Joint or Separate: Which Checking Works Better For You?

Some accounts were meant to be separate. Retirement accounts are an excellent example. Others are probably better off being joint. Joint access to an emergency fund means that either partner can act in case of an emergency, and having two sets of eyes on the account can put a stop to frivolous withdrawals.

But checking accounts are practically their own animal, and there are pros and cons on both forms of ownership, separate and joint. I have a bias toward separate accounts. My wife and I have been married for 16 years and the separate arrangement has worked so well that we’ve never even entertained the idea of a joint account.

Separate checking accounts

There may be more advantages here, but below are five compelling reasons favoring separate accounts:

  1. Each person has a sense of control over some piece of the household budget. Call it “mad money, ” or whatever you will, but just as each of us needs our own small space in the home, and our own separate collection of personal stuff, we also need our own financial “space.”
  2. It eliminates the possibility of two people drawing from the same account and the overdraft fees that can result. Debit cards compound the potential for this.
  3. It avoids the prospect of trying to keep track of each spouses expenditures in one account.
  4. It creates diversification. If a problem, like identity theft, causes one account to be closed or suspended, the couple can continue operating out of the other’s checking account.
  5. It can avoid a lot of fights related to money. Each spouse is responsible for their own account and can’t blame the other for messing it up.
  6. It splits responsibility for household finances between both spouses.

Another thing that we don’t like to think about is the ability of each spouse to handle their finances in the event of divorce or the death of the other spouse. How often do you hear of situations in which the financially-minded spouse dies, and the surviving spouse is clueless about handling the checkbook?

In many respects, managing a checkbook — and the bill paying that’s attached to it — is the single most important component of money management. If one spouse is shielded from that function, the shock of losing a spouse will be that much greater.

Joint checking account

I’m able to come up with just as many reasons why a joint account would be preferable, and you might be able to come up with a few more:

  1. No need for two separate household budgets, which may not be the most effective way to minimize expenses.
  2. It eliminates the yours vs. mine conflict, and creates a sense of “we.”
  3. It can neutralize a spouse who is weak on finances and budgeting, but only if the “stronger” spouse controls the checkbook.
  4. It can maximize the accumulation of savings by centralizing bill paying and allocation for savings.
  5. It creates a division of labor, or specialization of functions within a marriage. One spouse may handle the finances, while the other takes charge of kids’ schoolwork. Each function is important, each makes a contribution to the household, but in different ways.
  6. A joint account results in half as many bank fees as compared to separate accounts.

In addition, as Nickel has pointed out, a joint account makes complete sense for a single income couple.

Separate accounts have worked beautifully in our marriage, but different arrangements work for different couples. Which do you prefer, joint or separate? What are the advantages and disadvantages that you’ve discovered?

31 Responses to “Joint or Separate: Which Checking Works Better For You?”

  1. Anonymous

    I just got married, and my husband and I have a joint checking and savings account. It makes bill pay a lot easier, and less arguing over who bought what.(groceries, home repairs, etc) I think a joint account only works if both parties are good with their spending. My husband and I know to speak to one another if we want to buy something over a certain amount,and it has worked well so far. Plus you maximize your savings, because both accounts are being deposited into one account, acummulating more interest.

  2. Anonymous

    We’re also a 3-checking account household. We both have a percentage of every paycheck deposited directly into our joint account to cover bills, groceries, etc. A portion of that money also goes into our savings account and our vacation account.

    The remainder goes into our personal checking accounts to spend (or save or invest) as we please.

  3. Anonymous

    Good point, Stephanie! That’s one of the primary advantages of separate accounts. I actually did touch on it briefly in Point #4 under separate accounts, but it’s well worth greater emphasis.

    Things will be bad enough that you’ll have to worry about closing out old accounts and opening new ones, without having to add concerns about money access and bill paying on top of it.

  4. Anonymous

    One advantage to having separate accounts that no one has mentioned – if either of you loses a wallet or has it stolen, all your accounts aren’t frozen while the mess is sorted out. Also with separate accounts (at separate banks) you can still access funds if there are ATM problems, etc. at the other.

