How not sharing all finances can reduce conflict in your relationships

Sharing all finances with a partner is a viable strategy, but it comes with the risk of conflict, such that it might not be worth it.

I once heard a story about a married couple. They had an “All-In” agreement around money, where they had one joint account to use for everything.

However, as with many young couples, money was tight, and there was significant tension that built over time. One person had a habit of going to a certain sandwich chain for lunch almost every day, which irked the other, as they had plenty of food in the house, and the sandwich shop wasn’t cheap.

And every time when she would check their transactions online, there it was. Sandwich. Sandwich. Sandwich. It made her furious.

I bring this story up, not to air the dirty laundry of a couple, but to illustrate that the choices you make in terms of how you share finances have consequences, and it’s important to make sure that you make those choices intentionally and fully aware.

Four ways to share finances with a partner

Let’s recap. In my experience, there are four ways to share finances with a partner:

  • Divide and Conquer: All finances are kept separate, and each maintains complete autonomy over their money.
  • Semi-Joint Life: Some finances are shared, while individual accounts are maintained as well. Shared account can be the default, or just used for certain expenses.
  • All-In: All finances and accounts are shared and managed equally.
  • Allowance: One person takes ownership of all finances and doles out an “allowance” to the other.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these styles of sharing accounts. You may have strong feelings about them, and see one of them as the “right” way, but that’s just, like, your opinion, man. In truth, the style that is “right” is the style that works for the people in the relationship.

The problem usually isn’t what people choose, it’s that they don’t choose intentionally. They often fall into certain patterns without really thinking them through.

And that is nowhere more true than with the “All-In” style of sharing finances.

All for one and one for God

The basic idea behind “All-In” is that, as an (often) married couple, you have “become one”, and therefore, so it follows, should your finances.

This is a very traditional way of looking at money, so it’s not shocking that this is the only way recommended by Dave Ramsey:

“But you guys, marriage is a partnership. It’s no longer ‘his and her money.’ The officiant said, ‘Two become one.’ Separating the money and splitting the bills is a bad idea that only leads to more money and relationship problems down the road. Don’t keep separate accounts. Put all of your money together and begin to look at it as a whole.”

Ramsey Solutions: “Money and Marriage: 7 Tips for a Healthy Relationship”

God, don’t you feel so pious reading that? And also, heteronormative, mono-normative, and more than a little finger-pointing.

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Here in the real world, we recognize that there are lots of ways to have relationships, and also lots of ways to exist inside those relationships. You can have more than one partner. They can be of whatever gender you want. You may live together or you may not. You may be married or you may not.

And marriage is no longer a business transaction, with the woman given as property to the man to provide sexual, homemaking, and reproductive services.

The downsides of All-In

They say sunlight is the best disinfectant. I’m not totally sure that’s true when it comes to knowing someone’s purchases.

When you go “All-In”, then you see everything, and so do they. Every purchase, from the big stuff to the small, from the unknown depths of a Target purchase to every single time you stopped at Starbucks, it’s all there.

And I don’t know about you, but that’s not a level of detail that I want or need to have with my partner’s spending habits.

I know any partner I have is going to have different spending habits from me. And that’s totally fine and expected. My partner loves buying plants, sparkly rocks, and dresses, all of which are things that I have zero interest in spending for myself. And I spend money on vinyl records and musical equipment, and I know she has no interest in any of those. And that’s all fine.

The risk when you see the minutiae of someone else’s spending is that you can start to form judgments about the other person, unfairly putting your spending priorities on them.

It’s very easy to look at someone else’s spending habits and say to yourself (or them), “why did you need to spend so much on that?”

And that’s the worst kind of conflict, because it’s accusatory, unhelpful, and completely irrelevant. And it leaves yourself open to the exact same judgment too.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Now, this is not a definite outcome.

The whole idea of “All-in”, and the only reason it can work, is that everyone must agree on spending targets in advance.

So, if there is a conflict point among spending categories, it has to be hashed out in advance too. (Remember, budgeting is not a restriction; it’s an allowance.)

If someone wants to spend money on plants, or vinyl records—or sandwiches—then everyone needs to say, “okay, given all of our available money and spending priorities, what is a reasonable amount of money to spend on this particular type of thing this month?” And then you discuss, you debate, and you agree.

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And then you have to abide by the terms of your agreement. Failure to do that is what we call “financial infidelity”. Or, simply, lying.

If one person wants to spend money on something the other person finds objectionable, the time to figure out the precise dollar amount is in advance, not after the spending happens. After all, it’s harder to get upset about a purchase if you gave informed consent to that purchase already.

You can still struggle

But it is still very possible to be upset even after informed consent.

What if, even if you consent to your partner making purchases, you struggle to see those purchases on your shared account? That can be challenging or even triggering to even the most consenting partner. And you can’t help what you feel.

And so, rightly or wrongly, it can still lead to negative outcomes in your relationship. Conflicts, resentment, arguments.

You don’t always benefit from knowing

So here’s my take on it: do you really need to know about every purchase?

If someone says that they will spend $200 on rocks (or whatever), then do you really need to see each transaction go by? Probably not. All you need is confirmation that the person did as they promised.

And that’s why picking a money sharing style other than “All-In” can be so beneficial. When there are individual accounts, then you don’t have insight into individual spending, just the aggregate totals. You decide how much money everyone gets in individual spending. What they do with that is totally up to them, and you don’t need to see it. And vice versa.

Choose wisely

I still believe that “All-In” is a viable style for combining finances. Not for any traditional or “godly” reasons, just because it is literally the simplest scenario, operationally. There is one account, owned jointly. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

But while it may be simplest, operationally, “All-In” may be the most complicated style from a consent and agreements perspective, to say nothing of giving you exposure to the most spending details. In that respect, it can be the most challenging of all the ways that people can combine finances.

So before you go down the road of blindly believing that because “two become one” that you need to sign away your personal checking account, ask yourself: do you really need to see all those purchases your partner makes, as long as you have agreements and trust? Will all that extra knowledge benefit you in any way?

Personally, I don’t have any need to know when a partner might order a sandwich.

2 Comments

  1. Ezra

    Excellent article. I really appreciate your perspective and have definitely gained a new perspective on joint finances. Thank you.

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