Buying Gifts While Sharing an Account


Like many couples, we pool our money into shared accounts. That pretty much ruins the element of surprise when giving big-ticket items, as I discovered the first Christmas we were married, when I used our debit card to buy Alejandro a flat-screen television. I was so excited: This was going to be the best gift ever, I thought.

A couple of days later, I got a call from Alejandro at work.

“You got us a new TV!” he said giddily. He had seen the deduction on our banking statement and figured it out. The suspense was so thoroughly quashed, we unwrapped the set a week before Christmas. It has been the same story ever since.

In the Wall Street Journal, Katy McLaughlin talks about gift-giving in a relationship where both partners pool and share their money (basically, surprises are hard to pull off). She just opened up her own credit card account so she can surprise her husband this year, though, writing a column about it and publishing it on the internet may let some of the cat out of the bag.

Photo: Droid Gingerbread

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23 Comments / Post A Comment

gyip (#4,192)

Well … yes. How is it a “gift” if it’s shared money anyway? If you debit/credit it to a shared card that’s paid off with shared money, aren’t all gifts half-paid by your spouse? I suppose it works out if you’re half-buying your own gift too, and it’s really the thought that counts?

Yeah, obviously, we don’t have a shared account :|

ellabella (#1,480)

@gyip Gifts aren’t just about the money spent—if that were the case, wouldn’t couples not sharing accounts just giving each other money? It’s about the thoughtfulness of choosing a gift that the other person will like, getting them something they want but might feel guilty spending the (shared) money on, the surprise of something unexpected (as she writes about), the thrill/tradition/fun of opening up a package on a special day. And the best presents (I think) are ones that are difficult to source and require more than just money to acquire. A special edition of a book, a replacement for a broken but no-longer-manufactured item, an item only available in a foreign place, etc. etc.

gyip (#4,192)

@ellabella I do get that. But how does the guilt of spending your money on something get assuaged if it gets spent on it anyway? It’s a bit of an illusion to me, like you bought it but with your spouse’s permission.

I don’t disagree gifts are about giving, but I think it’s not unreasonable to feel that it’s often tied to money. For me, gift-giving is very closely tied to money because the main reason I love gift-giving is because I’m financially able to. I can buy things for people who don’t buy it for themselves or who can’t. It seems like a luxury and privilege to me, and for me, it’s intrinsically tied to money.

Also, when I pay money to get somebody something, I’m giving people not just a thing, but the time and labour I put into my job (that I don’t like that much…). I’m giving them the time I give up every day to earn a living. I think that’s akin to what you’re saying about finding something that requires more than “just” money.

I know in many cultural contexts, giving somebody money or a gift card is not thoughtful enough. I myself really, really enjoy finding the “perfect” gift object (especially that example you cite … something that takes an extra mile).

But I grew up with parents that do consider money a very important gift, because they worked their lives to earn it. So I do think the money equation seems kind of intrinsic. And in my family, yes, we do give each other money :)

I think in the end, I just have different boundaries. For example, I don’t know how I feel about wish lists … really practical, but that sort of undermines the whole “surprise/thoughtfulness” angle. My boyfriend’s family exchanges lists, and they’re very open about returning things for something they “really” want. So that’s *basically* a money exchange?

For me, money already represents time, labour, and thoughtfulness … turning it into an object is just a bonus layer of all that.

Allison (#4,509)

Why let on that you know what the surprise is, Alejandro?? (unless you wanted to open the TV early, which, ok.) Let her be excited!

My parents have had this problem their entire married lives, I think. I’m sure Dad would say that’s why he does so much shopping last minute. Or last year, had me buy theater tickets on my credit card and then mom wrote me a check on Christmas.

Darley (#3,822)

We solved this by mutually deciding on a gift budget and then my spouse who never looks at credit card statements buys a preloaded cash card to buy my gift.

EM (#1,012)

My partner and I basically don’t buy gifts for each other for holidays/anniversaries because it’s so stressful and we’re both picky consumers; plus he hates shopping so it would be cruel to subject him to it, especially when I’d much rather pick out my own jewellery. One less person to shop for is a nice gift!

kentuckienne (#4,294)

I’d be curious to know how Billfold couples do joint accounts. I’m planning to move in with my SO in the new year, and there are so many options. Asking someone to split the rent feels like what roommates do, so I wonder if we should start a joint checking for home expenses. We’ve also considered a joint saving for a home downpayment after we’re living together, but I think I’d like to keep my own credit card for the reasons listed above.

eraserface (#1,628)

@kentuckygal Yay for you! When my then-fiance and I moved in, we got a joint checking/savings account and pretty much used it for everything, with some caveats that strictly personal purchases should be discussed (within reason, not talking like a cup of coffee or something).

