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Money and Marriage: Should you Separate or Combine Finances?

Last updated by on December 31, 2014

Whenever marriage or a similar significant-other long-term partnership is formed, the question of combining finances (and to what extent) is bound to arise.

And, oh what an interesting (and challenging) conversation it is.

If you’re having trouble bringing up or revisiting this conversation, it’s best to know the framework of possibilities and hear from personal experiences (I’ll share mine and hopefully others share their’s in the comments). That’s what this post is all about. So let’s get started.

Opposite Ends of the Combined Finances Spectrum

The extent to which a couple agrees to combine their finances usually has two opposite ends of the spectrum:

1. Financial Firewallers: these couples intentionally keeps all but common living expenses (food, rent, utilities) separate, and even those common living expenses are equally covered. They have separate bank accounts, separate savings, and even an agreement that should there be a break, finances will be kept separate.

2. Shared Poolers: these couples have one joint bank account from which all income and expenses are funneled – a “shared pool”, if you will. Retirement and other savings are combined.

My guess is that most fall much closer to the “shared pooler” model than the “financial firewaller”.

Somewhere in between, to varying levels, are those who have planned to split the expense of most items, yet still keep the remaining income and savings separate, for any number of reasons.

money and marriage

External and Internal Influences

How a couple operates is usually dynamic, not static. And it’s influenced by a number of factors:

  • each individual’s view on money
  • children (from past or present relationships)
  • each individual’s consumption habits
  • health
  • special needs
  • age
  • retirement
  • employment status
  • length of relationship

In other words, life can get in the way of any good plan. It’s inevitable that the longer the relationship lasts, the more combined the finances will become.

Does that mean everyone should just pool everything right from the beginning so as to not delay the inevitable?

Not exactly.

The Benefits of Separate Finances

Why should one even bother with separate finances when it’s clearly easier just to pool everything?

For one, it forces you to know what your monthly expenses are and keep tabs on what a good and bad month are. It also forces you to equally work towards shared financial goals (a large shared purchase, vacation, etc). And it’s hard for one half to feel entitled to do nothing when this structure is set.

It also does give a bit of permission to use the separate savings towards personal hobbies, education, and purchases with less of a chance of strong feelings of resentment.

For any couple entering into a live-in relationship, I highly recommend keeping some degree of financial separation for these reasons.

With all that being said, there are definitely benefits to a pooled or semi-pooled approach. My personal story should best describe what I think the biggest is and opportune times to use it.

My Personal Money and Marriage Ideological Evolution

When my wife and I first married (7 years ago), we were mostly financial firewallers. We started out immediately with separate bank accounts, to which our income was direct deposited. From there, we determined what out average monthly living expenses were, added a small cushion, and then each set up a second direct deposit of an equal 50% to cover those joint living expenses.

If we had a big joint expense coming up, we’d add equal amounts to our joint account, without exception.

A few years ago, we started discussing a career change for my wife. At the time, she had a decent paying full-time job, but felt ready for a change. Together, we agreed that a change would be a good move. There was just one problem. She did not have the retirement savings to pay for school or to cover her half of our shared expenses over the year and a half she would be going back to school.

At this point, I had a choice. Do I ask her to work long enough until she could cover these expenses? This would have taken years. Years that she wouldn’t be moving forward with career and personal growth.

Or maybe just cover her living expenses and ask her to take out high-interest student loan debt to pay for the tuition? This would have saddled her with high-interest debt for years.

How about working part-time while going to school? It was an accelerated program, so this would have been extremely difficult from a time availability standpoint.

So, I agreed to fully cover our joint living expenses and her tuition, without any expectation of her paying me back (there are indeed couples who loan each other money in these types of scenarios with the full expectation of paying it back).

Then school started, and our car died. Did I loan her money for her half of the car (I say half, but she was the only one using it)? No. I paid for the new one in full.

I say this not as back-patting, “look how good of a guy I am”, but rather to highlight the gradual shift from being financial firewallers to shared poolers.

I saw it as an opportunity to invest in my wife to enable her to personally grow and ultimately improve our relationship. And given my financial situation, I didn’t think it would be fair to put unnecessary financial or other stress on her for the purpose of sticking to a previously determined financial ideology.

Throughout our lives, I anticipate we will encounter many situations where one of our personal savings or employment situations can be advantageously used to enhance each other’s lives and our relationship. It’s hard to find any negative in that.

Do what Works for you

I have my opinion on what works, but it’s what has worked for us. Like most things, there is no one-size fits all approach. Every relationship is unique and the life variables are going to differ. When in doubt? Test.

