Joint V.S Separate accounts- The underlying relationship issues we are not talking about

Joint or Separate accounts? It’s the question many couples (Especially new ones) are trying to figure out. That topic can ruin an evening at the speed of light and for many, it’s a deal breaker for some before the relationship even starts. So what’s the deal with it?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

This is such a major issue that I have decided to finally write about  because I have gotten a lot of questions about it and I have seen quite a number of cases on the issue. More importantly, I hear/see a lot of content about the pros and cons, about what circumstances you may choose to have joint or separate accounts and so on, but I don’t hear or see much about the underlying issues that are at play.

Start any marriage seminar by saying that happy marriages are those where people are open and accountable to each other, and people will raise their right hands in unanimous hallelujah. Continue by saying that includes finances too and you’ll think you’re in a ghost town.

You see, (unfortunately) many couples (**cough cough…newlyweds**) make the mistake of assuming that the area of finances is a matter of individual preference…but it’s not. No. The area of finances is one of the places where the relationship gets to “grow up”.

I know this won’t apply to all couples and all situations but let’s be clear. The issue of Joint vs Separate account is directly tied to the health of the relationship and many relationship issues are MANIFESTING as the disagreement over Joint vs Separate accounts.

One more thing…I am writing this in context of marriage and moreso a Christian one.

Ok here we go. Joint vs. Separate accounts.

First of all, what is it NOT about?

i) It is NOT really about money: Nope. Couples that are having a hard time about the issue of Joint vs. Separate accounts are not necessarily in conflict over “money”. Oh no. It’s deeper than that and I am going to bring some of those issues to light.

ii) It’s NOT about Love or the lack thereof: Even the most loving couple can still find themselves at odds when it comes to this cantankerous issue.

iii) It’s NOT about the fact that “one person is better or worse than the other in MANAGING money”: Nope. It’s not about that either. Establishing that one person in the relationship is better at financial management doesn’t solve the problem. If it did, couples would just automatically defer to that person BY REASON OF THEIR FINANCIAL SKILLS and the world will return to normal. But no. What we see is that this issue of Joint Vs Separate accounts can still be a testy one even when a couple identifies that one person is better at money management.

So what IS it about? What are the REAL underlying issues that make the issue so detrimental to happiness in the marriage?

Well, I have come to realize there are a few underlying (and fundamental) issues that MASK/MANIFEST themselves as money issues but are really RELATIONSHIP and SELF issues.

Here are a few:

1. It is about incongruent goals:
It’s about the fact that the collective financial vision and goals are not aligned. They are not on the same page about the vision.  Many couples (Again…especially new ones and newlyweds) make the mistake of trying to decide on “Joint vs Separate accounts” before “deciding on the vision and goals for the finances.”

They treat it as another simple decision they have to agree on based on what’s comfortable for each individual” like what side of the bed is comfortable for you and which drawer in the dresser would you like?

How can you start having a conversation about “joint or separate accounts without first coming together to AGREE on what the financial plan or vision should be?

The Bible says “Can two walk together unless they agree?” It emphasizes the need for agreement BEFORE (and in order TO) work together. What many couples are doing is arguing about HOW we should work together (i.e Joint or Separate accounts) instead of first AGREEING on what they are working together towards in the first place.

Couples who are at odds about joint vs. separate accounts without first agreeing on the financial goal and vision are like people at odds about the best means of transportation without first deciding on a destination.
~ Tobi Atte

You should probably read: Why your life/relationship decisions are so difficult and how to make them easier

2. It is about Trust (Specifically the “Ambassadorship definition of trust”):
It’s a lot easier to talk about the millions of reasons why a separate account is needed than it is for a couple to talk about trust.

Before I even break this down, let’s talk about trust. When people talk about trust in relationships, they often refer to the “feeling of emotional and sexual security” (i.e) ‘I know this person loves and respects me enough to not emotionally or sexually cheat on me or hurt me.’ That’s part of it… but trust is bigger than that. Waaayyy bigger.

Trust in a relationship is about several other things (watch out for an upcoming post on trust) but in this context we are talking about what I call the “Ambassadorship definition of trust” Meaning, that:

“I can be assured that even when we are not together, you will behave in a way that will represent me/us, in the ways that I/we have agreed to be represented. In other words, you will execute our values even in foreign lands/territories or situations. Therefore, I can somewhat predict how you will act when it comes to those situations.”
Tobi Atte ~ The Ambassadorship definition of trust

Now…back to Joint vs. Separate account and how that trust definition applies.

