How much do you need to know about your partner’s expenses?

Love is in the air and wedding season is just around the corner. Like many older millennials, I grew up watching sitcoms in the 1980s and 1990s. When those series needed a ratings boost, they would feature a wedding. Those special episodes taught me that weddings usually involve young lovebirds: think Elvin and Sondra from “The Cosby Show,” Cory and Topanga from “Boy Meets World” or David and Darlene from “Roseanne.”

Scott Rick
Scott Rick ( As long as )

But those were different times. People are getting married later in life than they used to: In the United States, the average age of newlyweds has risen to 28 for women and 30 for men.

This trend means that many Americans are now getting married after several years of being self-reliant, including managing their own money. Will they be happy to change that once they get married? Don’t count on it. A 2017 Bank of America survey found that millennial married couples are about 15 percentage points more likely than their predecessors to keep their finances separate.

This is not necessarily a good development. As a behavioral scientist who studies money and relationships, I believe that joint accounts can bring partners closer together.

However, there are some risks. Joint accounts create transparency, and intuitively transparency feels like a good thing in relationships. But I maintain that some privacy is important, even for deeply committed couples – and money is no exception.

The newlywed game

Behavioral scientists Jenny Olson, Deb Small, Eli Finkel, and I recently conducted an experiment with engaged and newlywed couples. Each of the couples had completely separate accounts, but they were unsure how they wanted to manage their money in the future.

We randomly assigned each of the 230 pairs to one of three groups. One group kept their money in separate accounts; one pooled his money into a joint account and stopped using separate accounts; and one managed his money as he pleased.

We followed couples for two years and periodically asked them to complete surveys assessing their relationship dynamics and satisfaction. Our relationship quality measure included items such as “I can’t imagine anyone else making me as happy as my partner does” and “In the past three months, I have yelled or screamed at my partner.”

Of the couples who could do whatever they wanted, most kept things separate. She and the couples who had to keep separate accounts experienced a steady decline in relationship quality over time.

This is a fairly typical pattern. For example, in a large study that tracked the marital happiness of American couples for seventeen years, sociologist Jody Van Laningham and colleagues found that “marital happiness persistently declines or levels off after a long period of decline.”

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Declines during the first two years of marriage are particularly important. Social scientist Ted Huston and colleagues call those first two years the “marital melting pot.” They discover that the relationship dynamics that develop during that crucial period can foreshadow relationship quality for years to come.

However, couples in our study who were prompted to take the plunge into joint accounts maintained their initial levels of relationship satisfaction over the two-year experiment.

Tit for tat

Our research results show that by turning ‘my money’ and ‘your money’ into ‘our money’, a joint account can help reduce the score in a relationship. For example, we found that couples with joint accounts were more likely to agree with statements like “If one person does something for the other, the other should not owe the giver anything.”

Relationships don’t usually start with a point-keeping orientation. In the 1980s and 1990s, psychologist Margaret Clark and colleagues conducted experiments in which partners had the opportunity to track each other’s contributions to a shared task. They noted that intimate relationships often begin with a “communal” orientation, in which partners help each other without closely monitoring who is doing what.

Ultimately, however, they become more of an “exchange orientation,” where input is monitored and timely reciprocity is expected. Couples who manage to avoid a tit-for-tat mentality tend to be happier.

Too much of a good thing?

The data from our experiment with young couples clearly shows that using only a joint account is better than using only separate accounts. However, in my new book ‘Tightwads and Spendthrifts’ I argue that a joint account alone is probably not optimal.

When partners use only a joint account, they get up close and personal insight into how the other spends money. This kind of transparency is usually seen as a good thing.

Some commentators argue that a healthy marriage should not have any secrets. For example, Willard Harley Jr., a clinical psychologist who writes primarily for a Christian audience, argues that you should “disclose to your partner as much information about yourself as you know: your thoughts, feelings, habits, likes, dislikes, personal history, daily activities and plans for the future.”

Additionally, if your goal is to minimize optional expenses, research suggests that the transparency that comes with a joint account can be helpful. We spend less when someone is looking over our shoulder.

Still, there are reasons to believe that full transparency could be harmful to couples.

Many people have become convinced that if they could just stop buying lattes and avocado toast, they could invest that money and become rich. Unfortunately, the underlying math is highly questionable, as journalist Helaine Olen notes in her book ‘Pound Foolish’. Yet many people consider small indulgences their main obstacle to wealth. Complete transparency around these financially unimportant ‘treats’ can lead to unnecessary arguments.

Also, spouses may have different passions that their partner does not fully understand. Expenses that seem perfectly reasonable to another hobbyist may seem excessive to someone without the right context—another source of avoidable disagreement.

‘Translucency’, not transparency

I suggest that many couples can benefit from a combination of joint and separate accounts. A joint account is essential to ensure that both partners have immediate and equal access to ‘our money’. Ideally, all income would be paid directly into the joint account, which could reduce the gap between the partners’ incomes. Striking income differences can jeopardize the quality of relationships.

Separate accounts linked to the joint account can provide some privacy for individual purchases and can help partners maintain a sense of autonomy and individuality. Everyone is allowed to spend some of ‘our money’ without their partner looking over their shoulder. Spouses would have a high-level understanding of how much their partner spends per week or per month, but avoid the sometimes irritating details.

This kind of partial financial transparency – what I call “financial transparency” – could help couples find the right balance between financial and psychological well-being.

This approach obviously requires a lot of trust. If the relationship is already on thin ice, full financial transparency may be necessary. However, if the relationship falls generally into the “good, but could be better” category, I would argue that financial transparency is worth considering.

Scott Rick is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. This essay originally appeared in The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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