1 We Became a Family When 2 Bank Accounts Became 1 | The Billfold

We Became a Family When 2 Bank Accounts Became 1

My husband and I recently spent a few weeks in my hometown, and while walking around a lake—there are many there, and it was a daily activity—with one of my childhood friends, she asked us a question she said she’s been asking a lot of couples she knows: “When did you start to feel like a family?”

I’d thought about this before. I think the first time I ever explicitly referred to the two of us as family was during my wedding vows, and it was probably after our wedding that we started explicitly claiming ourselves as such. But getting married didn’t really change anything in our relationship. We had been living together for three years by then and had almost entirely combined our lives. In fact we’ve often joked that the only things to change after our wedding were our tax filing status and my last name.

I had considered us a family for at least a few years before then, I suppose, but it wasn’t until my friend asked the question that I really pinpointed when that happened: It was when we combined our finances. We did it around the time we moved in together, three years before our wedding. I hadn’t realized what an important role money had played in the creation of our identity as a family unit, but the more I thought about it, the clearer it became. 

We combined finances partially out of convenience. I was finishing my first year of graduate school, my husband (boyfriend, at the time) was graduating from college, and we were getting our first apartment together. We were almost two years into our relationship, meaning two years into the complicated systems couples use to pay for things—splitting the tab for groceries (more difficult than it sounds, considering we spent almost every night together but he still lived in the dorms and ate in dining halls half of the time, and I had an apartment where we cooked); playing the “you paid for dinner last time, I’ll pay this time” game; and constantly trying to figure out which one of us owed the other money.

It was confusing, and frustrating, and we constantly knew one of us was getting the short end of the financial stick. And it was only going to get worse, since we’d soon be sharing rent and utilities and furniture and trips to Target and everything else that comes with living together. We knew we were together for the long-run and had already talked about our assumptions that we’d get married. So we decided that it was time to get a joint bank account.

But in discussing what kind of system we should use to share money, a decision to open a joint bank account quickly turned into a decision to almost entirely merge our finances. I’m not entirely sure what took us from “let’s contribute the same amount each month into this shared account and use it to pay shared bills” into “what’s yours is mine, mine is yours,” but that’s basically where we ended up. Maybe it was because we both knew that it was a good step toward a decision to get married. It would help us get to know each other’s spending habits and ideas about saving and financial planning. And we knew that if we did get married we’d want entirely mingled finances, so maybe we thought it’d be easier if we just skipped all the intermediary steps along the way. Or maybe it just seemed easier.

I remember my dad and stepmom, finances separated, arguing at the grocery store over who should pay for the ice cream that my step-mom didn’t like, or why there were tampons on the checkout belt, or whose shampoo cost more. Splitting money for them was a constant battle, and while we knew it wasn’t that way for every couple, we also knew it wasn’t what we wanted.

So a good couple of years before we were engaged, our financial lives became almost completely shared. It helped that neither of us had much to our name—there wasn’t much worry about one of us stealing away with the other’s money. But even if one of us had been blessed with more money in the bank, I think we would have done it anyway. The arrangement was about trust and openness, about long-term timelines, and about combining our lives into a partnership.

Here’s what all of this looked like (and continued to look like up until four months ago, when we left our jobs to travel full-time for a year): We opened a joint checking account, a joint savings account (which we immediately split into savings sub-accounts for travel, education, and general savings), and two joint credit cards. Our paychecks went into our joint account. Once or twice each month, each savings account received an automatic transfer of money from the checking account.

We each retained the personal bank accounts we had before the merge.  Birthday gifts and academic awards also went into our personal accounts, and each month we each received an automatic transfer from our joint checking account. Our personal accounts were ours to do with as we liked, with no oversight from the other person. (I suppose I would oversight the heck out of it if he decided to start using it to buy meth, or something like that, but pretty much anything else is fine and not really any of my business.) Up until we left our jobs this summer, he made significantly more than I did, so his personal account received more money than mine did (at my suggestion).

At the point when we merged everything, our only debts were my college and graduate school loans (I say “only” as though they weren’t significant —HA!) and plans for a joint car loan.  We considered all of this a part of our shared financial life, and payments for my loans started coming out of our joint account. At the time, he didn’t have any educational debt but was pretty sure he’d want to go back to graduate school eventually, so we figured our school debts might eventually even out. Or maybe they wouldn’t, but that would be okay.