We are married now, and each still have credit cards in our names, but basically…most things go on my husband’s credit card, and I use my credit card exclusively for presents for him that I don’t want him to find out about. We’ve never once “split” anything and pretty much consider all money shared money, though do still each retain personal pre-relationship-existing checking and savings accounts. I suppose that might be a “just in case,” but really it’s mostly because those accounts exist at our college’s credit union, which has better rates so no incentive to move the money. And we’re lazy.

Meaghano (#529)

@eraserface our plan is to pool our money in one joint acct we pay bills from, buy groceries, etc, then to withdraw $x every two weeks into our own “private” acccounts. Say $100 a week, which you can use to buy yourself whatever you want without having to feel weird, and buy the other person stuff and feel like you paid for it, or save up for something big and unreasonable that you don’t have to explain!

lemonadefish (#3,296)

@kentuckygal When I moved in with my boyfriend (now husband), we kept separate accounts, and each paid for certain things – like, the Internet is $50, and the alarm is $50, so we’d each pay for one of those, and we each wrote a check to the landlord for our portion of the rent (he makes a lot more then I, so it wasn’t an even split).

When we got married, we opened a joint account that pays for household expenses, travel, food, doctors, and pretty much everything that isn’t fun. We kept our old separate accounts, and we each get an allowance (changes depending on the budget for the year) that we can spend on ridiculously expensive bicycles, or $8 rolls of tape, or whatever it is we like, and then there is no shaming about discretionary purchases.

My mom and step dad keep everything separate, and he writes her a check for half the household expenses every month. I don’t know how they decide who pays for travel and other anomalous expenses.

@kentuckygal we go full joint accounts and credit cards, although I still have one in my name that I had before I was married to keep some credit in my name alone. Have offered husband the same option but he is self-admittedly not good with money so he has chosen not to.

We both have a rough budget joint and individual “fun money” each month. I’ve always got a calculator in my head so I just use the ol’ debit card but my husband withdraws his in cash because he can manage it better. We don’t begrudge each other going over a little bit here and there.

In general we both have the same attitude towards money and I care about where money is going more than him, so it just hasn’t really been an issue. If one of us feels the other is overspending, we have a conversation about it and move on. He gets sign off on the budgets I set up for us, so he can’t complain.

I think this stems from getting married young where for awhile only one of us at a time was bringing in significant income (he was in grad school, I was barely working part time fresh out of college, then I was in grad school, etc.) so we never really had the option to not think of it all as “our” money because the non-earner would have been screwed.

Nibbler (#5,331)

@kentuckygal My now-husband and I spent our first five years of living together splitting things evenly-ish (like I paid the electric bill, he paid for internet, we each paid half of rent) with some adjustment for the fact that he always made more than me (mostly in the form of him taking us out to dinner/buying me clothes, that sort of thing).

Then last year we got married and merged everything: one checking account, one main credit card (it’s his but I’m an “authorized user”) one savings account. It has worked out super great so far. He’s always been a little more spendy than me, so now I feel like I can be a little more indulgent, like shopping at the same stores as him, for example. I think it makes sense to have the same lifestyle if you’re married and living together.

We’re also saving a lot more, for whatever reason. (Maybe because I set up larger transfers to savings than we each would have otherwise, or because we’re comfortable keeping the joint checking account balance lower than the sum of our two separate accounts would be.)

We haven’t had a single fight about money since we pooled everything, and we only have to write one rent check now.

milena (#3,288)

@kentuckygal My boyfriend and I opened a joint account when we moved in together. We put in enough for rent and then a bit on top, and we use the account (really it’s mostly me) for rent, groceries, and any dining situations where minimizing the number of cards is best. We’ve been paying utilities out of our personal accounts, though, and just picking what each person pays without much regard for evening it out– I pay cable & internet, he pays gas, heat and electric.

The bulk of the money we earn, we keep and we spend as we please. I couldn’t bear requiring his consent for every purchase, to be honest. As long as my partner contributes money to the household and is financially responsible to the point where I would never need to bail him out, I don’t particularly care for how he spends his money.

Any time I hear stories of couples completely merging their finances, it’s like screeching brake sounds in my head. NONONONONONONONONONO!

readyornot (#816)

@Nibbler my now-husband and I gradually moved toward ever more integration. Now income, expenses, savings, investments are totally pooled. But we do each have a single credit card which was our personal credit pre-marriage. Never gets used except for gift-purchasing!

Our progression was something like: step 1) writing a check for rent, switching off grocery store runs, taking different utility bills, step 2) opening joint accounts, step 3) redirecting direct deposit, opening joint investment accounts, stepping down using individual accounts, closing individual accounts.

