- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

Years ago, a rite of passage for newlyweds was to open a joint bank account that proudly listed their names together at the top of the checks.

This tradition now may be giving way to a system of "yours, mine and ours" bank accounts.

Given that couples argue mostly about money, is this good or bad for marriage?

Marriage and financial experts are generally undecided. They say that any money management system, including "his 'n' hers" checkbooks, is OK as long as both spouses agree to it.

"The issue isn't the [financial] decision itself, it's the feelings about the decision," said Michele Weiner-Davis, a family and marital therapist in Woodstock, Ill., and author of "Divorce Busting."

Some experts even suggest that having personal bank accounts may ease fighting over money because it allows both spouses to have money they can spend without the other's approval.

But there are a few misgivings about married couples keeping their money in separate pots.

"There is evidence that when people don't do something as simple as pool their resources, the couple is at greater risk," said Scott M. Stanley, a marital researcher at the University of Denver.

When it comes to banking, Americans are full of accounts.

According to the Federal Reserve's 1998 Survey of Consumer Finance, 90.5 percent of American families had a checking or other kind of "transaction" account.

But financial experts are unable to confirm whether married couples are opting for multiple accounts over joint accounts.

"People often have relationships with multiple institutions … there's no way for banks to know whether [we] have a [banking] relationship with someone else," said Janet Eissenstat of the American Bankers Association.

"What I can tell you," she said, "is that people have multiple relationships with a bank, and it's not uncommon for a household to have three or four accounts. So that suggests a his, mine and ours."

Norman Magnuson, spokesman for the Associated Credit Bureaus, a trade group for the credit-reporting industry, said he had "never seen data" on married couples choosing multiple accounts over joint accounts.

Federal rules say "you can't consider marital status, race or sex when considering giving credit," he said, "so that may be an issue in why there's not data."

Many experts say, anecdotally, they see a lot of "his, hers and ours" accounts.

"There's more independence and more interdependence in the millennium couple," said Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist in Denver and author of "The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage."

Today's couples typically have "two breadwinners and two fully empowered individual decision-makers about money," she said.

They also "want to be interdependent and make big money decisions together," said Mrs. Heitler. So the typical model for finances becomes "some form of his, her and our accounts."

Joanne Kerstetter, president of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Washington, said that sometimes it makes sense to have separate accounts. If one spouse travels a lot, for instance, he may need his own account to keep business expenses away from family expenses, she said.

When couples run into financial trouble, though, it's often a good idea to close multiple accounts and "regroup" with one account, she said. Consolidating accounts reduces the bank fees from multiple accounts, she added.

Asked whether multiple accounts reduce fights over money, financial planner Ben Utley said he sees all kinds of financial arrangements and none of them guarantees harmony.

"I see fighting with joint accounts, separate accounts, with two paychecks, no paychecks," said Mr. Utley, founder of Utley & Associates in Eugene, Ore.

"If people are going to fight about money, it's usually a core issue," he said. "My saying is that 'Money never creates or solves a problem. Money is a magnifying glass for an existing problem.' "

Marriage researchers Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe say many young singles are planning on having multiple accounts when they marry.

As co-directors of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, Mrs. Whitehead and Mr. Popenoe recently interviewed 120 young adults on dating and marriage.

A minority who said they wanted joint bank accounts included comments like, "Once a marriage begins, everything should be joint," or, "If you have your own account, you're already expecting it's not going to work."

But most of the young people argued in favor of separate or multiple bank accounts, saying:

• "It's something to fall back on. What if your husband spends the mortgage on a motorcycle?"

• "I work hard and make just as much. I'm going to buy what I want."

• "I feel like I shouldn't have to report to my wife what I'm spending with my own money."

• "You should have a second account for the things you want."

A few singles even had their banking formulas ready: Put "60 percent in a pool, 40 percent in separate" accounts, said one young adult. "Put enough to pay expenses" in a joint account and "split what's left 50-50," suggested another.

Mrs. Whitehead and Mr. Popenoe speculated that fear of divorce, marrying after incomes and bank accounts are established and carryover habits from cohabiting are probable factors in a rise in multiple accounts.

They haven't drawn any conclusions about the pros and cons of multiple bank accounts. But they note in their new report, "State of Our Unions 2000," that a "hedge-your-bets approach to marriage may weaken the sense of mutual dedication and commitment that is an important component of a successful marriage."

Mr. Stanley, the co-director of Center for Marital and Family Studies in Denver and co-author of "Fighting for Your Marriage," says that to some degree, "it doesn't matter whose name is on what account."

But he, too, offers a cautionary note about separate accounts.

Couples are "likely to be more fragile if they don't commingle their life, including finances, because it's easier to leave if times get tough," said Mr. Stanley. "Sometimes the things that help people ride out a tough spot is that their life is just too tough to untangle."

Meanwhile, Julia Weber, a California lawyer, has gone from multiple bank accounts to a single joint checking-and-saving account with the man who has been her "domestic partner" for six years.

Miss Weber, 33, said that in previous live-in relationships, "it was real important for me and my partners to maintain our independence in terms of spending."

"But this relationship is a life commitment," Miss Weber said of her software-engineer boyfriend.

They decided to consolidate their accounts because "it was important to us that we maximize our buying power," she said. "Plus neither of us disagrees strongly with how the other spends money."

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