After we set up the system, we vaguely determined guidelines for how money out of our joint accounts could be spent. There’s a lot of gray area here, for things like tampons or foods that only one of us likes, but for the most part we use the joint account unless it’s pretty clearly a personal purchase. I’m deathly allergic to nuts, for example, but my husband can certainly buy a container of almonds at the grocery store using our shared money, since it’s a pretty normal grocery-type purchase. If he started spending thousands of our joint account dollars on almonds, we’d have a problem, but if he saved up his personal spending money for months and then spent it all on almonds, that would be his prerogative. We try to distinguish between clothing items that are really needed (socks, underwear, work clothing, running shoes, etc.), which are purchased out of the joint account, and those that are more superfluous, which we each purchase ourselves. When one of us has picked up a new hobby or activity, we’ve just kind of done things however it seems reasonable—some things purchased personally, some jointly.

Putting this whole system and ethos in place required conversations about spending habits and saving and debt and all kinds of financial issues, both day-to-day and long-term. We didn’t start our collective finances with any sort of specific budgets or timelines, and I think that’s part of what made this move so momentous in the self-definition of our relationship. It required that we have trust and understanding for each other in order for it to all work, and it required that we share intimate details about how we live our lives. We don’t tell each other how much we can spend on things, but we entered into all of this with a commitment to be respectful, honest, and reasonable in our spending habits. We each have weaknesses in our spending habits and have experienced ups and downs in our incomes, but by sharing our finances we agreed that each other’s gains and losses and risks and goals would be shared.

Last year I gradually quit my professional job and started teaching cooking classes and doing some small catering jobs, a move that drastically decreased my income but made me infinitely happier and helped me start a new potential career. At the end of this year of travel, my husband will start graduate school, a huge decrease in income from what he was making before. These are momentous decisions, financially and otherwise, and we talked over them at length.

I known it can feel limiting for some people to have someone else involved in their spending decisions, but it works well for us. We each have our personal money to spend without oversight, but I actually kind of like having someone else to check in with about my spending. It can help me keep it in check when I’m tempted to buy something I’d end up regretting later. More importantly, this sort of coordination is part of what it means to be a family.  Our ability to make all kinds of decisions together, not just financial ones, is part of why our relationship works so well and why we started feeling like a family when we did.

When my friend asked me about families, she mentioned that many couples have pointed to marriage, children, or some other significant event as the moment they first felt like a family. Financial decisions are a major part of every person’s and every couple’s life plan, and making those decisions together with your partner can be a momentous experience—just like the decision to get married or to have a child.

I grew up in an environment in which money (mainly the lack thereof) was a constant and negative presence, and my struggle to build my own financial narrative was a powerfully shaping force in my late teens and early twenties. My husband was the first person to see both the everyday details and the larger picture of my financial life, and that created a type of relationship I had never before experienced. Looking back on all of this has even helped me now, as we navigate an entirely new financial world of travel and graduate school and new careers and plans to have children. If we can continue to make decisions with the same sort of trust and optimism in which we merged our finances, our family will be just fine.


Bowen Close writes about food at Bowen Appetit. She has lived in some places. 


22 Comments / Post A Comment

readyornot (#816)

I’ve been waiting for a joint budgeting piece! And I think the sentiment that joint finances are at least coincident with some other sort of identity is probably pretty prevalent. I think it’s interesting, though, that the author says their finances are almost completely merged, but each still basically gets an allowance into his or her personal account. That seems like a sometimes-sharing arrangement to me. My arrangement really is all one pot – all sources of income, paycheck or otherwise, go into one account, all expenses come out of the same place. Our discussions of day-to-day spending and long run financial goals have evolved over the years, but I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

@readyornot We also have, more or less, joint finances, while I take care of all the bill paying and money management. I make more and contribute more (http://nzmuse.com/2010/10/06/money-for-couples-the-contributions-conundrum/) – we don’t actually have a joint account in name, as such – my chequeing account is basically our de facto joint account. Basically, he transfers most of his money to me every pay day, and then I divvy it up between saving and spending.

