[The Attic] The joint checking account

March 27, 2012

This post originally appeared on The Life & Lessons of Rachel Wilkerson.

After I wrote about splitting the cost of birth control with your male partner last week, a few people asked me to write about splitting the cost of everything else. It’s a post that I’ve been wanting to write; I’ve simply been waiting until I had a better idea if what we were doing was working for us. Since the one-year anniversary of our living in sin adventure is in a few weeks, I thought this was as good of a time as any. While I don’t think I have any business being within 50 feet of a conversation regarding financial planning, I’m willing to share my experiences from the past year.

living in sinWhen Eric and I decided to move in together, we also decided to get a joint checking account. This was mainly out of convenience. We didn’t want to write to checks for rent or have to constantly keep track of who owed who money; we wanted a simple way for us to both contribute to a shared pot that we’d use be able to use for bills. Neither of us had plans to get rid of our main checking or savings accounts; we were simply going to have a portion of our checks deposited directly into the joint account.

While this was mostly a matter of convenience, I was glad we were doing it for a lot of deeper reasons. How you handle money as a couple is something that I felt was important to know before I planned to share my life with someone. I wanted to know if we could share money  before I got any more emotionally invested in the relationship. And, frankly, I wanted him to know too. Eric and I could not be more different when it comes to money and, to tell you the truth, those differences terrified me. I was really worried that my student loans, lack of a perfect credit score, and desire to have nice things would be a dealbreaker for him.

After opening the account, we calculated all of our joint monthly expenses (rent, bills, groceries) and came up with a total amount for the month, which we then divided by four (two people, two paychecks a month) to determine how much we’d contribute each paycheck. We decided that we’d use it for joint expenses but that if an unexpected joint expense came up that was going to cost more than $20, we’d check with the other person first (so neither of us could claim, “But this iPad is for both of us”). We set up direct deposit, got our new debit cards, ordered checks, and were off.

From the start, I loved having a joint checking account. First, it helped me budget my non-joint-checking account money a lot better. But it also provided from feelings of guilt and owing the other person/being owed. The biggest place we felt this relief was in dinners out. Eric and I eat out fairly often and it wasn’t fair for him to always pay, nor was it fair for me to always pay. Sure we could take turns, but what happens when we spend $15 on one meal and $50 on the next? Paying with our joint account solved this problem. We also started to talk about money more, asking “Can we afford this?” when talking about everything from going out to dinner to stuff for the apartment to taking a weekend trip. I liked that it made us part of the same team. I also liked that we were building trust with the joint account. Combining finances with someone is scary; there was definitely a part of me (and I’m sure him too) that wondered, Shit, this person isn’t going to run off with all my money, right?! I think it helped that we both had our own accounts, and, by extension, safety nets as we built up trust and felt confident that neither of us was going to run off with all the money.

So the joint account was going pretty well…until we hit a snag. See, we were contributing equal amounts to the joint account each month even though we make no where near equal incomes. Eric makes far more than I do, and after a few months, I started to get really resentful that he was giving me a hard time about my debt when I didn’t have a lot of extra money to contribute to my own bills based on what I was putting into the joint account. It finally occurred to me that while we were contributing equal amounts, we were contributing wildly different percentages of our incomes. I was putting about 50 percent of my monthly income into the joint account, while he was putting about 35 percent of his monthly income into it. No one had ever told either of us that a lot of couples in this situation contribute different amounts to the joint account, so we didn’t even consider that when we first got the joint account; we just did a 50-50 split. While the 50-50 split was what I agreed to, I couldn’t help but get pissed when he wanted to know why I wasn’t paying off my debt more aggressively.

So we fought. And it was really, really hard. I realized during those arguments just how much weight our culture puts in income, net worth, and financial contributions. It wasn’t just about my credit vs. his credit; it was also about our job choices, our successes, and, quite often, our shortcomings and failures. It was about our values, our parents’ values, our perception of men’s and women’s roles, our thoughts on childrearing, and, quite simply, it was about our maturity. (Or, really, our lack thereof. Because those fights? Were not our proudest moments.) It was everything you probably need to know before you decide you’re in it for the long haul and yet it was very awkward, confusing, and painful to go through it.

I’ve read a lot of articles about relationships and money in the past few months, including Marriage as Mini-Socialism and Prenups on A Practical Wedding (the posts are good but I found the comments were the most interesting/valuable) and the recent Time Magazine cover story about female breadwinners. In the articles, posts, and comments, I keep seeing people open up about how imbalanced incomes have affected their relationships. They talk about the resentment they sometimes feel as a breadwinner or the shame and guilt they feel as the non-breadwinner (breadloser?). Often it’s talked about as “Women are the new breadwinners — how is that affecting men’s sense of self?” but I’d argue that anyone who makes less than his or her partner has to deal with how that affects their sense of self. While neither of us is technically the breadwinner, I’ve certainly had to deal with feeling bad about making less money than my partner. It was — and is — humbling and unsettling to have those conversations with Eric and I feel so incredibly vulnerable every time we have them. But I’m learning that you’re going to have to have them at some point; even as I was struggling through them, I knew on some level that it was better to deal with it sooner rather than later.

Eventually, after talking to my married friends and doing some research, I felt comfortable asking Eric if we could adjust the amount we were each contributing to take my lower income into account. We talked about it over the course of a couple days; while it made perfect sense to me, I think we were both worried he was going to be very resentful, that he was going to judge how I spent money (which, from what I’ve read, is fairly common in these situations). But he agreed to at least try this as a solution. And I don’t know why exactly, but things have gotten so much better since we started contributing different dollar amounts. I’m not sure if it’s that this arrangement is so much better, or just that getting to this point forced us to grow up enough that we’re now both better equipped to handle any arrangement. Whatever the reason, though, it was a nice shift.

Now that we’ve been doing the joint account thing for a year, I feel like we’re in a really good place with it. I’m not sure what we’ll do in the long term — whether we’ll keep this setup, slowly combine our finances, or what. There are a lot of options out there and different experts (and couples) believe wholeheartedly in different strategies. Before too long, we’ll have to deal with things like debt, savings, retirement, etc. but for now, this is working really well for us.

Looking back at this past year, it feels like the joint checking account was a lot more than just a convenience. It was the catalyst for a lot of important discussions and, eventually, gave us the answer to a lot of very important questions.

I know it was the right decision for us, but I know that every couple is different and that money is a very loaded topic. I’d love to hear how you all feel about this and how you’ve handled it. Whether you’re single, dating, living in sin, married, or divorced, I’m sure you have an opinion on combining finances and money and power in relationships, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

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