Engagements and new marriages are exciting times: lots of planning and dreaming about the future, and plenty of celebratory champagne. Once the festivities are over, the honeymoon period is still full of adventures—but it has some logistical challenges, too.
Now that you are married, you need to decide how you will manage money as a couple instead of as two single people. There are three main ways that couples manage their finances: separately, jointly, or with a combination of both separate and joint accounts. Here are a few tips to help you figure out which strategies will work best for you both, along with the pros and cons of each system.
Keeping separate accounts may be a comfortable starting point for many couples, especially when they are accustomed to managing their own finances and they don't have many shared expenses yet. When couples move in together, it is likely that there will be at least some income differences, not to mention debts that may be brought into the relationship. A separate accounting system can help clarify issues surrounding income disparities, debts or potential spender-versus-saver personality conflicts.
Despite the autonomy, separate accounts actually means more communication—about who will be responsible for paying what. Some couples decide to split expenses down the middle, while others may be more comfortable paying proportionately according to what they earn. A shared spreadsheet may be the easiest way to track expenditures, or using a joint credit card may be preferable.
You will still have to budget for household expenditures and discuss long-term savings and retirement goals, but separate accounts provide you with more freedom to manage your money with autonomy.
- Pros: You are each responsible for your own spending habits or paying off any debts you brought into the marriage. Provided you are both happy with how you've agreed to split the shared bills, this method of money management is the most "fair," and you may be less likely to argue over your spouse's spending habits.
- Cons: Keeping track of who owes whom what is a lot of work each month. This method of financial management gets more difficult if children enter into the mix, or if one of you wants to change careers or go back to school. If you are both saving for retirement or goals based on your own incomes, you may not be optimizing your investments.
In terms of simplifying your management style as a couple, this choice is probably the easiest, though there are some fine points to consider. No one needs to determine relative income payment levels, you don't have to update a spreadsheet each month, and all children's expenses get paid for out of the family account. Budgets can be easily tracked on a spreadsheet or on budgeting software that is available online or via smartphone apps, and the simplicity will make tracking spending easy.
- Pros: It's easier to track budgeting and spending, plus there is no monthly division of resources and no financial changes needed as the family grows.
- Cons: Judging your partner's spending habits can lead to resentment, especially if one partner earns more than the other. It also may be hard to keep surprise gifts a secret.
Both separate and joint accounts
Having both separate and joint accounts can be complicated, but it also may be the best solution for some couples. The idea behind this method: All income goes into joint accounts, and all savings, debt, and retirement are managed jointly. But each individual has a private checking account into which a set amount is transferred each month. This "personal fund" can be spent on any wants or needs you have that aren't a joint expense—or on gifts for your spouse. This way your spouse can never judge you for buying $400 shoes, as long as you pay for them out of your own account. To avoid conflict, the amount that goes into the personal accounts each month needs to be discussed and agreed upon.
- Pros: You have the ease of tracking that you get with joint accounts, and you don't have to deal with income disparities while paying the bills. You each have the freedom to buy what you want without discussing it with your significant other, but you also are working together toward joint goals and retirement.
- Cons: This method is simple to track, but requires opening and managing a number of bank accounts. Having an amount deposited into your personal account each month may feel like an allowance, which might rub some people the wrong way.
Additional Tips for All Couples
Regardless of how you decide to manage your money, there are a number of things you also must consider when planning your lives together.
Every household has to decide who pays for what. Unlike your past experiences with roommates, however, in your marriage you probably won't want to keep pantry items separate. You also have a vested interest in paying bills on time to preserve your credit.
While it's not the most romantic part of moving in together, newlyweds need to talk about household logistics—who pays which bill, how you will reimburse each other, and how you will work toward shared goals. Plan to sit down and discuss these logistics to make sure you both understand and agree on the plan and to make sure all your bases are covered. Once it's decided who will pay which bills, automate the payments so you're never late and your spouse never has to worry.
Now is also the time to discuss retirement and longer-term goals, such as buying a house or taking a dream vacation. Make sure you're both contributing to retirement accounts and set up an automated system to contribute to your savings for those long-range goals now.
The bottom line
There is no right way to manage your finances as a couple, but with communication, trust, and a bit of planning, you and your spouse can have a money-conflict-free marriage. If you're struggling to come up with a joint plan that sits well with you both, seek the professional advice of a financial counselor.
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