Is it a good idea to combining finances when you get married?

I was reading a certain blog for other reasons and ran across their entry about whether married couples should combine finances. This is definitely an emotional issue and as a result, people become very opinionated about it. Predictably, I’m sure, I have my own opinions, and I thought I’d do better writing about them here than letting them get lost in someone else’s comments.

I am divorced, so obviously I have been married before. My experience then was that we combined our finances. We had a joint account, and when either of us got paid it went into that account. Now, after my son was born (I think; I don’t remember for sure), I began arranging for a percentage of my income to go to a savings account I had back home that had been open since I had started high school in 1992.

I got married in ‘01 and I think I started doing the savings thing in ‘01 or 03, so do the math. But I thought it would be stupid not to put any money away for a rainy day. No specific reason why, I just vaguely felt it was something I should do.

I’m not sure if I told Mike what I was doing. If I didn’t, it was because it was my paycheck and I wanted to save something out of it, and didn’t think there was anything wrong with that which needed reporting. If I did tell him, Mike didn’t think anything of it until 1997 or later when we had moved to a different state with a different job market and had bought a house and were having financial problems.

At that point Mike got aggravated with me for having put money away in savings when we had credit card debt to pay off. He insisted that I withdraw some of it to help catch us up, so that’s what I did. But when I called my stepmom to arrange the withdrawal (this was in the days before widespread Internet banking), she insisted on leaving some of the money in the account.

I was to be very thankful for her forethought later.
As it was, I had over two thousand dollars in that account when Mike told me to withdraw from it. I don’t remember how much my stepmom sent me, but I wound up with less than a thousand at the end of it. Had I had the full two thousand I could have had a much easier time starting over when the marriage finally imploded and I had to leave the state and go back home suddenly because I didn’t feel safe around him anymore. I might have even been able to keep my son.

Since that time I have been acquainted with a man who suffered outright abuse in one of his own former relationships–with a woman, just to be clear. I am not one of those people who feels threatened by feminist women’s discussion of domestic violence because they’re not discussing the minuscule percentage of men who are attacked by female partners, but Bill’s pain was still very real.

To make matters worse he had virtually no assets and did not own a car, so unlike most men who face domestic violence from a female partner, he couldn’t get away from her and make a clean break. Having his own savings would have been an immense help there too.

“Keep your own money” is old advice handed down from mothers to daughters because it is a well-known fact that divorce often leaves women destitute to a degree that it does not often leave men, even when accounting for child support owed. But it is good advice for both genders.

I believe marriage is a social contract, nothing more. It is a legal acknowledgement that two people have joined together to form a family where there was none previously. It sets down each party’s legal rights and responsibilities and offers a certain level of legal protection in case of catastrophe. When cynics say marriage is just a piece of paper, they’re right; it’s a legal fiction symbolizing a cultural or social reality.

As such I think it’s pretty silly to enter into a legal agreement completely open and vulnerable and trusting that nothing bad will ever happen. In no other legal arrangement that I’m aware of do people enter into the agreement on a spit and a handshake with no provisions made for self-protection in case the deal falls through. The end of the marriage relationship is an inevitability, whether through divorce or death; pretending nothing will ever go wrong will prevent neither.

Each member of a married couple having their own assets goes a long way to make sure that the only pain suffered in a divorce or death is the emotional fallout from that event. If a relationship doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out; that doesn’t merit punishment of either party beyond the obvious consequence of the breakup.

And of course if the relationship ends in one or the other partner’s death, why make the survivor’s suffering worse by forcing them to jump through all manner of legal hoops (such as waiting through probate, which can drag on for months) just to remain financially solvent?

Someone pointed out in the comments to that post that it’s tedious to keep up with two accounts to pay one set of bills. Fair enough, so find a happy medium. Let each spouse have their own financial accounts and set up a joint checking account from which mutual bills are paid.

In fact, if the spouses’ income is widely disparate, like the husband is making three times the wife’s salary for instance, the couple could work it out such that each partner’s contribution to the expenses is proportionate to the percentage of total income they bring home.

There’s no reason a spouse should pay fifty percent of the expenses if she’s making only twenty-five percent of the income; it’s not like she doesn’t contribute to the marriage in other ways.

If I were to get married again, that’s how I’d do it. Once of having my account drained at my husband’s demand was more than enough for me; if I had it to do over I wouldn’t have told him about the account at all. As it turned out I was left with the credit card bill about which he so bitterly and so often complained (and helped run up), so I don’t know what he was complaining about in the first place.

Until we learn, it’s our responsibility to look out for our own well-being. We can’t expect our spouses to want to look out for our welfare if we won’t do it for ourselves.

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