Finances can be hard to navigate as a couple. Studies have shown that almost 25% of divorces are money-related, and nearly 50% of couples argue over money. But according to new research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, sharing your finances could be one way to avoid some of the unpleasantness and build a stronger relationship.
The research team, led by Dr. Jenny Olsen, an assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business, ran two separate studies to determine how finances — and how couples deal with them — affect relationship quality.
For the first study, the research team recruited 200 newlywed or engaged cisgender, heterosexual couples and assigned them to one of three groups: couples who combined money in a joint bank account; couples who managed money individually in separate accounts; couples free to manage their money however they saw fit. The team then followed the couples for two years to determine how their financial situations impacted their relationships.
Couples who were assigned to merge finances reported significantly higher relationship quality throughout the study period and at the conclusion of the study than the couples who maintained separate finances or those who were allowed to maintain their finances as they wished.
Olson explained that maintaining a joint account promotes financial transparency and “financial goal alignment” and fosters a “communal understanding of marriage.”
"A communal relationship is one where partners respond to each other's needs because there's a need. 'I want to help you because you need it. I'm not keeping track,'" Olson explained. "There's a 'we' perspective, which we theorized would be related to a joint bank account,” whereas couples with separate finances viewed things more transactionally.
“It's 'I help you because you're going to help me later.’ They're prepaying for later favors, and that's tit-for-tat, which we see a bit more with separate accounts,” she said. “It's 'I've got the Netflix bill and you pay the doctor.' They're not working together like those with joint accounts — who have the same pool of money."
For the second study, the team interviewed a different group of married couples to determine how their financial structure impacted the quality of their relationships. Results for the second study echoed those of the first: Couples who shared finances were happier than those who maintained separate accounts.
However, according to the study authors, there are caveats.
“It is important to note that merging money is not risk-free or ideal for all couples. Having a joint account reduces each partner’s independence and may well place them at elevated risk for controlling or abusive behavior from their spouse,” they wrote. “In this sense, merging money speaks to a broader tension in intimate relationships between self-protection and relationship enhancement.”
In healthy relationships built on mutual trust and respect, however, joint bank accounts help build happy relationships. “We believe that our results provide the strongest evidence to date that merging money in a joint account helps couples preserve relationship well-being as they traverse the connubial crucible, a dynamic that may endure for years to come.”