  5. Anonymous

    My wife and I have a joint account and a rule that if we spend more than $10 (on something besides groceries & everyday household supplies) that we tell each other about it. It has worked well to make sure we both know what’s going on with our finances. We also have a certain amount of personal money we each get when we get paid & we stick to spending only that money on our personal interests (unless we decide together to make a bigger purchase).

  6. Anonymous

    The wifey & I have our “House” accounts (checking, savings, credit card) and our own “do-whatever-we-wish” accounts. Most of the money as you can imagine goes into the House accounts, but it’s our personal ones which keep us from bickering and allows some freedom and splurging 😉

  7. Anonymous

    Ronnie – You hit on an important point, you’re better at finances than your spouse. In that situation a joint account for most of the expenses at least will probably work better.

    It really does come down to discipline more than anything else and the partner who’s stronger in that regard is really the best qualified to handle the bulk of the finances, what ever system is used.

  8. Anonymous

    We have both accounts as well. Our joint checking and savings account is for household expenses and joint future purchases. We input proportionately to income. We each have our separate accounts as well, and there are some things that I do not ever want to mingle. We both have substantial student loan debt; I have a separate checking account solely for that purpose and wouldn’t want to commingle it.

    I am better at the finances than my spouse. I am grateful though, that he takes a genuine interest in maximizing our income and paying down our debt, and is actively involved. That took a lot of work.

  9. Anonymous

    Thanks Kevin. I’m in full agreement with you, it’s not a money issue @ all for us it’s communication. There has been some counseling in the past (other stuff), but I dunno how much it really helped; I guess both parties have to be willing to work on it (or even own up that there is a problem) before ANYTHING will help.

    I’d agree with Chris (9), but obviously both parties would have to agree and be on the same wavelength. In my situation it’s just not true unfortunately. All shared, 1 joint account is a great idea in theory but it really sucks when only half the people take any sort of stock in making it work. =) The idea of separate has been brought up so in my mind that would alleviate issues. I can have a budget and they can spend away without talking about it. I guess if the answer is still know then that points to a MUCH deeper problem, but I already knew that…

    Great answers all!

  10. Anonymous

    John – At least some of the accounts should disappear once you’re married, but you’ll need to maintain the number of accounts that work for the two of you.

    You may be able to get by with two checking accounts – one each – but then combine savings and investment accounts, since they’re largely static accounts.

  11. Anonymous

    My sister had joint accounts with her husband until recently. she stressed time and again that the balance in the account was not spendable, but that it had not necessarily gone out to pay this or that yet. After several overdraft notices with little or no apparent change in behavior on his part, she told him they needed to get separate accounts.

    I’m not married but I and my girlfriend have both been handling money by ourselves for years. I think we will end up with at least some accounts separate if we marry. With the number of accounts I’m currently maintaining I would hate to think that all of mine, all of hers, plus a couple joint accounts would be necessary to keep things in line.

  12. Anonymous

    We pay different bills from each of our checking accounts. We are having problems with transparency though. We continue to work at it. We are able to discuss money issues pretty well, though. I’d prefer one account but that is not negotiable right now.

  13. Anonymous

    Cemccon – On the other hand it can also mean a man values a womans’ independence in having her own account. At the end of the post I agreed with Nickels’ assertion that a joint checking account works better in a single income household.

    However, if both spouses work, they’re also incurring separate expenses (gas, lunch, sundries) and separate accounts can be more advantageous in that situation. One of the most disavantageous situations possible would be to have two people drawing ongoing small amounts from the same account. The potential for errors and overdrafts is substantial in that case.

  14. Anonymous

    I think households who maintain separate checking accounts are leftovers from a mysoginstic era. It reeks of male superiority and male control. Somehow, he (or she) who earns more ends up having more say as to where the money goes. Even if you have separate accounts, and divide your shared expenses by half, and keep the ‘rest’ for yourselves, is that really fair? How does that properly value the other partner’s non-income contributions (I.E., child rearing, housework, taking care of YOU, etc)?

