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Financial Feud: Separate vs. Joint marital finances

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In Dispute:

$500 - $1000 a month

The Argument:

Brice

My wife and I keep our finances separate, but I think she needs to budget better for joint expenses. She makes more than I do and pays the mortgage ($2,700 a month), but we also have credit card bills, utility bills and car payments ($500 - $1000 a month). When it comes time to pay the bills, my wife usually gives me whatever is left in her account. She wants to have the flexibility to spend what she wants on discretionary items, including helping her family. I want her to agree to a pay a certain amount each month so that I can budget more easily. AM I RIGHT?

Expert Opinion:

Financial Feud

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Brice

The Argument:

I came out of college with a lot of student loans and serious credit card debt. By the time I married my wife in 2009, I had paid off about 80 percent of what I owed. But the process of paying for our wedding and buying a house put me right back in debt. I used credit cards for major purchases. Now, I owe about $25,000 and think the debt is as much hers as mine.

But because we keep our finances separate and have totally different budgeting styles, it is difficult for us to compile funds for joint expenses.

I use a spreadsheet to allocate funds and literally plan out every dollar, twice a month. She usually just contributes whatever she has left in her checking account at the moment. This is frustrating, because I can go ahead and plan for things that are expected (like utilities and car payments). But she never accounts for things like health bills, credit card payments or replacing broken appliances, which makes it harder for me to budget.

Instead, she often uses money left over after paying the mortgage to help out family. I know she has the upper hand in this situation, because she makes more than me and pays the mortgage, but I just want her to be more consistent so that I can anticipate my expenses and pay off our credit card debt.

I should tell you from the outset that I disagree with having separate bank accounts, except in extreme or unusual circumstances (e.g., one of you has a gambling problem). If you’re keeping separate accounts just because you have different budgeting styles, it could be that you and your wife are using this method to avoid having to discuss how you manage your finances.

It’s true that your debt is her debt, and vice versa. Likewise, income should be viewed the same way. Keeping separate accounts, however, forces the two of you to operate as though you are financially independent, even though you have obligations as a couple. If it’s fairness that you’re aiming for, try devising a budget that reflects your earning prowess equitably. For example, if she’s earning $75,000 and you’re earning $50,000 divide household expenses 60/40 so that you’re taking on an equitable share of expenses. Your remaining balance can be divvied up for discretionary spending.

Now, helping out family is another matter altogether, but one that I can’t ignore. There are a variety of reasons why it’s usually a bad idea to give money to family or friends (unless you can honestly say that it’s a gift and you aren’t looking for it to be repaid). In your situation specifically, you and your wife shouldn’t be giving anyone money until you are completely out of credit card debt and have a hefty emergency savings to boot. Brainstorm other ways the two of you can support her family without spending money that would otherwise go toward paying down your debt.

About the author

Joy Smithson is the program director for the financial stability initiative at United Way of Southeast Mississippi.

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