Updated on 04.25.07

We Share A Joint Account… But I Don’t Trust My Partner’s Spending Habits

Trent Hamm

?Marriage and finances can at times be a difficult mix. Each person has distinctly different experiences with money, and each person may have completely different philosophies on how that money should be spent. This often creates marital troubles, but these troubles usually boil down to a lack of communication at some point along the line.

In short, If you want a healthy and financially sound marriage, get over your hangups about talking about money. Don’t ever be afraid to sit down with your spouse and go over the nickels and dimes of your life. Make sure you define your goals together as a team, not separately. And make sure that you have compatible philosophies on discretionary spending – if your partner spends far more or far less than you’d like, it’s going to cause some discomfort and you need to clear the air.

Along these lines, a reader wrote to me recently with the following problem (edited a bit for grammar and clarity):

My future wife and I are generally on the same page when it comes to finances. We have the same long term goals and she is by no means a rich girl. But with that being said, when she sees a little extra in the joint account, she spends it… I don’t want to go behind her back to sock away a little cash but it may be the only way. Any ideas?

When you dig right down to it, this is an issue about communication. Even though you’re both generally on the same page about financial issues, there’s apparently a communication gap somewhere about what to do with extra money. Here are some potential solutions, some of which I like and others I don’t.

Forget about it. If it’s an insignificant amount, this might be the best avenue. Allow your partner the joy of having a little bit of spending money and just let things be. The only problem with this is if the spending seems to grow over time, which means that there’s a fundamental problem.

Take the money and put it somewhere else without saying a word. This solves the financial problem, but does nothing at all about the communication problem. Eventually, these withdrawals will come out, and it will cause a problem. Why? By doing this, you’re showing a lack of trust with your partner.

Have an open ended conversation about it. Here we have the opposite situation, as this solves the communication problem but merely hopes to solve the financial problem. The talk might help to alleviate some of the communication problems and really help to get your financial perspectives more in alignment, but there’s no guarantee of a solution.

Set an “allowance” for both of you. Another possibility is to set a spending “allowance” for both of you. Start off the conversation on the issue with this proposal. Although this does solve the problem if you both stick to it, when I first proposed this to my wife, it was met with heavy resentment and a sense that I was treating her like a child. If you try this, you need to be very careful.

If I were you, though, I would try this solution. Set up an automatic savings plan into an emergency fund, then don’t sweat the rest. If you’re finding yourself with regular “excess” that can be spent on trivial stuff and it’s making you uncomfortable, suggest sweeping some amount each week or month into an emergency fund automatically. Then, if there’s still some left over, don’t worry about it and just enjoy spending it. What will happen over time is that you’ll subtly adjust your own life to compensate for this extra savings.

Good luck!

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  1. Doug says:

    Personally, I think using a joint account for your main (everyday) spending account is a bad idea. My wife and I have separate accounts and we have divided up the bills such that each of us pays a relatively equal share of the household expenses.

    For example:

    Hers: Grocery store, electricity, our daughter’s summer camps, child care, clothing etc.

    Mine: restaurants, mortgage, natural gas (heat), home repairs, cabletv.

    We are each responsible for everything related to our individual cars, insurance and health care.

    This has worked well for us for 12 years now. Of course, we are both listed as owners on each other’s accounts. We just don’t ever see the other’s spending. This grew out of us living together for several years before we were married so it has always seemed like the natural solution to managing our finances.

  2. Tyler says:

    Doug, you’re treating your marriage as if it were a business partnership. I totally disagree with you. Sure it may have lasted 12 years, but you guys could have a much closer relationship if you actually had a plan TOGETHER! My wife and I are on the same page with EVERYTHING related to finances. We have the same goals and if we don’t agree on something, we work it out so that both are happy. I love my wife and our relationship is SO STRONG because of our finances being on the same page. Everything else seems to just align properly when the finances are in order with each other. For those that have separate accounts and married – WHY? You’re not dating anymore! A marriage is a union, meaning his is hers and vice versa. I suggest everyone read “The Proper Care and Feeding of Marriage” by Dr. Laura.

  3. Mitch says:

    Tyler, it sounds like Doug and his partner DO have a plan together. They ARE on the same page. It’s pretty strongly implied that they communicated and worked out what they wanted to do; they bought a house, they had a clear of idea of how much each category should cost, etc. They just ORGANIZE it so that one person isn’t stuck with all the bill-paying and the other is out of the loop, and yet the finances are not so enmeshed that they have to constantly resynchronize and micromanage each other.