I second the comments above that say completely pooled is wonderful.

@kentuckygal My husband and I have shared finances, but we didn’t merge them until we got married and we lived together for a few years prior to that, so I’ve tried it both ways. I really, really like having shared accounts, but it was always understood to be an only after we’d decided to be married thing, and after fairly detailed conversations about how money should work. We have a main joint checking and savings account through our credit union for almost all of our expenses, and then we each have individual accounts. We pay ourselves a small allowance twice a month for fun solo things that we don’t want to have to justify within the household budget. We generally confer prior to any large transactions (I would say over $100), even if it’s something we’ve already budgeted for, just so there are no surprises.

Because the allowance is pretty small, this year we decided on a Christmas budget and took that out so we could be mysterious and surprising about presents. I realize it’s all ours and we basically are going halfsies on our own presents, but we both really enjoy the act of picking out things and surprising/being surprised, so it works for us. To my mind, it’s not unlike the family Secret Santa – we could just all write each other checks, but we enjoy finding something we think the person will like and presenting it to them with a bow.

kentuckienne (#4,294)

You are all are so great – I knew you’d have some advice and pros/cons for me! Thanks Billfold community :)

clo (#4,196)

@eraserface this is pretty much what we do too. i think it’s weird when couples don’t pool money, personally. maybe that’s just cause we’re broke a lot, so we have to pool in order to pay the bills…
but yeah we have a joint account we use for everything and all big ticket items get discussed ahead of time. my wife pays all the bills so i would never notice a gift from her on the statement, but when i want to buy her something i’ll just put it on my credit cards. i’m a user on her accounts, but she isn’t on mine, so i only use mine for work travel and gifts. she has higher limits on her cards, and mine are really more to build my credit than actual use. we try to do everything on the debit card as much as possible.

OhMarie (#299)

We have totally pooled money and we do two things:

-first line of defense is don’t look at the credit card statement if you can help it/at least don’t look at it very carefully or think about it
-second line of defense is we also don’t talk about what we’re getting other people, like our families. that way if it’s like, a purchase at a certain store you don’t know if it’s for you or someone else.

I actually find that it isn’t super hard. I get half of the stuff on Amazon anyway, and that gives you zero clues.

lemonadefish (#3,296)

One day my husband called to say he was about to buy a $3000 ring for a friend’s wife, so it wouldn’t show up on their credit card. He’s a reliable guy, so I thought it was ok (and it turned out ok) but that was pretty extreme!
We just don’t examine the credit card statement too carefully, and we also don’t really buy big ticket items, so there aren’t generally many clues anyway.

andnowlights (#2,902)

Right now ALL money goes into our joint account, and we each have separate accounts that birthday/Christmas money goes into that is used for gifts/whatever we want. Family gifts come out of the joint, though, and are budgeted for. Since the husband is a student, we don’t do an allowance.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

We have a joint account for all our stuff – rent, utilities, groceries, but still keep our own accounts and credit cards. My husband puts more into the joint because he has less/no debt other than his gas card. For gifts, this year we decided to do stocking stuffers, so I picked him up some stuff on my own account, but used the joint when I went for a catch-all shopping trip to Target which included some stuff for him but it was like candy and shaving cream. I did pick up some earrings, because I had a coupon for it, and I figured he could put in my stocking. We haven’t really gotten each other any big gifts ever (other than my engagement ring from him) so there’s no surprises when looking at our statement. As for family gifts, some come out the joint, some come out of mine, and some come out of his – it’s more of a matter that we make sure I’m not buying alllll the gifts, but I will go shopping more than he does, so I just count on him to pick up stuff from his work and take care of all those people.

We have a joint-ish account but I’m basically our CFO, so I’m the one who keeps on top of our spending and tracking it. He wouldn’t have a clue if I got him something! It would be a bit harder for him – he’d have to buy something out of his own spending money (which he takes out in cash).

We keep the lion’s share in our joint accounts. My entire paycheck goes in there. I use my credit cards for a mix of joint & personal expenses, and I pay them off every month from the joint account. (Not the most transparent method, but it works for now, plus I get points.) My husband moves a certain amount of each paycheck into his personal checking for his own expenses, including gifts.

His Christmas gift to me this year is a cashmere winter hat, which I of course already know about and in fact wore to work today, because it would be cruel to keep that kind of thing in hiding when it’s so cold out. He also knows what I’m getting him (a Bluetooth speaker), and he’ll receive it as soon as it arrives. We won’t be home for Christmas, so it doesn’t make sense to wrap something up and bring it with us, only to bring it back home unwrapped after the holiday. Also, he’s not big on surprises (either giving or receiving), and I don’t care much either way!

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