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Jennifer Niven: Combining Finances, Combining Lives

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COUPLE MONEY
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By Jennifer Niven

Last September, I met Louis. From our first date, I felt at home with him. Within a few months, we were living together. My cats are now "our" cats. His friends are my friends and vice-versa. For the first time, each of us is involved in a real partnership. It's not just that we split things down the middle. He's got my back and I trust him to have it, and I have his.

Recently he suggested that we close down our individual personal bank accounts -- I would still keep my book- and author-related business account -- and get a joint one. At the mere mention of a joint account I felt at once happy and terrified.

Almost immediately, I started having an inner dialogue between my skittish self, who doesn't like feeling confined by anything, and my mature self, who revels in the solidarity of this relationship.

Skittish Me: If we do this, I won't be able to leave.

Mature Me: Where do you want to go?

SM: I don't want to go anywhere.

MM: Then why are you worried about it?

When I was fourteen, I kept a journal, which had a prevalent theme: I liked a boy, I went out with a boy, and then, when he wanted to share school lockers, I became indignant -- "How dare he try to hold me down in the prime of my life!" Even as a teenager, I liked my freedom, something I attributed to being an only child.

Years later, I was able to sustain longer relationships. I even married. We bought a house, but we never merged our finances. This was due to many reasons, first and foremost being that my then-husband was irresponsible with money. It was up to me, who barely passed high school math, to do the household accounting and bill paying.

The other reason was that I needed to know -- even though I was married and owned a house -- that I had a way out. Keeping our money separate helped me feel as if I'd held onto some small wedge of my independence, guaranteeing that I wouldn't get lost in the marriage, lost from myself, which, as far as I could see, was one of the worst things that could happen to anyone, particularly a writer.

As soon as Louis mentioned a joint account, I felt, for the first time with him, the old panic start to rise. I know the statistics -- of all the married or partnered couples who combine finances, a good number of them also keep a private stash of money. (My mother points out that, like many women of her generation, she still values the right to a private checking account, and she remembers a time when it was difficult for a woman to get a credit card in her own name rather than in her husband's.) Forty-five percent of marriages end in divorce, and the number one reason for divorce is money, or issues relating to it. And we aren't even married yet!

SM: Maybe I should keep a back-up personal account open, just in case.

MM: You want to share your life with this man, but sharing it -- really sharing it -- means you can't say, "Oh, I'm only going to share this part, but not that one." Keep your business account where it is -- for taxes, etc. -- but merge your personal ones.

SM: But what about keeping something for yourself -- a room of one's own and all of that? Isn't that important?

MM: Of course. In each relationship, you figure out how to do that, where to take that space. Maybe here it's the personal bank account. Maybe it's not.

In addition to being a writer, I'm a researcher, and so I went looking for additional facts. According to a 2010 survey by American Express, professional couples are more likely to keep their finances separate. They're also more likely to argue and practice something called "financial infidelity." In other words, they cheat on each other monetarily. One in three couples say finances cause more stress in their relationship than intimacy, kids, illness, or in-laws. Ninety-one percent of those surveyed avoid talking about money with partners. A separate study, published in the Journal of Socio-Economics, found that women argue with their mates about money more than any other topic. Historically, Louis and I have been the savers, not the spenders, in past relationships, which statistically leads to a more harmonious financial partnership.

The day after I did my research, Louis and I went to the bank and opened an account. I told my skittish self to trust in him, in us, and that it would be okay. We made a budget. We talked over our debt, down to the last cent. It's our debt now, for better or worse. And here's the really nice thing -- we have a plan for paying it off, for saving money. We know where we want to go, what we want to do. We are sacrificing some things today so we can do other things tomorrow. We have a common goal, and that has only brought us closer.

(As I'm writing this, our joint checks arrive in the mail. Louis holds them up. "Are you feeling panicked yet?" Somewhere, deep inside, I feel Skittish Me flutter. "No," I say. Mature Me leans in. Actually, our names look good. Like they're embarking on a journey, hand in hand, getting ready to plan and save and do lots of exciting things. Together.)

Jennifer Niven is the best-selling, award-winning author of six books and counting, including two nonfiction books, a memoir, and the novels "Velva Jean Learns to Drive" and "Velva Jean Learns to Fly," with the third Velva Jean book due on shelves in 2012. To buy her books and to read her blog, visit her on Red Room.