    If you can clarify your argument, and not pin it upon partisan authors such as Dr. Laura, I’d be interested in hearing it. Seriously. I suspect you’re making a lot of assumptions that I do not agree with, but I do not want to put words in your mouth. I’m trying to put the Dr. Laura thing aside and ask you your reasoning.

  4. Jamie says:

    My wife and I have an allowance system, and it works wonderfully. We do very well communicating with each other about financial issues, and most of the time, we can come to an agreement. However, there will always be those times when we can’t reach a compromise. It’s one of those “agree to disagree” situations. This is where the allowance works perfectly. If she doesn’t want to spend the money, I take it upon myself to use my allowance. If it’s a large item, I need to save up for it. Basically, any time we reach a point where neither of us is going to budge, we drop the “I’ll use my allowance” phrase, and the argument is over.

  5. Tyler says:

    Mitch, clarify what argument? What I stated is black and white. You either view your relationship as a partnership or a business. It’s funny how you said “Doug and his partner” – to me that says that it’s a business relationship. Partner is a term for the business world – not couples. The same sex couples have coined that term to mean something totally different and I disagree with that. Also, assumptions about what? That 60% of couples get divorced and the #1 reason is money? Yes, I’ll make that assumption because it’s a fact. Why are you putting Dr. Laura aside? I never used her for the basis of my argument. I just threw out the title of her book because it has helped tremendously for many people and I wanted to share the news. This blog is for discussion correct? In any case, my point is stated – take it as you wish.

  6. DrBdan says:

    I think the discussion of the term “partner” here is a little personal and getting away from the discussion about joint finances. The term partner obviously means different things to different people depending on their philosophical, religious (etc) ideas.

    Tyler, I do find it rather ironic that you seem against the use of partner to describe a marriage but you also said “You either view your relationship as a partnership or a business relationship” but I think at this point this is more a semantic argument than anything.

    The bottom line is that “partners”, “husband/wife” etc. are just labels. It is the actual content of the relationship that is important.

  7. Mitch says:

    I say partner because it is more generic–a lot of the permanent romantic/sexual relationships I know are not legally allowed to be marriages. Limit the argument to spouse if you prefer.

    Your argument seems to be:

    –Relationships should have shared financial goals. I would agree that they should be aligned, although there might be some compromises in the process of sorting it out (you want to be a stay at home parent, so I’ll wait to go back to school until the kids are in kindergarten or whatever). I think you and I may disagree about compromises–your use of the word “union” may or may not imply that you believe you and your wife are no longer individuals with sometimes differing desires.

    –Shared goals must imply one-size-fits-all organization. This I completely do not agree with. People are too different to deny them the flexibility to develop their own financial system.

    –If you do not use X organization, then you do not trust each other. This is one of the steps I would like clarified, because it does not follow at ALL for me. As Doug pointed out, both names are on all accounts, but they don’t need to use that access very often because they DO trust each other to keep their spheres tidy.

    –If you do not use X organization, then you are in a business relationship, not a romantic one. This is the other point you could clarify. This kind of works against the previous point, in my view, since you had sure better trust your business partners! But I think business and romantic relationships come in many different flavors, and that they have similarities (both have to deal with finances, and can use a number of different strategies to do so) and differences (it is pretty taboo in most places to show up to your business office naked, but could be a pleasant surprise in a home office).

    Putting aside: I tried to look at Dr. Laura’s site, and it represents some things I agree with–and some that made me so angry I had to stop looking. I didn’t want to take it out on you.

  8. Dave says:

    Tyler : Gotta quote SNL for a second. “simmer down now” ;) Sorry that’s out of my system. I think what Mitch is saying is that Dr Laura is a … not red herring, but a red flag. I admit, I get the same way seeing the name. It takes concentrated effor to fight my historical reactions and observations. She could have the world’s best apple pie recipie and I would hesistant to try.

    I actually posted my thoughts about this whole gordian knot elsewhere. You kinda touch on an aspect that I think matters : it’s your car and her car. The mindset I prefer, but still working towards, is each car is the families.

    Kinda like “your” computer at work. It was given to you to use. Most likely you spent time customizing it. Personal files and images. But at any time the company can come and yank it away. Another example would be HOA’s and townhouse ownership. Just recently I had to convince the board not to take away “my tree” over some ignorance of drainage issues.

    I _think_ this is what Tyler is advocating. The fact that ownership or … sense of property/resource belongs to something greater than one person. In that I agree, not for any religious reasons but more for sense of purpose.

    It’s worked for 12 years I wouldn’t go changing willi nilli. I ain’t into that. I’m more curious about the philosophy behind it all.

