My Money, Your Money, Our Money -- Who's in Charge?

Over my many years as a marriage and family therapist, I usually recommend that couples start out with a joint checkbook for household bills and two separate checkbooks for their individual expenses.
01/28/2016 05:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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When couples meet and fall in love, everything seems perfect. The world is brighter, the flowers smell more beautiful, and all is right with the world. This lasts for a bit, but before too long, the real world asserts itself and problems begin to pop up.

One of the most significant and pervasive problems is money management in a relationship. Most couples now have two incomes, at least when they first marry or begin living together. More women are college-educated, and want to be productive and like having money of their own. Most new families need both incomes to manage to make ends meet.

Very early on, questions crop up that need to be answered. Do we have one checkbook for everything, or one for household items and another for our individual needs? Do each of us have a separate checkbook? Who pays the bills?

Over my many years as a marriage and family therapist, I usually recommend that couples start out with a joint checkbook for household bills and two separate checkbooks for their individual expenses.

As long as both people are working and earning an income, this is a fairly simple way to resolve things. But what do you do if one spouse or partner is at home and does not work? This becomes more of a problem. If one person is given an allowance by the other, the issue of control comes into play.

According to an article on families.com titled, "Control Issues in Marriage: Money as a Source of Control", when a woman (or a man) has no income, the income earner can wield power over the spouse who isn't working. For women, who still earn less than men generally and are more likely to be at home with children, this is damaging to their self-esteem and creates conflict between them. Many men don't start out wanting to control their spouses but when put in this situation, start to want to know exactly how their partner is spending every penny. They often question purchases and make their partner feel guilty.

When a husband or wife feels controlled, this builds deep resentment and is very damaging to the relationship.

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Ideally, money needs to be discussed honestly and openly together before you are in a joint living arrangement or marriage. Your approaches to spending should be talked about and your goals for the future. Does one of you spend everything he makes right away, while the other sets aside a certain amount for savings every month? What about investments in the future? Will you decide together?

Working this out in advance will save much unhappiness over the years, and may even save your marriage, as money is often cited as one of the primary reasons couples divorce.

William Harley, Ph.D., author of His Needs, Her Needs: Building An Affair-Proof Marriage, states that often, when couples argue about money, they really aren't arguing about money at all. He believes it's about relationship neglect. People then use money as a way to hurt the other, to blame them for over-spending or withholding money where needed.

I believe this brings in another component to this money issue. It's about communicating. For so many couples, being honest with one another is very difficult. Whether because they feel they will be judged, or thought less of, or perhaps lose control over the spouse, they will find other things to get mad about or fight about. The top contender is often money.

It's easier to accuse your wife of spending too much on new clothes than it is to tell her you're worried about not making more money and having enough to provide for your family. It's easier for her to accuse you of not being generous and not taking vacations than to tell you that she feels you don't pay enough attention to her and listen to what she has to say about things.

Once again we get back to the importance of communication in a relationship. If you do talk to each other and share your feelings and concerns honestly, will it fix all your problems? Probably not, but it will go a long way to making for a better relationship in the long run.