Penny For Your Thoughts

Ask Penny: Do married couples really need to have a joint account?

Hi Penny,

My husband and I have always had separate accounts. We have one shared savings that we use to pay our mortgage and save for emergencies. We have a son, now 4, so there's more and more spending we do for the household and for him. As it stands, my husband transfers a few hundred dollars a month to me, and I take care of everything: household needs, kid's clothes and activities, etc.

Is this silly? Should we open a shared checking? This would just clock us in with six accounts between us, not counting the 529 for our son. I don't want to give up my own checking and savings, but six accounts sounds crazy, no?

Yours up to here with accounts,
Jessica in Park Slope

Hi Jessica,

What sounds a bit odd to me is the routine of him taking some of "his" money and transferring it to you each month to provide for the household. Isn't that inefficient? Why doesn't he pay the family bills out of his account? Is it important that the money makes its way to you first for some reason? Are checks to the pre-school only valid if you sign them?

Overall, though, there's nothing crazy with having multiple accounts. If you and your husband can keep track of your eggs when distributed among so many baskets, and you're happy with your arrangement, then you're set; you don't have to answer to anyone else. But if monitoring a total of six or seven baskets feels like a lot to you, maybe create the joint checking and then consider cutting back on some of the individual ones.

As you're aware, there are advantages to consolidating when it comes to saving: compound interest, for example. The more spread out your money is, the more thinly spread it has to be. If you and your husband can put $10,000 into one high-interest online savings account, you can unlock a rate of 1.25% a year that's unavailable to individuals with less.

"Pooling your earnings breaks down the perceived divide between 'his' money and yours/the family's."

There are other practical advantages to consolidating funds, including convenience and transparency. And there are emotional advantages, too. Pooling your earnings breaks down the perceived divide between "his" money and yours/the family's.

I say "perceived" because, in New York, there is no such actual divide. You can pretend to have his-and-hers piles of cash like you might have his-and-hers monogrammed towels, but the state makes no such distinction: Anything either of you earns is considered "marital property" and in case of divorce would be split between you "equitably." (Not "equally," but that's a distinction for another day.)

Any walls that seem to exist between his money and yours are walls you have erected and are maintaining yourselves. It may be worth having a frank, Robert Frost-inspired conversation about what purpose those walls serve. Questions to consider:


  • Why is it your instinct to hold onto your individual savings and checking?
  • Does having your own personal accounts make you feel safe in some way?
  • Or, less abstractly, does one of you feel like the other can be critical, and you'd prefer not to answer for every purchase you make?


There are no right or wrong answers here, but there is clarity to be found, and the trust that increased clarity and better communication, can bring. Money is never just money, after all; it represents power, independence, comfort, safety and a host of other very personal things.

Figure out what money means to the two of you, separately and together, and then come up with a functional, deliberate plan to deal with your money so it can help both of you meet your needs.

Thoughtfully,
Penny

Do you have a question for Penny about your money and/or your life? Email AskPenny@cnbc.com. Letters may be lightly edited for clarity and length.