Mixing money in later-in-life marriage

Over the past few years I’ve gotten married – so has my mother. We, like Carolyn, have set up household systems that seem to be working. And, like Carolyn, they both involve money that is yours, mine and ours.

Here’s why I like the three-pot system: It allows for both autonomy and romance. Merge everything and in many households, one person (traditionally, but not always, the man) assumes much of the control. That can lead to the giving of allowances to the person not in charge or the feeling that you have to ask permission if you want to make a purchase. Both feel a little more like they belong in a parent-child relationship rather than one between spouses. Moreover, when you’re the person with not enough control, you’re in a precarious position. Even if the other person has your best interests at heart, pays the bills on time and manages your family’s financial life in a responsible way, should something happen to him (or her) you’re up the proverbial creek without a paddle. You likely won’t know what to do to captain the boat yourself. And being forced to learn these foreign skills and procedures during what is likely a difficult emotional time? Well, it stinks.

The three-pot system isn’t perfect either. It means maintaining minimum balances in three accounts, not just one (or linking them to get around the requirement, which you may not want to do if you don’t want your spouse to be able to see the balances and payments in your own personal account online and vice versa). It means keeping tabs on what’s happening in more than one location and which bills are paid from each. It means not only having multiple checkbooks, but balancing multiple checkbooks if you happen to be a balancer. (My mother is. I’m not.)

But it also has a lot going for it. First, autonomy. At whatever age you enter into marriage you are also adult enough to be making your own decisions about how to use your money – and by the way, under this system it’s yours whether you earn it in the workforce or whether you’re a stay at home parent (more on this momentarily). Making decisions also makes you the de-facto manager of your money. That’s a good thing if you are ever in the position where managing it yourself is something you have to do as opposed to want to do. (And it’s why I advocate having a retirement or other investment account that you’re in charge of as well.) Second, romance. Perhaps you’ve come to the stage where it doesn’t bother you to look at your online bank account and see – to the penny – how much your spouse spent for your last birthday or anniversary. If so, you’ve got one up on me. I don’t want him to see how much I spent either.

But the third thing it has going in its favor is that third pot. The best thing about managing money together is that it gives you the ability to decide what you want together and then save for that goal together.That third account is not just your pay-the-mortgage-babysitter-and-utilities-fund, it’s your save-for-a-house-get-another-dog-go-to-Paris fund. This is where you attach numbers to your dreams and watch them begin to take shape.

I remember standing in my favorite seafood shop – it must have been almost a decade ago. The woman in front of me was conversing with the fishmonger and describing the particular piece of tuna she wanted to bring home for dinner. “We like it not too thick,” she said, emphasis on the we. “We like to grill it quickly for just a minute or so on each side. That way it stays pink in the middle.” I wasn’t eavesdropping as much as envying. At the time I didn’t have a lot of we in my life – whether the we was working toward shared life goals or splitting an entrée that would satisfy both. Fortunately, I got it back. The ours account helped me keep it going.

Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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