An interesting article on Slate recently discussed the financial habits of contemporary couples. Author Jessica Grose, who includes both married and co-habiting couples in her survey, took a detailed look at how people approach the issue of whether or not to share money and bank accounts.
The longer couples stay together, the less likely they are to be Independent Operators, my term for pairs who keep their accounts entirely separate.
In one case:
She sees a Common Pot—or at least a Sometime Sharer system—as one of the few clear markers she'll have for the change of status. Kate's live-in boyfriend wants to combine accounts now, but Kate wrote in her survey response, "I guess I want there to be some difference between dating and marriage." Mike and I didn't even consider the possibility of combining money until the ink dried on our marriage license.
For other couples, having kids is the big existential change that will prompt them to combine funds. With particular interest, I quizzed my Independent Operator survey responders about how they maintain separate accounts with children, because that seemed fairly impossible to me. Do you really want to spar over who is paying for tiny jars of mashed carrots?
Financial arrangements change with the times, as they must. Arguably, centuries of legal precedent have been disproportionately unfair to women. For example, the laws of inheritance and entail in the UK often saw widows and their daughters losing home and security, and sometimes even fortunes that the women themselves brought to the marriage. Whether or not one is a proponent of ‘easy’ (is it ever?), no-fault divorce, one must surely see the justice of financially compensating women who contributed years of unpaid labour to the marriage/family, in the case of the husband being sole breadwinner.
On the other hand, every law seems susceptible to some sort of manipulation or abuse: more than once has one spouse been ‘taken to the cleaners’ by the other in divorce proceedings. (No gender assignments here. Fortune hunters and opportunists come in both sexes.) In an era when greater numbers of people tend to make “short-term commitments” (it seems oxymoronic, I know) of the conjugal variety, it makes perfect sense to be protective of one’s financial security.
Commitment seems to be the key. Grose observes the difference marriage -- and children -- make:
The most stalwart Independent Operators, I found, are not like Kate and Max or Mike and me: They are mostly unmarried and they don't have kids. Or if they do, the kids are more likely to be from a previous relationship.
This unmarried, childless couple, for example:
Carol and Richard think of their income and investments as private information, so they know the gist of each other's assets but not the nitty-gritty details. […] It's worth noting that of all the I.O. couples I spoke to, they were the only long-term pair that was so obsessive about financial privacy.
To me, there's something sort of perverse about wanting your partner to know about your investments only after you're dead.
To me, there’s something perverse about couples scrupulously guarding their finances, but being willing to share (in many cases) their emotions and sexuality without a permanent (or even a long-term) commitment. Like survey respondent Kate, I want there to be “some difference between dating and marriage” too. But perhaps it should go beyond the question of capital.