Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty
Before we got married, my wife and I weaved our way through all the premarital conversations you’re supposed to have. The one about family (we established early on that we absolutely didn’t want to have kids); the one on expenses (we are both savers); the one about the future (like where we might live after retirement – I can’t wait to flee the US and never look back, him less).
However, we did not discuss whether merge finance. There was no need for a deep conversation about it; for me, it was obvious. I had always known somehow that I would keep my financial life mostly separate from that of my future spouse. Five years before I said “yes,” I graduated with a graduate degree and barely a dime under my belt. Over the next six years, I opened my first retirement account and began investing the small amount my paycheck allowed. My sister and I are the first women in our family able to build up a generational heritage. Having married at 39, I had seen too many financially devastated women to entertain not keep my accounts in my name.
Merging my finances with someone else’s, in my opinion, eliminated all traces of my efforts to achieve financial independence. It was a sickening prospect.
A recent viral post on Reddit, in which a woman admits to withdrawing all of her contributions (over $8,000) from an account she shared with her husband (and leaving him with her own money, which totaled less than $1,000 $), reminds me how controversial this issue can be, especially when a woman decides to protect her own income. The author of the Reddit post described how her husband “refused to stop commenting” on his unemployment – a situation she said she was actively trying to change by “constantly looking” for a new job.
Most users said she was right to take her money (and possessions, like her car) out of a toxic relationship. One editor explained it this way: “Keep your money in your account and get your car back too. If he wants to play the game of ‘mine’ like a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum, show- him exactly how much is his.
The passionate nature of the subject was not necessarily in this specific conversation where it is easy to side with the author of the message. The viral Reddit thread — and all the encouragement the author garnered — seemed to support the idea that women, by default, take a huge risk in merging their money. But this thought is not universal. My 84-year-old aunt is a firm believer in merging finances with a spouse. “When you get married, you’re supposed to go all out,” she told me in a recent phone call. “And if the marriage goes downhill, you just break it up and walk away.” This is certainly an ideal outcome if a relationship fails. But is it realistic?
I’m sure such differences of opinion are, in part, cultural. and generational: My generation has never known a world where – at least in the United States – women were not legally allowed to open their own bank accounts and take out their own credit (including mortgages). Merging finances with a spouse made sense at one point; what else could a woman do? Yet even today, it’s not hard to find plenty of (questionable) research that suggests couples merging their finances is to the benefit of the relationship. And despite relatively recent advances in gender equality, we continue to live in a time when some banks still require a husband’s approval to talk to women about their own accounts.
A recent study from Cornell University reported that married couples who pool their money together experience greater relationship satisfaction and are more likely to stay together, although the results should be sobering. This meta-analysis included data in which participants rated their level of investment in the relationship using items such as “I invested a lot in our relationship that I would lose if the relationship were to end” and ” Many aspects of my life have become tied to my partner (leisure activities, etc.), and I would lose all of that if we were to break up.As an academic researcher by trade, I am forced to wonder if elements of this study really illustrate the cost of severing ties.The price of divorce can reach five figures or more, and staying together – for some – may seem more appealing than the alternative.
So I conducted my own research by asking a small group of women where they were on the subject.
Meg Stone, a nonprofit executive director from Massachusetts, described how she and her spouse were among the first LGBTQ+ couples to gain access to legal marriage in 2004. “On Us,” she told me. This included the finance merger. “We didn’t mix the finances because we didn’t see the need for it,” she said. Stone opened up about how she and her spouse refused to be sucked into the expectations of an institution that had historically excluded the LGBTQ+ community. On the other hand, the finance merger made sense for Jen Simon, a New Jersey-based writer and mother of two. “I just don’t make enough money to need a separate account. I inherited some money when my grandmother passed away, and we put it in our shared savings account,” she said. Simon’s husband financially supports their family and this arrangement works best for them.
For other women, the decision to pool finances or not is much less simple and comes with its share of stress and resentment. Nicole Cain, an Arizona-based mental health consultant, explained how her spouse “had been the one to take ownership of our finances based on what he theorized was best. And my lack of ownership meant that my way of doing things wasn’t happening. Cain said she and her husband were encouraged by denominational premarital counselors to merge the finances “to make everything equal and fair”. The result of this arrangement, as Cain described it, was more complicated than she had anticipated: “I am a saver and my partner is a spendthrift. I still wear bras and underwear from when I was in college, while Amazon packages arrive daily for my partner.
It’s for these reasons (and many more, ranging from minor philosophical differences to life-altering financial infidelity) that Suze Orman, personal finance expert and host of the women and money podcast, does not advocate merging liquid assets (defined primarily as bank accounts and investments). “The key to a naive and dangerous outcome is to share 100% of your money,” she said. Orman advocates a separate joint household account to which couples equally contribute a small portion of their income to pay for shared expenses, such as utilities, rent or mortgage.
She also doesn’t place much weight on studies showing a correlation between pooled money and relationship satisfaction. “The problem with these studies is that they often represent a time when the relationship was good,” she said, noting that economic vulnerability is often the main reason why women in particular stay in harmful relationships.
When my husband and I got married, I saw no practical (or emotional) need to merge my finances with his. Three years later, I still don’t. We share a house, and I took his name, which was a huge identity change for me — a sacrifice, even (since I changed my name, I haven’t been able to get a new card because institutions refuse to recognize me, despite my long credit history under my old name and my near-perfect credit score). In my view, merging my finances would be tantamount to giving up my independence, so the prospect is not even on the table – not that it has been asked. Moreover, it is also a matter of boundaries, and “no” is a complete sentence. The idea of needlessly merging everything I’ve worked for is suffocating at best, dehumanizing at worst.
Fortunately, I consider myself to be in a healthy marriage with a wonderful man. We have ongoing discussions about equitable household contributions, and he is the sole beneficiary of all my accounts in the event of death. In a symbolic sense, our financial lives have merged. But I needed a tangible part of myself to stay unaffected by my decision to get married. My hard-earned savings was this piece.
The financial insecurity that I have seen the older women in my family experience is ingrained in my DNA. I come from a long line of working-class women forced to scramble after their mainstays have left home. Most of them weren’t homeowners and none of them had a retirement plan, so there were no homes to sell or accounts to borrow to make ends meet. In my teens and 20s, I watched older family members touch younger ones for money on every visit while their phones rang hourly with debt collectors on the other end.
These experiences shaped me: For a long time, even the idea of falling in love and getting married seemed too economically dangerous to me. In many ways, merging lives with a significant other always seems like an outsized and unnecessary risk. I decided to hedge my bets, on my terms, anyway. While I am confident in my decision to merge my emotional life with my husband’s, a world where women pool their entire savings with one spouse in the name of love and unity is not not a risk I’m willing to take.