What many couples are having is an issue with is this ambassadorship definition. Let’s customize the definition for some clarity:

One (or both persons) is saying:

“I CANNOT be assured that even when we are not together, you will SPEND in a way that will represent me/us, in the ways that I/we have agreed to SPEND. In other words, you will NOT execute our FINANCIAL values in foreign lands/territories or situations”. Therefore, I CANNOT predict how you will act when it comes to those situations. Therefore, let’s have a separate account”

The danger however, is that separate accounts give a false sense of security, individuality and independence.

3) It is about Power, Control and Self Preservation:
You see, “Money is an avenue by which we become or live out who we want to be” “It’s the tool with which we create the lives we want”. So when a couple is really at odds about a separate account, I ask myself “what UNDERLYING conversation are they really having? What underlying feelings are driving that?

Here are a couple of fundamental underlying dialogues (or monologues for that matter)

-I don’t want to give up my ability to control the life that I…I…I… currently live or want to live in the future. So I don’t want to have to be accountable to you.
-I am afraid that you don’t understand my needs (or care enough) to make them a priority
-I don’t think this relationship will last/I want to be able to get out easily if it doesn’t
-I don’t trust you enough to give you that much say about what I do or how I live outside the four walls of our home
-There is a life/lifestyle that I want to have no matter what you say and no matter what the collective financial goal is.

Look, plain and simple, the area of finances is one of the last frontiers of “dying to yourself”…of transitioning from “I” to “We”.

Sure we can share a bed, share closet space, a car, a dinner plate, even our bodies…and not feel like we are giving up control. Money though…that’s a major indication that we have both graduated from “I” to We”

A couple that cannot be fully accountable to each other with money (the tool they will use to create the FUTURE they want together) cannot be fully accountable to each other in the PRESENT life they have together ~ Tobi Atte

4) For a lot of Men, it’s about Pride:
Man I tell you. Pride can be a terrible thing. We men are many times the problem (ladies hold on…don’t go on a parade yet.) We men sometimes flash this leadership badge in the faces of our wives as if they don’t matter in the equation. We say things like “It’s MY hard earned money” and we seek to use money to control her. So you keep separate accounts to keep her away from YOUR money or you force a joint account to have all the control. Neither is good. It is not a sign of strength… it is a sign of weakness. Yup. When you as a man cannot get your wife to buy in to a financial vision but instead use your leadership badge to force it or control her, that’s not strength.

As a man, you can’t demand a joint account (or financial accountability) from your wife if you yourself aren’t ready to be accountable to her TWEET THAT

That said, we do live in a system that sets men up for this though. We have ladies who won’t marry us unless we are established. And when they themselves are established, they want a man who is even MORE established but these ladies are glad to take half of the money in the divorce 2 years later.

Also, in defense of the honest men out there, there are men who are trying to prepare for the volatile, unpredictable future but have wives who are too concerned about the latest hairdo and keeping up with the Kardashians and so these men clamp down on frivolous spending and (sometimes) over-focus on the future goal.

Shopping and spending is not bad and neither is self-denial to save for the future. It’s a matter of balance and teamwork.

A Chinese man jumped 7 stories to his death after an argument with his wife when according to eye witnesses, “He told her she already had enough shoes, more shoes that she could wear in a lifetime and it was pointless buying any more,” an eyewitness said, according to the Daily Mail. “She started shouting at him accusing him of being a skinflint and of spoiling Christmas. It was a really heated argument.” He got fed up of going a step forward and two steps back. Sure that’s an extreme case but you get the point. Source and full article HERE

5) For women, it’s about “Self-preservation of the freedom for impulse”: (I want to be able to buy what I want when I want)
I talk to A LOT of people about relationships and preparation for marriage. Very rarely…. NO. EXTREMELY rarely do I meet a lady who says things like “I am saving my money right now so that I can combine with my future husband so we can build/buy a house.  I am also saving so I can contribute to having the wedding of my dreams. “I am making highly important financial sacrifices now so that my marital financial life/partnership will be easier”. NO. Usually it’s an afterthought. I hear more of “I need to be self-sufficient so I don’t have to depend on a man.” Or “I need to settle myself outside of the man I marry” but the men are saying “I need to settle myself and make all this financial preparation FOR the woman I want to marry.”

