition. It was still warm from the milking. Even with the trip, and thanks to our shared discipline, we were able save enough to get the mattress off the floor and buy a stove before the baby arrived.

One criticism of joint accounts is that they ruin gift giving. It spoils the fun when the spouse sees the expense on the bank statement or credit card bill. This can be overcome with some planning. I decided in year eight of our marriage that I wanted to get my wife something special for our tenth anniversary. I kept cash for incidentals – coffee at work, beer after a ballgame – when I deposited my paycheck so I started to file away a $5 or $10 bill each week in an envelope. I presented a ruby-and-diamond ring to her in a warming hut on a ski slope on our anniversary, and the only thing that made her happier than the jewelry was learning that it was paid for.

Anecdotal evidence aside, there are real benefits to having joint accounts. One is that over the course of the marriage the financial situations of the spouses will change. This happens most often to the wife when children arrive. Women make real financial sacrifices to have children. If she is expected to maintain a separate account and to pay her half of the bills then she could be discouraged from having kids. Another is that a joint account engenders respect for the other’s work. One growing trend is that women are earning more than men. If all money goes into the same pot through the fluctuations of family life – through lost jobs, illness and children – it can remove any stigma of who makes more.

And finally, financial transparency builds trust in marriage. You can extend this trust by having joint email accounts. These joint accounts are constant proof that you have nothing to hide from each other. Unless it’s a weekly fiver to get her something nice on a big anniversary.