A pure practicality or a recipe for disaster?
Talking about money is not easy. In fact, according to psychotherapist and couples therapist Wieslaw Kaminski, money is one of the most common topics his clients fight about. Can having a joint bank account contribute to happy dynamics within a couple? How can you make sure your partner doesn’t abuse you financially? And should you always have a separate account just in case? These are some questions we reached out to Wieslaw with.
GV: As a therapist, what’s your take on joint bank accounts in a romantic partnership?
“There is no right or wrong, but if one partner feels it’s wrong, it is probably wrong.”
For some couples, having a joint account might work pretty well. For others, it simply doesn’t. As couples therapists, we never advise one way of doing things. It’s more about looking at what would work for this particular couple and understanding what is behind their conflict with money. As you can imagine, it is very often way deeper than just money. My stance on this is very much about communicating before couples decide to do it — discussing it together, being honest and thinking about the goal of having a joint account.
There is no right or wrong, but if one partner feels it’s wrong, it is probably wrong. Or it’s wrong at the moment. It’s hard to imagine that if one of the partners feels they are made to do it, it could serve the couple.
GV: When would having a joint bank account be particularly beneficial?
In many ways, it could be practical. If you think of one of the partners getting sick or dying, you would have an easy access to the money. Also, it is easier in everyday situations if you both have access to money.
When I think of joint accounts, both partners are equal owners of all the money in the account, so both parties are empowered. Sometimes having a joint account adds to the feeling of ‘we’re in it together.’ It adds to the idea of a shared future. It clearly might give some people a sense of security in the couple.
GV: How can different financial habits within a joint bank account impact the relationship?
The way I think about it, the joint account is meant to actually help the couple. People differ — what if one of the partners smokes and spends a lot of money on smoking? And the other one doesn’t? In such a case, they clearly differ in terms of spending habits. A lot of couples will fight over differences. But if you decide to have joint accounts and spend the money specifically on the goals or the type of bills that you talked through – and you agree that other things are on separate accounts — it could help a couple not escalate conflict. If there are very big differences, it makes sense that couple also has separate accounts, so that individuality is respected too.
If you have just one joint account, before you do it, you need to discuss a lot of different kinds of issues that will definitely pop up. What if one of you wants to do things that the other one disapproves of? What if you want to buy a surprise gift for your partner or someone else? What if one of you loses work? What will happen if you decide to have a kid and one of you will have no income for some time? If you just have a joint account, period, there’s more topics to discuss before you do it.
GV: Do you think it’s important to keep a private account as a safety measure?
Money is a symbol, but it is very often associated with power. When couples start talking about money, some deeper power issues often pop up. If you’re saying, ‘Should I do it for myself to feel safe? What if they steal from me?’ I would say that needs to be discussed directly and honestly. I would come up with all your possible worries and discuss all the things that are so problematic that you usually don’t talk about. For example, what if you break up? Such issues need to be taken care of before you put money into this. If you’re worried that your partner might steal from you, that means there is some anxiety or lack of trust, or maybe there have been some difficult experiences in the couple’s history that need to be taken care of first.
When you decide to have joint accounts, or joint accounts and also separate accounts, you need to decide on the rules of how you do it. It’s not necessarily that you contribute the same amount. Both partners need to feel like this is fair. And fair doesn’t necessarily mean it’s equal. Some couples chip in a proportionate share of their income, others — the same amount, and others — something else.
GV: How early in the relationship should you communicate your finance management preferences?
There is no rule. You can discuss it even on the first date if you want to. But if we’re talking about acting on it, like thinking of a joint account, it makes sense that you start discussing that when the couple has some common future and when partners agree to have some common goals. They might aim to save up for a house or have fun and eat out weekly. Whatever the goal, if it’s easier this way, why not?
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