Shortly after we got engaged, my fiance and I started talking about what we were going to do with our money. We had been living together for years with a joint account for household spending and our own accounts for everything else. Once we got married, it seemed to make sense to start putting all our money together – but the horror I saw on the faces of older, married friends when I told them this put me right off. "You can't do that," they warned. "That's a recipe for disaster."
Ever since, I've been preoccupied by the thorny issue of how couples, married or not, manage their finances – and it seems I'm not alone. In a recent article for the New York Times, Katrin Bennhold addresses "the unseen bottom line" in marriage: what couples do with their money, and what the impact of that decision is on women (still, most often, the lower earners). A poll of 44 of her attached thirtysomething friends revealed both the surprising result that just one of her female friends controls the family finances. The rest are only too happy to leave the financial management to their husbands or boyfriends.
Sorry – did I just fall asleep and wake up in 1935? Are there really still legions of women – educated, independent women, in the privileged position of being able to earn their own money and spend it as they see fit – walking around completely unaware of how much money they have in the joint bank account? I'm certainly not one of them and a quick straw poll of my own friends suggests they're not either.
Paula Hall, a counsellor with Relate, also thinks it's now rare among heterosexual couples for the man to expect to be in charge of the couple's money. "These days," she says, "it really comes down to practicalities: who remembers to check bank statements; who's good at online banking? Among my clients and friends, that's just as often the woman as the man."
In a survey conducted last year by the government's Money Advice Service, 31% of women questioned said they were stressed about money, compared with 22% of men – implying that the women were the ones in charge of managing the family accounts. But the women also seemed more reluctant to discuss their finances: 39% said they found it difficult to talk about money, compared with 33% of men. It seems, therefore, that shedding our classic British reserve is key to finding a happy financial partnership. "It might reflect the British psyche," a spokeswoman for the Money Advice Service says, "but couples do need to learn to talk about money if they don't want to come unstuck along the way."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012