Personal Finance

How to Handle Joint Accounts and Bills with your Spouse or Partner

Money is one of the most important topics to tackle when beginning a long-term relationship, so I'm sharing the system my wife and I worked out for managing our accounts (after some trial and error -- sorry honey!), and it's held up well now for almost 15 years.

photo of lovebirds on a branch snuggling

Assuming you’re married, soon-to-be-married, or living with a partner in a long-term relationship, should you take the plunge and set up a joint checking account? Or should you keep separate accounts? Both. Money is one of the most important topics to tackle when beginning a long-term relationship, so I’m sharing the system my wife and I worked out for managing our accounts (after some trial and error – sorry honey!), which has held up well now for almost 15 years.

Here’s the basics:

  • Open a joint checking account under both your names with a debit card for each of you.
  • Keep or open separate, individual checking accounts for each of you. (If you’re married, be sure to work with your bank to set up the accounts so that if one partner dies, the account then goes to the other partner.)
  • Classify your monthly bills, identifying all the ones that are truly joint expenses like rent, cable, insurance, groceries, etc. (including any joint savings you might be doing for something like a down payment). These are your core Household Expenses.
  • Calculate what percentage of those core Household Expenses each of you should contribute. This should be weighted according to your relative income: if one partner earns $60,000 and the other $40,000, then the higher-earning partner should be picking up 60% of the household expenses.
  • Have your household contribution direct-deposited into the joint account, and the rest deposited into your personal account (if your workplace won’t split your paycheck into multiple deposits, you may need to set up an automated transfer through your bank).
  • Pick one partner to primarily manage the joint account. The other partner has the obligation to share timely information about any purchases they make from the joint account.
  • Finally (and perhaps most importantly), since the shared expenses are taken care of, what’s left in your individual account is, well, yours. That means you can spend that as you’d like without consulting your partner.

Though having multiple accounts does add some administrative overhead, the benefit is that you avoid a lot of the friction that comes from differences of opinion on appropriate spending. (While it’s not necessary, using a tool like Mint or Personal Capital can really simplify tracking spending and balances across multiple accounts and credit/debit cards.)