Money and Relationships: Listen to Personal Finance Gurus or Marriage Counselors?

This is a guest post by Kimberly Palmer. Kimberly is the author of the popular column Alpha Consumer in US News & World Report. In this article, Kimberly shares with us her recent money crisis, and wonders whom to listen while resolving money issues in a relationship - personal finance gurus, or marriage counselors?

My most recent money crisis revolved around a high-definition television.

A high-definition television, for those of you lucky enough to not know, features images clear enough to see the pores on the faces of morning news anchors. I would be perfectly happy to not see their pores, and to stick with my ten-year old television with its rabbit ears. But my husband lusts after this expensive piece of hardware.

As I’ve recently been writing for my Alpha Consumer column in US News & World Report, managing personal finances is difficult -- but managing finances within a marriage takes on a whole new level of complexity. Should you combine your money or keep separate accounts? If you combine everything, how do you make big purchasing decisions, such as whether or not you should purchase a fancy television?

My husband and I decided to combine our money before we got married, but we’re still trying to work out the purchasing decision question. Instead of buying the television, I would rather just save the money, or, if I had to spend it, get laser eye surgery.

So, stuck on how to handle such conflicts, I turned to the experts. Each personal finance guru I interviewed, from the Today Show’s Jean Chatzky to certified financial planners, suggested that the best way to manage money within a marriage is for each spouse to keep a separate account for themselves. Then, if my husband really wanted to a fancy television, he could save up his own money and eventually buy it.

As Sharon Epperson, author of The Big Payoff put it, “It just makes it a lot easier if [couples] can have an account that they can go to for their own purchases, where don’t have to tell somebody every time.” She suggests that couples keep a joint account for household expenses and then a smaller “fun money” account for optional purchase, such as a fancy haircut or books. (Or, in my husband’s case, he could save his “fun money” for a couple years and eventually buy a television.)

The marriage counselors that I interviewed, on the other hand, believed that couples should share all their accounts, and make purchasing decisions together. Keeping a separate account, one said, suggests a level of secrecy that is probably harmful to the marriage. After all, if you’re going to make a purchase, why wouldn’t you want to tell your spouse about it anyway?

(My own pre-marital counselor also took this approach -- she was quite pleased when we told her our plans to share our money.)

So, the bottom line is, the experts were conflicted. Personal finance gurus said one thing and marriage counselors another. My husband and I would have to make up our own minds about what to spend and what not to spend, and how to manage our accounts. And in case you were wondering, we still don’t have that high-definition television.

Read more of Kim’s Alpha Consumer columns here:

(If you have a money story to share, please send it to me via email to ispfmail at gmail dot com. I love reading personal stories and I am sure the readers will love *you* for giving them a break from my usual rant. :) )

If you like this article, you can bookmark it or subscribe to the feed.


plonkee said...

I'm with the personal finance gurus. Its not about having a secret stash of money, its about having a category in the budget for 'his useless junk' and 'her useless junk'. An HDTV is probably still something you need to come to a consensus on though, unless you have very generous junk categories.

Sistah Ant said...

I tend to agree with the PF folks - separate accounts are for personal mad money. I wouldn't even mind sharing the balances - it's not about secrets, it's about expenses we don't agree on.

ispf said...

Plonkee, Sistah ant: I liked this guest post by Kim because it raises an important issue. What personal finance gurus recommend is on one end of the spectrum and what marriage counselors recommend is at the other. I don't know if we can stay at either extreme in real life though... In our case, we seem to have found a balance between the two schools of thought - even though we have individual accounts, we treat the money in the account as belonging to common money pool, and all money decisions of more than $100 should be agreed by both. So far it seems to be working... :)

Strange Bird said...

I'm surprised that marriage counselors would consider it "keeping secrets." Doesn't everyone say you have to maintain some separateness in order to not resent each other?

I agree with all of you on the separate accounts: there is nothing wrong with having them, and they don't have to be secrets.

Loonies And Sense said...

I lean toward the personal finance gurus, if for no other reason than it's nice to be able to buy gifts without having the transaction show up on a joint account.

I've tagged you in Moolanomy's MOMA Meme. Check out my blog at for details.