The one common denominator that I think is necessary for everyone is to be fully open and discuss it. Ideally, this happens at the start of the relationship and periodically throughout. As financial problems are the #1 reason for divorce, the importance of doing so should not be overlooked.

Money & Marriage Discussion:

  • How have you handled finances in your relationship?
  • Has this changed over time? How?
  • Take the poll below!

What best describes the financial agreement in your relationship?

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About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 10,000+ others by getting FREE email updates. You can also explore every post I have written, in order.

  • Edgar @ Degrees and Debt says:

    Call me old fashion, but I feel that when I get married I would like the finances to be a shared pool. Not sure why, but I just cant see it any other way. I think the union of marriage brings together everything, I wouldnt care if I made more then my wife, but on the breakdown of things she “spent” more of it. Doesnt matter at that point 🙂

    • JB says:

      I completely agree with you – call me old-fashioned too (though I have a six figure technology sector job after just 5 years of working experience) but I want a husband who will provide for me without making calculated decisions about whether to “invest” in me. I’d say no thanks, dude – I can take care of myself and find someone else who won’t count pennies!

      • G.E. Miller says:

        Confused a bit.
        a. you want a husband that will take care of you, even though you make 6 figures
        b. you would leave them if they didn’t take care of you, b/c you can take care of yourself

        Why do you want to be “provided for” if you make 6 figures? Doesn’t seem fair to the guy.

  • Evolving says:

    We have been together for 20+ years. I have been working full time for the duration except for a 3 month stint.

    When we were dating, we were firewallers, but I paid for her school and car as I made more.

    When we first got married, we were poolers. We both worked and had plenty of income. We were not geared toward FI and spent most of what we made.

    When we decided to get out of debt, we were pooler/firewaller hybrids. All of our income was pooled but one of us got a small allowance and the other paid the bills and then paid down the debt. The person with the allowance did not have access to the funds. We would switch off every year or two. It worked best when I was on the allowance and she paid off debt. We lived poor as hell, but she knocked out 30K+ a year off our debt. When it was my turn, we ate better but only paid down $20K a year in debt.

    Then we paid off our last credit card and the house my wife no longer had to work a full time, draining job. She now works part time and only works enough hours to cover her personal expenses (clothes, movies, lunches with firends etc). So we are back to firewallers. I cover all family expenses (savings, food, vacations, school tuition, insurance, utilities etc.) and she spends her money as she pleases. On the plus side, she never asks me for anything financially which allows me to budget and plan with no surprises (this works great for me). On occassion, I will pay for a car repair or something she cannot immediately afford but it is because that makes more sense than her floating anything on a credit card and paying 18%. Our money is still OUR money after all is said and done. I send her a financial summary every month so she knows what is spent and saved and what is planned for us tp spend going out 12-18 months. As long as we are headed in a positive direction finacially, I do not think she needs to get back to a full time, life sucking job.

    Who knows what lies ahead? In the future I may be out of work and she may go back to working full time and we will adjust the firewall/pool as needed?

  • My wife and I have separate bank accounts and savings accounts. We also have a joint bank account and savings. This works well for us and have never had any problems. It keeps us comfortable.

  • TC says:

    We pool almost everything. Our retirement accounts are separate,but since she has no understanding of investing and has no desire to learn I manage those accounts. I have thought several times that it may be easier to firewall everything and share for the common items. I can see how it may be more financially beneficial, but it seems like an arduous process to switch everything over to a new model.

  • Pickle says:

    Mrs. Pickle and I share everything in our finances, with the exception of money that’s given as gifts (birthdays, Christmas, graduation, etc…). Everything else is pooled in to 1 checking account and 1 savings account.

    Being the financial wiz member of the family, I’ve taken the responsibility of handling our money. That’s not to say that she’s left out, though. I make it a requirement of myself to tell her any time a change is being made to our finances, either now or for the future, even though it annoys her when I force us to talk about money.

  • William @ Drop Dead Money says:

    We’ve been at it for several decades now. We have two separate accounts, but one is used to pay all living expenses, and the other is simply spending money. For a long time hers was the “main” one, but now that I’m retired, she elected to keep working, so now my account is the “main” one, because I’m the one paying the bills. She deposits her paycheck into my account, but she can take from it anytime. She knows the answer is always yes, so there’s no aspect of “asking permission,” but she tells me anyway so I don’t get surprised when I look at the online statement.

    We have the same attitude toward spending and all major spending is decided on together.

