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Loves me, loves me not: four ways to organise your family finances

family finances

I was on the bus when my phone vibrated. It was telling me I have a text.

‘Are you in the country?’ – the message said. It was from a close friend of mine.

‘Yes’ – I texted – ‘sorry that I haven’t sent you the title of my talk but have been feeling a bit under the weather.’

Then my phone rang.

It was my friend.

‘Hi’ – she said – ‘what is it with you.’

I blurted a lot of words about viruses, menopause and the different aches and ailments that have been bugging me for the last month or so.

‘Oh,’ – my friend said – ‘sorry to hear that. Let me tell you what happened to me: my partner left me.’

I was speechless. We saw them couple of months ago and they were very much a couple. They’ve been a couple for the last fifteen years.

Last Saturday, my friend’s partner walked out with a change of clothes and the dog. You know, love is not a failsafe thing. And when it fails, it leaves behind shards of a shared life, hurt and…financial practicalities.

So, after telling me how hurt and unhappy she feels and how she still loves her partner, my friend moved onto more mundane matters like:

  • Dealing with the shared bank account;
  • Putting in place measures safeguarding the equity in their house; and
  • Making sure that her partner cannot put the house on the market without her agreement.

Very upsetting. One day, you are getting old with the person next to you and planning your retirement with them. Next day, you are redirecting your salary to your personal bank account and putting a matrimonial charge on your house.

This made me think about the different ways to organise the family finances and their relative merit.

To my mind, there are four ways to organise the family finances.

One: Complete unity

This way to organise finances is founded on complete trust and means that all accounts (and assets) are shared. Couples who chose this way to organise their finances usually have one current (checking) bank account where all income of the family goes.

They both have access to the funds and don’t need the approval of the other to draw money out. They also share access to all financial statements.

Couples manage their finances as ‘complete unity’ can have other bank accounts (saving and investing) and the same principles of access apply.

This is the way John and I did it for a very long time. We have a joint bank account, the ‘play account’ (this is the one where regular savings accumulate for investing) and shared debit and credit cards.

Over the last couple of year or so we’ve changed to a couple money management system that I call ‘an account with satellites’.

This way of organising of the family finances build on complete merger of finances.

Two: One account with satellites

This one different from ‘complete unity’ in one thing: a pre-agreed amount of money is transferred into a personal bank account over which the individual has complete discretion.

I call this my ‘I’m so worth it’ account. It is about ‘blow money’ I can do whatever I wish with: I can spend it on hand bags, I can save it and buy a motorcycle with it or I can buy presents for John and our sons. My call!

We transfer equal amount but I know couples that work in proportions of income. This seems unfair to me but each to their own.

This way of organising the family finances builds on the notion of ‘our money’ and allows for some ‘my money’.

Three: Separate accounts with a bridge

This way to organise the family finances is almost the complete reverse of the previous one.

In this case, the partners’ income is deposited in their personal accounts. After that a certain amount (or proportion) is transferred to the shared family account that covers all family expenses.

In this case having fun as a couple – or as a family – can be problematic for two reasons. One, any such will require a different negotiations; and two, people earn very different amounts which is hard to negotiate.

This way of organising the family finances builds on the notion of ‘my money’ and allows for some ‘our money’.

Four: Complete separation

In this case, the spouses have completely separate finances and they agree on who pays for which expenses.

Fairness if difficult to achieve and negotiations are fraught with danger.

This way of organising the family finances builds on ‘my money’ and doesn’t allow for any shared finances and/or life.


These ways of organising the family finances have advantages and disadvantages. For example:

  • ‘Complete unity’ can lead to shared irresponsibility where each partner assumes that the other one is looking after the family finances. On the positive, this is the money organisation most conducive to shared family life.
  • ‘One account with satellites’ has the advantage and disadvantages of the previous approach. It also, has the benefit of some ‘private’ money.
  • ‘Separate account with a bridge’ affirm inequality in couples and can lead to conflicts regarding shared experiences and entertainment.
  • ‘Complete separation’ in terms of finance can make it hard to have a family life and leads to inequality in a couple. It has one redeeming feature: this is the one that is secured against mishaps in case of separation.

Choice in terms of way to organise the family finances depends on the status of the relationship (if you’ve been with someone for a short time it is more likely to want to keep your finances separate) and is a very personal choice.

How have you organised your family finances?

photo credit: Solis Invicti via photopin cc

6 thoughts on “Loves me, loves me not: four ways to organise your family finances”

  1. We operate a ‘Complete unity’ system and have for 20 years.

    At first I was the highest earner, then we ran our own business and now my husband is the highest earner. I tend to manage our finances as I have more time and am more interested in all things money.( I suppose that gives me more control really?)

    This works well for us and we are planning for our old age together.

    I would be devastated if our relationship failed now and my heart goes out to your friend. Please send her my best wishes.


    • @Catherine: Thanks, Catherine, shall do! And you reminded me something very important, namely that with the ‘complete unity’ approach it’s a good idea to have a designated ‘personal finance manager’. Otherwise things can fall between the cracks.

  2. The wife and I originally had one account. (been together 20+ yrs). We decided 3 years ago to separate them. Since I’m the major income source I took on the bulk – budgeted items – while she took on the incidentals in life, kids shoes tore up, tire blew on the car, etc plus plannings such as vacations or furniture buys etc. . This has worked out well for us.
    Do I recommend it to others? Typically I say no because it is easy for people to get into financial/marital troubles this way. Sharing an account makes each other responsible to one another. There’s no “hidden” items. It’ll help build strength between a couple.
    Separate accounts works for us because we “communicate – honestly and openly”. We discuss our financial needs regularly: budgetary, incidentals, children, family etc.
    If for some reason we need to join forces again then so be it. We’ve discussed that already such as when our youngest leaves the nest and we decide to move.
    I think that it boils down to “trust” issues.

    • @Whisky: Absolutely! It is a matter of trust and to the extent to which your accounts are not separate because you don’t trust enough, it’s okay. I have friends who kept separate accounts because he got locked out of a sahred account when his previous relationship failed.

  3. For me, separate accounts would be a defensive move. I realize I may be in a somewhat unique situation after nearly 46 years of marriage. Both my wife and I have lived our lives based on principles. Financially speaking, if we were breaking up, we would treat each other based on these values.

    I realize that not everyone can do this. More emphasis and thought should be applied before you marry or have a long term relationship to avoid these issues. Perhaps, I am applying an older generation perspective, but I think it is still true.


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