Of course this isn’t indicative of all women and this is not to say that there aren’t women out there who are thinking about that partnership. But there seems to be a lot more out there who assume that the man they will marry will have the area of finances figured out, and so they don’t have to live with caution now. So they spend incredible percentages of their income to get the best hair do, shop when they want, buy a hundred shoes, all the best outfits, 7 perfumes (after all 7 is the number of perfection) that dress in every color, spend and maintain that façade.

Fast forward to marriage and tell this kind of woman that she is now accountable to someone else for the things she could just do on impulse before, and she will kindly ask you for a separate account.

Special note to husbands: If your wife is adamant about separate accounts, sure it could be her desire to have the freedom for impulse but it could also be legitimate fear. The fear that you are not taking time to make her a priority in the financial decisions. Man up and work on making her feel comfortable without flashing your badge.

6) It’s about wanting to marry someone’s future but not their past (Debt):
It’s about saying “In the area of finances, I pick and choose your financial future but not your past financial situation. I about not wanting to share the burden of each other’s past financial decisions. Student loans, maxed out credit cards etc. It’s understandable ….but separate accounts don’t fix the issue!! Having separate accounts just changes the hole the collective water drains.

If there are current financial habits that need to be fixed, focus on fixing that. Sure one person may have made poor financial decisions in the past but once you agree to marry, I don’t hink you should now start separating burdens by saying “That area of your life…is YOUR burden”. If we do that for finances, what’s the difference between that and doing that in sickness. “YOU’RE fighting the Flu or Malaria? Well, that’s YOUR burden… you better get better soon so you can get back to making money to cover YOUR bills”. Or in family: “I’ll marry you but keep your kids from your last marriage away”. See what I mean?

I think that getting married is about marrying our lives and coming to a point where we jointly carry each other’s burdens.

Here are some important disadvantages of separate accounts:

A) You will certainly argue more about money
B) You will be prone to developing an overall distrust of each other
C) The selfish versions of each person will always have a ready guest room in the marriage
D) It will be VERY difficult to make big financial decisions together about the future

If you really must have separate accounts…

Before I talk about this, it’s important that I say that I think that married couples should have joint accounts. It builds trust and accountability and unity of purpose. If money is the tool by which we create the lives we want, then why should we do that separately as a married couple?

If (A)BOTH people feel like their needs are understood AND (B)BOTH people are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the collective goal, the need for separate account swill almost vanish.

It’s about the combination of those two important elements

Now that we have the underlying issues out in the open, here are a few things to note if you really must have separate accounts:

1) DON’T figure it out based on how much money you are each making:
DON’T say. I’m making 70% of the income so I should have 70% of the leisure money

2) DO discuss unique needs:
For example, it’s only natural for a woman to need a bit more when it comes to personal hygiene. That special hairdo you like on her is not cheap and errm you don’t need tampons…she does…so consider each other’s unique needs (I’m really struggling to write this because I know that even this is not a reason to have a separate account. Just because we have unique needs doesn’t mean we should have separate accounts. We can communicate and agree on what our unique needs are and make provision for them in the combined pool. If each person feels)

3) DO agree on the FUNCTION of the separate accounts:
Don’t just say ok let’s have separate accounts after rent and fixed expense are taken care of. NO. Decide on the function of the separate accounts. “E.g: each person will get X number of fun nights with their friends per month with a budget of $X per night, each person gets $X per month for personal hygiene/care (based on each person’s reasonable needs), each person gets $X for surprise gifts for the other person, and each person gets $S for hobbies.)

That way, even though there are separate accounts, there is still unity of purpose.

4) Don’t separate more than 20% of the total income.
In other words, at least 80% should be in a combined pool

Agreeing on a joint account is easier said than done for many couples. I know. But I think that while it is a challenge, it is also a wonderful opportunity to build trust, mutual respect, accountability and partnership. It’s a special glue that can fuse both people together.

While I feel that for a marriage relationship…especially a Christian one, a couple should have a joint account, I know that the shoe doesn’t always fit all and there are circumstances that make it difficult to flow together that way. That’s all well and good. Just make sure you are not adamant about separate accounts OR adamant about Joint accounts because of underlying relationship issues masking/manifesting themselves as financial issues.

So what do you think? Share your thoughts but don’t forget to share the article. It just might provide a fresh perspective for someone