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Together and Separate: What individuals in a couple need for themselves

Jessica Lanning

My 50-something friend who has been married for 20+ years was sharing with me over burritos the other night that she wanted to buy her spouse a pricey birthday present but had no means to do without the spouse seeing the transaction and ruining the surprise.  No family member had enough room on a credit card to handle it.

She was now questioning whether it was a mistake to have given up that “useless and redundant” credit card that was solely in her name.  “What else,” she asked me, “should I have to myself??”

Managing finances in coupledom

Couples – legally related (married or registered domestic partners) or not – most often merge their finances at some point, for better or for worse.  No harm most of the time in doing so, except where separate property is involved when there would be potential unwanted consequences.  (That’s a blog post for another day.)

Also most often, someone in the couple takes on the role of managing day-to-day finances.  The person who gets this job usually does so because it’s an efficient delegation of duties.  This person is simply better or more willing to keep track of spending, monitor accounts for fraud, get the taxes done, call the financial advisor, etc.

Consequently, that person sees all spending.  This is great for categorizing expenses, especially since payment services like PayPal and Venmo often do a bad job or no job picking a category.  This is also great fraud protection.

For couples trying to maintain accountability to a spending plan, reviewing accounts is highly valuable.  However, it can also be used to judge or justify an expense.  That often can go poorly when couples do not agree on how money or how much money should be spent.  (Also a blog post of its own for another day.)

This is where having an account to oneself can further the couple’s success.

A “room” of one’s own

I do think there is much value in keeping a couple of accounts independent and separate.

A bank account.

I often encourage couples who are contemplating merging their finances to have each person in the couple keep a separate spending account.  My friend’s mom used it call it her “mad money” account – a frivolous, judgment-free account from which to buy whatever she wanted to her heart’s content to the extent of the balance.

This account should not have a lot of money in it, relatively speaking.  It should be funded regularly (every paycheck, once a month, whatever).  It should have an ATM card attached.  Ideally, the spouse does not see this account, but if s/he/y does?  No judgments.

A credit card.

This one is a little more dicey because it opens up more possibility for fraud and/or overspending.  This card should be paid off by the separate bank account, even if that is over time.  However, it can also be paid off by a joint account, such as in the case above when the couple would consider the purchase a joint expenditure like a spouse’s birthday present.

Promoting couple-hood bliss

Separate accounts create great freedom and preserves some autonomy for each person.  If someone has a shoe fetish, that’s allowed.  If someone wants to save up for a big purchase and get it, that’s allowed.  All within reason and subject to available storage space, of course.

Individuals come into partnership with their own identities, desires and needs. Those don’t go away because they are now coupled, including attitudes and proclivities toward money.  Indeed, maintaining that autonomy keeps the relationship interesting and stronger.  I’m all about happiness in coupledom.

Sure, there’s some danger here that individuals will use this money “in opposition” to the sanctity of the couple.  Someone could use this money to hide infidelity, overspend, fund a “forbidden” purchase, or give money to a “wayward” relative.  But these issues are not about money and are more appropriate for therapy.  (And that blog post could be a book in and of itself.)

Starting again

My friend was able to buy her spouse the gift on the credit and goodwill of the established relationship of this vendor, who agreed to take payment after the birthday celebration, which was a real testament to the importance of relationships in perhaps unexpected contexts.

She’s also getting a credit card in her name that is unconnected to any accounts the couple already has.  Sure, it’ll put a minor dent in her credit for a short time, which is a small price to pay for a little independence.

If you want to talk about keeping money separate in the context of your couple-hood, please reach out.



Lanning Financial Inc. is a registered investment adviser. Information presented is for educational purposes only and does not intend to make an offer or solicitation for the sale or purchase of any specific securities, investments, or investment strategies. Investments involve risk and unless otherwise stated, are not guaranteed. Be sure to first consult with a qualified financial adviser and/or tax professional before implementing any strategy discussed herein. Past performance is not indicative of future performance.