BornSecular (#2,245)

I want to know more about the logistics: do they have 6 different accounts for all of the types of spending/savings the author mentions? Or do they keep it on spreadsheets? A combo or something else entirely? My husband and I have completely joined accounts, but most all of our fights are about discretionary spending. I wonder if their system would be feasible for us.

deepomega (#22)

@BornSecular Can’t speak for the author, but this pretty much matches my experience, and we do it with six accounts. Checking/saving for each of us, and then the joint. All money earned goes into the joint, and there’s auto-transfers out to our individual accounts. Monthly allowance, basically. Long term savings is pushed manually out to funds/investments/IRAs/etc.

pandaonaplane (#1,528)

@BornSecular My boyfriend and I combined our finances several years ago and it has worked out incredibly well. We have a joint checking and savings account. We do no maintain our own checking accounts,however, we have separate credit cards for discretionary spending within a few hundred dollars. The cards are paid from our checking account each month. We do not look at each other statements and do not ask any questions unless someone exceeded their allowance, which has never happened. This way he doesn’t have to know I spent $200 on make up brushes and I don’t have to know that he spent $100 on batteries.
Everyone is happy, no fights!

BowenAppetit (#2,354)

@BornSecular We do have a bunch of different accounts, I guess, when you consider our credit cards and such. But for our joint checking/savings, there are just two – our bank allows us to create a bunch of “sub-accounts,” I guess you’d call them, within our savings account. That makes it super easy to track online and to transfer money automatically into our various savings goals (travel, education, emergency fund, etc.). Hope that’s helpful!

deepomega (#22)

This is great. Pretty much what our solution was, too. Also you fail to mention how great it is to write checks with both your names on ‘em.

kellyography (#250)

This is a great post! I don’t know that I will ever know how to share finances (or a life) with someone else, but this is a wonderful peek inside someone else’s solution.

pandaonaplane (#1,528)

My boyfriend and I have had shared checking accounts almost the entire time we have been dating. At first I was kind of embarrassed to admit this to anyone lest they question my independence. However, we have fought about money exactly once in about 5 years and that was only because he was spending a bunch of money and had neglected to tell me it was because he got a raise at work.
Also, we have saved so much more than I ever would have by myself.

megsy (#1,565)

Great article. My ex and I just broke up … but I felt like I was always getting the short end of the stick (and I was) and a big part of my decision to move on was financial related. His money was just disappearing – likely on beer, cigarettes and general stupidity – and I felt like I was always buying the food, the stuff for the house, etc. I knew I couldn’t stand the rest of my life arguing over it and he wasn’t worth the financial stress that a longer relationship would bring me. As it stands I’m in a worse financial position than we first started dating (and it got worse when we ended up living together because what was promised rarely came through).
Anyway. I haven’t looked back. He still owes me money and I’ve accepted our relationship as an expensive financial mistake.

Amanda T (#1,842)

Just wanted to chime in on this one –

Adam and I just sort of haphazardly mushed our money together, in that he gives me a check for a goodly amount each payday but retains a few hundred for his own use. Our system was not thought out very well (my fault) and is quite messy, and reading this makes me want to copy your setup!

Thanks for writing this and good luck with your fledgling catering business – that sounds really exciting.

honey cowl (#1,510)

I love almost every single word of this! The only part I don’t love is the fact that he gets a bigger allowance than she, because I like to think of marriage as mini-socialism.

synchronia (#185)

@Lauren I love that APW piece too, even though I actually do have an “allowance” that’s half the size of my husband’s (my idea, just like Bowen Close). For me it’s to give myself something to look forward to and work towards, since he currently makes 6x what I do. When that changes in a couple years after I (hopefully!) finish school, we’ll even out the amounts.

We don’t think of it like it has to be a percentage of our income or anything, like if one of us became unemployed that person wouldn’t automatically get $0! It’s just that in this particular situation I think it makes sense to set up my fun money budget with incentives to keep working toward my goals, even while we both think of it all as “our money.” (Socialism, but with better contingency management? Trying to prevent the marital version of the USSR’s empty shelves, or something?)

BowenAppetit (#2,354)

@synchronia @Lauren I love APW! Haven’t been reading much for the last 9 months or so, though, since we’ve been so focused on travel, so I hadn’t seen that post. I love the idea of a “socialist household” – never thought about it that way before! Our personal “allowances” definitely aren’t proportional to income (my income for the last 6 months before we left was actually negative, because I was paying more to take culinary courses than I was making in my couple of part-time gigs – but I still got the same amount I got when I was making bigger money).

