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How Couples Manage Splitting Their Debt

Plenty of couples have shared bank accounts and monthly bills, but when it comes to debt, should we feel as comfortable about going halfsies?

For Love & Money is our new weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.

When we married, my husband was under the impression that our marriage would split his existing debt in two: half for his new wife, half for him. Our legal system may be insane but it’s not that insane. At that point, he developed an obsession with taking out new lines of credit with me — wanting me to cosign his purchase of a car and a new student loan. No dice there, either. I may have been insane enough to marry a man I’d known for two months, but I still wasn’t that insane.

When it comes to debt, a misery shared is a misery halved, or so some people believe. I’ve always been impressed by couples who are comfortable sharing a bank account or opening a joint credit card. I’m told both options make it easier to budget as a couple, but I’ve never trusted anyone else that much, and in fact have never had enough of a surplus to think of my finances in terms of “budgeting.” When your bank account is empty at the end of every pay period no matter what you do, you become protective over it and nihilistic about it all at once. I’d give a partner anything — plasma, frozen eggs, a copy of my passport — before handing over my PIN. 

Of course, not everyone feels the same. “I do have a 401k that’s theoretically all mine,” says Dennis, a 37-year-old pseudonymous restaurant owner. “I plan to be with my wife when it’s time to cash it in anyway. And for now, we share all our accounts and credit cards. I don’t even check statements.”

Dennis and his wife own their business jointly, which is why they began pooling all their accounts in the first place. The idea of paying employees and vendors out of my shared marital bank account makes me break out in hives, especially while never checking statements, but Dennis cheerfully describes it as “managed chaos.” “My wife is the one who balances the checkbook or whatever it’s called now,” he says. “Once in a while, things don’t balance right and I have to answer some questions.” But by and large, he swears the arrangement works great. (Whether it also works great for the employees whose paychecks are coming out of a manageably-chaotic shared bank account that doesn’t always balance right, I couldn’t find out.)

In a less high-stakes arrangement, Louise, a mom of 54 whose job is managing a household of six, also swears by the joint account. She, too, would only speak to me under a pseudonym because she didn’t want her husband to feel bad when she described him as “not the highest earner.” “He makes enough money that I can make it work. But he’s also not good with money,” she says, citing a ruinous Atlantic City trip. “We’ve been married 30 years, and the whole time he hasn’t needed to know what things cost, so he just doesn’t. I make every big purchase, and I take it seriously.”

Louise sees herself as the steward over her husband’s paycheck, a role to which she says he gladly accedes. “He hates all this administrative, bureaucratic stuff like buying a car, finding a mortgage,” she says. “I shop around for everything. I clip coupons. He’s so impressed when I pay for the kids’ medicine with coupons. He never learned how things like that work.” She points out that, because he works outside the home all day and she doesn’t, it’s reasonable for him to want to “just show up and sign his name when it’s time to buy a car.” Still, the job of finding a good deal and filling out applications on both of their behalf is just as much a job as the one that earns the paycheck.

While such an arrangement definitely takes more trust than I think I’m capable of mustering for a partner at this point, it makes sense, especially in a family with four kids. Considering the state of the American economy, the most shocking thing about this arrangement to me was the fact that a single paycheck could support six people. Louise’s kids even have a college fund, though she said frankly that its contents were nearly drained by putting the first of four through college. Most of the couples I know with kids can’t assign a stay-at-home parent, even though many of them would like to. At this, Louise freely admits to her good fortune.

“We got married in a different era,” she says. “We’ve never had a lot of money, but it used to be [that] you could make that work. The whole time we’ve been married, I haven’t worked. I’ve applied for jobs when money was lean, and I can’t get an interview anymore. My last job was probably before you were born.”

Dennis, too, emphasizes that his shared account isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of necessity. “Neither me [nor] my wife had enough money when we were opening the restaurant to get a loan,” he says. Pooling their finances (and credit, since Dennis’ was poor) made a difference both to investors and to the banks. He admits that his wife has always had a greater sense of financial responsibility, while he was the one with creative ideas for the restaurant, from decor to menu items. “With just me, the restaurant would have closed its doors in six months. Bankruptcy, debt. With just her, it wouldn’t be a chill place where people want to hang out,” he says. 

Dennis and Louise have that in common — their finances are pooled due to deficiencies that can be corrected by taking a more communal, trusting approach. There are holes in both arrangements. Louise has admitted to being a “control freak” with the shared bank account, preparing all tax paperwork without showing it to her husband and asking him not to look at their monthly bank statements. (The doomed Atlantic City trip still looms large for her.) Dennis has the opposite problem, recalling an incident when he took out a new line of credit just to replace all the kitchen appliances in the restaurant. He believed the replacements were necessary, but his wife was apoplectic that he spent so much money on their shared business behind her back.

In both arrangements, sneakiness seems to be a common factor as well — the sneakiness of blowing huge sums in a casino or of spending a fortune on a state-of-the-art gas range without talking about it first. It’s not the case that these people are generally sneaky. Their sneakiness is situational, and seems to stem from the belief that finances are no big deal, a belief contradicted by their partners’ feelings about finances. On the one hand, romantic relationships probably do benefit from some diversity of attitudes about money. To piggyback off Dennis’ point, two financial control freaks are too uptight to get anything done; two loose spenders are too careless. 

But to me, at least, that beneficial diversity is exactly why I’ll always keep my bank account separate from anyone else’s. That’s my money, to parcel out as I want. If it all gets lost in Atlantic City, it’ll be because I blew it; and if it funds a restaurant that fails, at least it will be my failure.