    As a general rule I spend most of my money on her and she spends most of her money on me. That’s just what love does… right? Did I mention we just had our 40th anniversary? LOL

  • LS says:

    My husband and I dated for 2 years before we got married, and lived together for about a year and a half of that. We mostly paid our own bills, CC, phone, etc. He paid the house payment, since he was doing that before we started dating, no big deal. When I was unable to work for medical reasons, he and my parents both helped me out utill I was able to pay my bills again. Once he and I married, he and I set up a joint checking/savings account at a bank that neither one of us had an account at. We each kept the checking/savings accounts that we previously had. Each month we both get a $200 allowance to do whatever we want with, and the rest of our money gets pooled into our joint (main) account for all the bills, food, and shared expenses. We each also have our own credit card that we have to make our own payments on. We have decided that when our loan, and other credit cards are paid off, that we can start using the main account to pay our personal credit cards off, and hopefully only keep a low balance on a few of the cards so that we can maintain our credit.

  • Joel says:

    All of our income goes into a shared account and covers all combined expenses and combined savings. From that, we each get an equal monthly allowance for personal spending. This is “no discussion” money and can be spent however either of us wants.

    This strategy makes it fair in my opinion, because we both get the same amount of spending money to spend however we want. I make about twice as much as my wife, but her job is arguably harder, so this strategy seems to eliminate financial resentment.

  • Dan says:

    We are financial fire-wallers with a joint expense account. We have never once argued about money. Each of us have the freedom to buy what we want with our own money.

    In my option, pooling bank accounts can be messy and just asking for trouble.

    I do not see one benifit of pool bank accounts.

    • Milly says:

      Same here! Things will change when we start to think about a baby(we’ll create a joint savings acct for that) but for now, we are 100% firewallers and we never have issues.

  • Julia says:

    We are poolers! We both make a concerted effort to stay involved in the financial aspect of our lives and relationship. We have kept up a month-by-month spreadsheet that tracks our joint checking account. By tracking our combined spending/saving, we are able to stay on track, and find ways to cut the fat while supporting each-others’ interests. Its something we can do together and share with each-other.

    Pooling makes the most sense for us because we make about the same amount of money. Also, I feel like it improves our relationship because we are forced to discuss our finances together more often, and it encourages us to save for each other together!

  • Lauren D says:

    My husband and I are about to celebrate our 2 year anniversary. We are Mostly fire wallers with some shared pooling. I agree with your comment on open communication being the most important, no matter how you divvy up finances. We are in a situation that could easily breed resentment or anger but with open communication we haven’t had either.

    I make more than double my husband’s salary, plus he in a lot of debt while my debt is very small. Together we have made each of us a “get out of debt plan”. This took a lot of open candid communication.

    I contribute substantially more into a joint checking account for joint bills, groceries and the mortgage. We have separate checking accounts for personal use and personal bills.

    We have a joint savings that we contribute to equally, and put any joint windfall income (tax returns, property escrow overpayments) Tax returns were tricky. We decided to just put them equally towards joint use for home improvements, savings or vacations. As for personal savings we’ve agreed to an annual cap so we aren’t making our pooled finances/savings suffer.

    Retirement planning is completely fire walled separate! He has a pension and I have a 401k which I Max out annually. Our retirement savings will always remain completely seperate and up to individual discretion.

    Over time our goal is to continue to merge our finances more, but I never see us getting rid of our personal accounts. Once we’re out of debt if like the joint contribution amount to be large enough to include all meals and entertainment we do together. Much easier than going back and forth figuring out who paid for what. For the time being I’m happy with him having more household chore responsibility and me having more financial responsibilities.

  • Kim says:

    We were firewalled for about a year before marriage (mostly would just take turns paying the big bills). Now we are 100% poolers and loving it. Since we’re both professionals there isn’t a huge discrepancy in our earnings, which I’ve seen lead to marital trauma with firewallers. The only separation we keep financially is that all the bills get paid based on his income (it all comes from a shared account but we sized the budget based on one income), and our big savings comes from my income (mortgage principal, family vacations). We carefully planned our budget so that we could afford our lifestyle on only one income and the other paycheck is gravy, so we won’t be hit as hard when maternity leave comes around.

    For the firewallers, I’d caution the mindset of splitting all the shared bills 50/50 and you keep what’s leftover for your fun money. My sister has a 9-5 job earning a fair salary, while her husband is a hot-shot bartender pulling twice her paycheck. They split half the shared bills (which tend to be higher than what she’d spend on her own b/c he’s used to a richer standard of living) and then keep the rest for themselves. However she has student loans that just kicked in and has to pay for them herself with her small amount extra dollars, while her husband uses thousands of dollars a month of “his fun money” on sportscars & gadgets. Maybe it is old fashioned to think this way, but as the head of the household and breadwinner, I believe he should step up while he has the extra cash to help her when she needs it instead of flaunting his toys while she is depressed over her student loans. Marriage is a team sport, not a competition.