@Lauren My fiance gets an allowance because he’s a spender and having money he can blow guilt-free is kind of a must.

I hardly ever spend money, so I don’t have any set fun money. When I do want something, I just buy it. (I’m also the household financial controller – does it show?!)

MissBrew (#2,635)

@Lauren the discretional spending imbalance did stick out to me (and prompt me to create a login to comment). My bf and I own a house together, and he earns about twice what I do. We put his entire salary into the mortgage every week, and I give him half of my salary. We split the bills as they come in with our housemate. The thing I like about it is that we both have our own, discretionary funds, but we both have the same amount. His thinking is, although he earns more than me, he wouldn’t want to be out eating lobster on his own while I watch mournfully through the restaurant window (in this scenario he has a giant bib with a smiling lobster on the front; I am wrapped in newspaper for warmth and am wearing fingerless gloves.)

Anyway, no judgement! We are about to quit our jobs too and travel for a year, so this post double resonated. (I feel like I should disclaim that we are Australian so we don’t have things like crippling student debt, medical bills, unemployment to worry about. We know we are lucky down here, and the Billfold frequently reminds me of that!

fennel (#2,494)

This was interesting! For me, feeling like “family” = moving in together, because (for me) living together takes a lot of trust and comfort-level; I like my own space. Moving in together was as big a decision for me as the choice to get married.

We set up a joint checking account as soon as we moved into an apartment together. Probably because we’re older, we didn’t merge other bank accounts and we don’t ask any questions about that stuff; we just both know that neither of us has debts and we both have reasonable savings. We contribute the same amount each month to a joint account, and use the debit card for rent, groceries, utilities, shared expenses of any kind, and any time we go out together (e.g. movies, restaurant). So we never have to discuss who owes who what. Sometimes he teases me about how often I buy clothes (not that often — just more often than him!), but other than that we give each other total privacy about the non-communal financial choices. I love it — it really does give me a great sense of autonomy-yet-solidarity!

Blondsak (#2,299)

Yay! Another Bowen piece. I love your own blogs and what you offer to us here at the Billfold.

My boyfriend and I are kind of the opposite in that though we live together, neither of us has any desire to combine finances. The system we use instead is keeping an IOU list on the fridge every month, and basically making a list of plus and minus numbers. Then, at the end of the month, whoever owes the other money gets the amount added to their half of the rent. And voila – all debts cleared and we start over again!

It’s not a perfect system but it works for us.

Limaceous (#30)

@LO I also have no desire to combine finances and a system similar to yours. (Not written on the fridge, but tracked in Excel.) He pays rent and all the bills, I buy groceries, and at the end of the month we input all the totals into a spreadsheet that counts up how much each of has paid and how much each of us should have paid, and then one of us (usually me) writes a check for the difference. Another thing we do is periodically adjust the proportion that each of us pays to better reflect income proportions. We are freelancers with fluctuating incomes, so it hardly seems fair to split things 50-50 when one person makes three times as much.

Keck (#2,466)

@Limaceous I would like to put in another plug for keeping the finances separate. I know it’s not for everyone, but my partner and I have used this “system” as it were for almost 15 years with no problems. I think it’s made our relationship stronger because it encourages fair play and generosity. He doesn’t begrudge me tampons if I’ll occasionally buy his box of cereal. Whoever is feeling richer on any given day pays for dinner. I pay most of the mortgage ’cause I make more, but he pays the cable bill ’cause I don’t watch tv. I don’t feel like I’m burdening him with my 70K student loan debt. And, most importantly, we both feel completely in control of our own finances. It definitely helps that we have similar financial philosophies. Again, not for everyone – but it can work. Oh, we also RARELY grocery shop together.

blair (#1,962)

This was great, and timely, because I was JUST WONDERING about how and when people make this leap, AND, as a fellow nut-allergy sufferer, I have wondered more specifically about how people in my position handle joint-grocery shopping situations. Also about just how paranoid other people get about there being invisible nut proteins in their SO’s saliva that are latent and ready to kill at any time because THAT ISN’T JUST ME, RIGHT

BowenAppetit (#2,354)

@blair Ha, I’m totally with you on that one! He’s actually more paranoid about it than I am, and will run to brush his teeth or wait until he’s eaten something else before getting anywhere near my face. Back when I was dating I was always paranoid that the person had eaten nuts and how embarrassing that would be to go into allergic shock on a date …

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