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Ready to combine finances with your partner? You have options

Joint bank account or separate? The approach you choose depends on you and your partner's financial history and goals, says financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin.
Pixelimage/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Pixelimage/Getty Images
Joint bank account or separate? The approach you choose depends on you and your partner's financial history and goals, says financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin.

If you’re in a serious romantic relationship, you and your partner may be thinking about how to combine your finances. Should you share a joint bank account? Keep your accounts separate? Do a combination of both? 

The path depends on you and your partner’s financial goals and history. So before you decide, have an open and honest conversation, says Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, financial therapist and author of The Financial Anxiety Solution -- “ideally before relationship-changing events such as moving in together or purchasing a car together.” 

Talking about money can feel like awkward, but it can also strengthen relationships. “We're deepening our connection. We’re dreaming ahead together and creating a plan,” she adds.

Bryan-Podvin talks to Life Kit about what it means to successfully merge your finances with your partner, the merits of each approach – and strategies for success. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sharing a joint bank account seems to come with a lot of benefits. One large-scale study from 2023 found that couples who put all their money into one pot tended to be happier. They stayed together longer than those who kept some or all of their money separate. Why do you think that is?

My hypothesis is that it decreases the likelihood of financial infidelity. One of the biggest issues couples argue about is the financial secrets that can happen when we have completely separate accounts. Maybe somebody is racking up a ton of credit card debt or taking out personal loans. Or maybe they don’t have a great credit score and aren’t working on improving it. [If you have a joint bank account], your partner is in [on these issues] from the beginning.

For this reason, you recommend that couples share a joint account. 

Having a fully joint account feels great because couples are able to spend and save and talk about that very openly.

You also like an approach that the financial community calls “theirs, mine and ours.” It’s an arrangement where couples have a joint account for shared expenses and individual accounts for personal expenses. 

“Theirs, mine, and ours'' can work really well when the bulk of your money is shared. You [can use your joint account to] make sure your bills and rent are paid on time and save toward future goals together. But you each have a little bit of money to spend how you want without having to text your partner and say, “Hey, can I buy a new pair of shoes?” None of us want to feel like we are under the control of our partner, so having some financial autonomy is important.

Are there some situations where it might make sense to have separate accounts?

If you've experienced financial abuse or have seen someone steal someone else's credit or identity, you might have very strong feelings about having to share your money with other people. Then it makes sense to keep your finances separate.

And I think it’s important for people who have had a divorce or separation to keep separate bank accounts or do “theirs, mine and ours” for financial protection [to avoid assets getting mixed up with court proceedings for example].

Is there such a thing as splitting everything 50-50 in a relationship?

This idea of splitting everything 50-50 makes sense in theory, but we just don't live in a theoretical world. Even if you're earning the same amount, it doesn't necessarily mean your financial background is equal. One partner may have $150,000 in student loans, for example. And there will be times when one person is taking on more of the emotional labor or more of the household tasks.

So keeping all this in consideration is really important. I think about [a couple’s finances] as a big old soup. Everything goes into the pot and it all blends up together, and it's really hard to know who gave what.

So among these three approaches -- joint bank account, “theirs, mine and ours” and separate accounts -- how do you figure out which approach is right for you? 

Have money conversations. Don’t just ask, “What's your credit score? How much do you earn?” Also ask: “What were you taught about money? What are you proud of that you do financially? What are things you wish you were a little better at financially?” Get a sense of what matters to your partner so you have a clear understanding of their relationship with money.

Experiment. Maybe we try for three months having all of our money together and seeing what it feels like to have our bills on autopay. If that feels really stressful for one of us, then sit down and say, “Is there something else we can do to make this feel less stressful?”

Give yourself an opportunity to make sure you're on the same page emotionally and financially, and remember that none of this is set in stone. You're figuring out how to merge your finances with someone else, which is already a challenging skill for an independent adult. It’s totally normal to have growing pains along the way.

The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual editor is Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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Andee Tagle
Andee Tagle (she/her) is an associate producer and now-and-then host for NPR's Life Kit podcast.