  • As long as your spouse is in the same mindset as you are then you lucked out. Thankfully, my wife understood the importance of combining finances. It really meant that we were fully trusting each other. Isn’t that what marriage is all about?

  • Kylie Ofiu says:

    I am a financial pooler. I am in the middle of a divorce, and many people I know say my current situation is a great example of why you should not pool finances, but I still would in my next relationship.

    There were a couple of hiccups with the separation and divorce, but throughout the marriage we shared everything equally, at times I earned more, but most of the time he did. I was better at finances so handled the money, but it was all there for both of us to see.

    I think marriage is about sharing things and I would not want to be with someone who viewed money as mine or his. I liked how my finances worked in my marriage and the only thing I would change is to have the man take care of the finances more instead of me. (Funny, since I write and speak on finances all the time.)

  • Julie says:

    Great topic! My direct manager and his wife separate finances because of accountability issues. He said they both agreed it was a disaster when they first pooled because they were already used to being independent financially. They would miss payment deadlines, attempt to pay for things twice, etc-etc. And they didn’t want to spend their free time questioning what the other person what they bought that day.

  • George P Burdell says:

    I’m not married; so I can’t offer any personal experience on this. Though I know it’s an important topic as finances/money is one of the top reasons for divorce.

    I will share what one of my friends do. They keep separate accounts and share common expenses (mortgage, daycare, etc). However since he makes twice what she does; they do it by percentage. He’ll pay 2/3 and she’ll cover the other 1/3.

    Seems to work well for them. Also, I know when unexpected things come up he is likely to pay more or all of it as he has more discretionary income. A high percentage of her salary (50% or more) goes to retirement savings.

  • Kelly @ RewardSummit says:

    Hi G.E.,
    This is really interesting. I got married about two years ago, and for the most part we don’t pool our finances, although that has to change when I quit full time work soon to be a SAHM/PT worker. I wonder if you’ve noticed any trends with people who get married at closer to 30 versus people who get married younger joining accounts versus not joining finances? My husband and I got married in our late 20’s so we were established in our jobs and finances so I wonder if this is why we’ve felt strange just lumping everything together.

    Also, I’d love to talk to you about a new app for the iPhone (and soon to be Android) that helps you optimize your rewards with every credit card purchase. I can’t seem to find your contact form. Can you tell me the url or an email at which I can reach you?

  • CJ says:

    My girlfriend and I have been together 2 years and have recently moved in together. Currently, we’re financial firewallers. This works for us because we each almost make the exact same amount of money. We split everything right down the center, and don’t worry about how the other is spending their money.

    However, I do notice that sometimes it’s a bit irritating/embarassing to have to collect amounts from each other (you owe me 24 for dinner, I owe you 12 for Home Depot, you owe me 15 for Target). While this has virtually eliminated any feelings of unfairness (I paid 12 for dinner last night, she paid 35 tonight), it has become a bit burdensome. I think if I pop the question later this year, I’ll look into getting us a joint account, at least for utilities, rent, and household items.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      You bring up a good point. There comes a point when you get down to petty stuff like that and it simply isn’t worth the awkwardness that “everything equal” creates. That’s partly why I wouldn’t call myself a pure firewaller anymore.

  • Matt says:

    During my marriage we tried every method we could come up with. It takes a lot of trust and like minded thinking to succeed in the Pooling method. Fire walling seems cold, but forces personal responsability. Though I hate to admit it I am a fire wall.

  • Long says:

    It’s not a marriage if you don’t combine finances. It’s simple as that. The only other compromise I’d be willing to accept is separate “fun money” accounts for each party to spend a portion of their income on whatever they want.

  • Jeff womack says:

    NEVER combine finances or co-sign with someone unless you are married. Combine accounts ONLY when a solid trusting relationship exists. This also means family. As a lender I see credit ruined constantly by blindly trusting boyfriends, girlfriends, brothers, cousins, children and even parents. The only person you can trust is your life partner.

  • Ron Ablang says:

    I am a shared pooler, but the bank account money I had before I met my wife is separate.

  • Homemaker says:

    My husband and I have a joint checking and savings. I couldn’t imagine having separate accounts!! As soon as we married, we put everything together. It was no longer “his money” or “her debt” or “my savings”, it was “our money” “our debt” “our savings”. It never crossed my mind to keep finances separate and I would never recommend it.


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