    I sign off with Trent’s reader sounds exactly how my parents described themselves in the beginning of marriage. Mom would save and track every penny. My dad’s thoughts were were more along the lines of “I have 10 extra dollars at the end of every month. What can I rent/put on layaway?” Mind you, she was more persuasive of the two and I know they love where that mindset has placed them in retirement.

  9. PF says:

    When my husband and I put our finances together about 2 years after getting married, it produced synergistic results. What I mean by that is that together we were much better than the sum of our parts. Our financial progress took off immediately. Before, we were responsible only to ourselves, but after combining finances, we were responsible to each other and big things started to happen. Since that time we bought property and built our dream house. We try to do everything as a team, and homebuilding really tested that, let me tell you, but we are stronger together. I realize that maybe this isn’t for everyone, but I would encourage people to have the difficult discussions and give it a try. You might be surprised at the results. We were!

  10. Kiesa says:

    My husband and I have what is basically seperate allowances. However, my husband originally objected to the idea because it sounded so childish to have an “allowance.” So, we call it an “expenditure allocation.” Sometimes it’s all about the terms you use :)

  11. Mitch says:

    Dave, I think I see what you mean about what Tyler is trying to say–that sometimes the symbolism of your financial decisions may come to the foreground. I don’t think it’s necessary to pick on poor Dave for not reifying his commitment in this way, but I’m happy to let people merge who want to merge, and let people who don’t not. One more reason to keep those communication lines open–to discuss which actions are pragmatic, which symbolic, and which both.

  12. Dave says:

    Doh, comment to me I missed. Apologies Mitch. In fact my post was written in absence of your second one. And I don’t disagree at all w/ your last comment either. I was just approaching from the idea that since symbols are often tied to emotions, agitated emotions add strength to symbols which could be used as either as “weapons” or “defense” in arguments.

    But yes, as long as both parties are on the same page their should be no worries. I’m definitely not writing this from a right or wrong stand point but more of a How did this occur.

    This just struck me, so please pardon my wander. I wonder how much of the separation of moneys (mine and yours) comes from some “classic” fears that occurred in the later 1930’s (yes guessing the year). I know growing up in the 70’s-80’s, stories would be heard about how “So and So” just died and their partner didn’t know how to take care of any of the financial stuff. “My wife paid all the bills.” or “Herb always kept track of our savings.” Those types of issues.

    And the future generations learned to protect ourselves from this as we aged, part of which was to be in control of personal financial fiefdoms.

    … That’s the last of my poetic juices. I can see where I want to go, but can’t quite articulate it. Apologies. The basic idea resolves down to both people managing money separately is better one person doing all or nothing, and comparing the other methodologies gets into quantifing intangibles.

  13. pf101 says:

    I’m personally a fan of yours, mine and ours for managing money. In my relationships (that got to the sharing money stage) we found that setting up an allowance system where we both got $x/month to spend no questions asked with the rest going into a joint account worked well. This system allowed a certain amount of financial freedom to buy whatever your partner things is pointless without having to justify. As far as the joint money goes, we would just that for household expenses and to meet our savings goals. We also had a rule that any unplanned purchase over $x from the joint account had to be discussed prior to.

    It worked out well for us. Other systems work well for others. Everything with personal finance is just that, personal. You read, learn and use what works for you and discard the rest.

  14. Kathy says:

    I guess money is actually just a reflection of a greater spiritual reality. How you handle your money is a picture of you. I got married under bad circumstances, and we were never an ideal combination from the get-go.

    Initially we combined our money, but when I saw that he was a total infant (buying a car without telling me; hiding utility bills so because he didn’t want to pay them) I went on the defense.

    Where there is no trust, there is no “relationship” nor even a “partnership” (heck, a good business partnership would have been an improvement over what we had).

    I actually became a dictator because I felt it was the only way to preserve our credit standing. Don’t laugh; it worked.

    The marriage didn’t stay together, but it was me that said “enough”, and I did it mostly because he remained a carefree child and I was the only adult in the relationship.

  15. reulte says:

    Kathy, I understand, empathize and sympathize. I like to say that I was a single mom of two kids until I got divorced. However, we didn’t divorce over money.

    What Tyler (way back in April) is forgetting in his argument is that so many people come complete with baggage. Previous debts, ex-kids, spousal support, taking care of parents. It’s great for him and his partner/spouse/wife/live-in housekeeper that they have such a great relationship. My congratulations.

    Now, let other people have their own ‘partnerships’ in their own way and remember that long before marriage was the joining of two people for love, it was an arrangement for the joining of economies, families, clans, kingdoms.

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