  15. Anonymous

    H Lee D – I agree with keeping the number of accounts to a minimum to keep things simple. That works – for you and for me. For others, any way they do it that works is good. I’ve known couples who worked with a single checking account for decades and it served them well. I can’t imagine it for myself and my wife. The hybrid idea with 3 accounts sounds cumbersome to me, but again if it works for others it’s good.

    Elle – you wrote “We use joint accounts” – accounts – plural – how many joint accounts is that? If you have multiple joint accounts, plus individual checking, how much time do you spend reconciling accounts every month???

  16. Anonymous

    We use joint accounts for most of our transactions and have separate accounts for miscellaneous things. We’re currently using proportional budgeting to determine how much each of us puts into the joint accounts. The leftovers get sent into our individual checking accounts.

    We can access each other’s individual accounts in an emergency.How we do our finances as a couple has worked well for us so far. It may change, but we would both have to decide on that.

  17. Anonymous

    @Chris – Agreed, though I think the majority of divorces should cite “communication” and/or “selfishness” as their reason. Money troubles are typically, as you said, communication problems.

    @Kevin – Why complicate things with multiple accounts if you can do what needs to be done with less?

    I knew a couple who had separate finances and each contributed a certain dollar amount from their paychecks to cover household expenses. All leftover money was fun money. He made much more than she did to start with, then she got pregnant and stayed home for 6 or 8 months, at which time the financial agreement didn’t change. She borrowed money from all over the place to make her payment to the household pot, while he bought a second car for himself and a waverunner. I understand that’s not typical, and you could argue (if she left him) that they divorced over finances, when really they divorced over a lack of respect and/or inane selfishness.

  18. Anonymous

    My wife and I have a hybrid approach. We have the joint checking and joint savings for the household, then we each have our own separate checking accounts for our mad money. I can split my paycheck up with separate direct deposits. So, twice a month, we each get a deposit into individual checking accounts and also the joint account. I handle the bill paying and budget, although I frequently update my wife what’s going on (maybe more than she cares sometimes).

    Our process works for us and since my wife is a SAHM, having her own bank account (which she keeps track of exclusively) helps give her some independence.

    I think our only rule about the individual accounts (we each have a separate credit card, as well) is that you can’t go into debt. Other than that, you can spend the money on whatever you want.

  19. Anonymous

    Chris (9) – I agree but I think it can work with separate accounts as well.

    Stacy – Mad money can also mean sanity money! We all need a corner all our own, even though we’re part of a marriage or family.

  20. Anonymous

    We have joint checking and savings, and it seems to work really well for us. I’m the math-minded person, so I’m in charge of paying the bills and tracking expenses. When either one of us needs to buy something, we talk about it – or at least mention it in passing if it’s a small amount.

    What keeps us sane is our “mad” money, which is all done in cash. Hubby gets tips from his job, and I have a part-time job that gives me a few dollar each month to spend. Regular paychecks are for the joint account and bills, goals, ect., but our tips and extra funds are ours to spend as we see fit.

  21. Anonymous

    Money problems is the number one cited reason for divorce. Prioritize your marriage over finances and share a joint checking account. Use it to exercise communication and 100% agreement in all financial decisions made, large and small. Both parties need to be completely accountable to each other with full transparency.

  22. Anonymous

    H Lee D – Personally I like the idea of each spouse having a little bit of unrestricted money, it seems to provide at least a small sense of freedom. But I get what you’re saying about eliminating the spending allowances. It’s easy to go broke a little bit at a time, and the worst part is that at the end of the month you may not even know where the money went. The best way to deal with that is complete elimination.

    Anthony – Even though you didn’t actually plan it that way, seperate accounts are working for you and your wife. I think what’s more important than anything else is both spouses being in sync when it comes to money in general. Any system will work if that’s the case. Any system will fail if it isn’t.

  23. Anonymous

    Currently, our checkings accounts are separate. There’s no particular reason for this except that we’ve been too lazy to join our accounts together.

    Fortunately, it has worked for us. We are in “debt repayment” mode. I have enough money to pay non-debt bills and to transfer to an online savings. Her account pays down our debt.

    Also, she banks with a national chain, and I am will a credit union. This provides us another layer of diversification, I suppose.

  24. Anonymous

    We have three joint accounts: a checking, a savings, a savings at a credit union. We are both teachers.

    My paychecks are direct deposited into checking so we can have free online bill pay. His paychecks are split: part is direct deposited into the credit union and the rest goes into the bank savings. The credit union is what we live on in the summer, so aside from monitoring to make sure enough is going in, we don’t touch the credit union account. We don’t have checks or ATM cards or anything connected to it. We’ll make transfers from the bank savings to checking as needed to cover expenses; my paychecks don’t cover it all.

    For a while, we each had fun money that we’d take out in cash. However, we’ve really buckled down on our finances in the last 6 weeks, so we let that go. Instead, we take out $250 in cash per week for the two of us for anything we spend money on (groceries, gas, eating out, etc.) besides bills or large expenses (i.e. new tires, professional conference registration, etc.) We have saved quite a bit of money this way already.

    I suspect that once we reach our goals, we’re not going to need to go back to having individual money to blow because we’ll be used to not blowing it. When I want entrance fees for a triathlon or he wants to go golfing, we just work it in. Neither of us are big spenders, so it’s not so much an issue.

    I do almost all of the bookkeeping – I pay bills, balance the books, etc., but we both enter spending onto our Excel spreadsheet for in vs. out. He checks periodically to see what’s going on and knows how to keep the books, but in his bachelor life, there were many late fees. I’m more on top of it, so I do it.

  25. Anonymous

    Tim – that isn’t just a checking account issue, that’s a general money problem.

    Not that it’s any of my business, but have you tried some sort of counseling?

  26. Anonymous

    Trying to sort this out right now. Currently, we have a joint account that I’m in charge of. Wife doesn’t want anything to do with bills/budgeting at all. It really sucks when you are the only person trying to keep the ship on course; especially as you mention in #2 it really works against us. Oh, I forgot to tell you I went shopping yesterday on my lunch break and got some new outfits and stuff. Not “much” though, only $150. That sucks, I had budgeted that for groceries and the cable bill.

    I approached the subject a few weeks back of splitting it up. I’ve finally been able to wipe out a bunch of my personal debt, but they seem to be ok just plodding along with the minimums. Yuck! So I suggested you handle your stuff with your account and your check and I’ll handle my stuff and the domestic (house) bills. Wow, talk about backlash. Like I’d asked them to cut off their hands or something. It’s only a checkbook?!

    I mean you aren’t willing to talk with me about it, the only thing I ever get is “I hate talking about money, it always makes me feel guilty” so, I get to keep worrying and trying to carry it all myself. That sucks. Basically, I feel like I’m being told “it’s your job to just figure it out. I’m gonna do what I want regardless so just figure it out.”


    On an unrelated note, does the comment box look messed up to anyone else? It’s sliding under the disclaimer text on my PC (vista with current firefox).

  27. Anonymous

    Hank and Jon, looks like the two of you have come up with a
    solid third way!

    My wife and I do something similar, only without the joint account.
    We divvy up the household bills, and each of us takes responsibility
    for some of them. At a minimum, this avoids the need to reconcile
    a third checking account each month. (I hate the job of reconciling my checking

  28. Anonymous

    Hank and I must be on the same wavelength. My wife and I each have our own checking account, plus a joint account. Our annual budget is set to cover ALL regular household expenses (from mortgage & power, to school lunches & car registration), and that’s then divided by 26. We each then owe a portion of our bi-weekly paychecks to the joint account on payday. That known, set amount is transferred electronically, and the remainder stays in our individual accounts, and is our own personal money. It works great, because the bills are all automatically covered, and you know that all the money in your personal account can be spent without concern about other regular expenses.

  29. Anonymous

    My wife and I have a system where we both have individual accounts and a joint account. We also have access to each other’s individual accounts so there are not secrets and no hassles accessing them. It works out great for us, but we also have a good communication system too.

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