A Practical Guide To Merging Finances With Your Partner

Merge Finances With Spouse

This guide is for people who want to combine some or all of their finances with their spouse or significant other. If you don’t believe in merging your money, that’s totally fine – it’s not for everyone. Below are the pros and cons as well as the checklist for how to do it.

For those of you who are getting married, also check out our free Ultimate Guide to Wedding Insurance.

Table of Contents

The Pros – Why You Should Merge Finances
The Cons – Reasons Not To Combine Finances
3 Ways to Manage Your Household Finances
Step 1: Organize Your Accounts
Step 2: Decide Which Accounts to Merge
Step 3: Open Joint Checking And Savings Accounts
Step 4: Get A Shared Credit Card
Step 5: Evaluate Investment Accounts
Step 6: Evaluate Retirement Accounts
Step 7: Evaluate Loyalty Program Accounts
Step 8: Tackle Each Other’s Debt
Step 9: Decide How To Split Responsibilities
Step 10: Establish Regular Check-ins

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The Pros – Why You Should Merge Finances

1. Simplicity

It’s simpler to pay for daily expenses if you combine your accounts.

Think about every time you pay the rent or mortgage. Each time a bill is due. Every time you buy groceries, eat out, see a movie or bring wine to a friend’s house.

When you keep separate finances, you must decide who pays for each purchase, keep track of how much you owe each other and pay each other. Sound like living with a roommate?

It’s a lot simpler to handle expenses when you can always put them on your shared credit card or write a check from your joint bank account. You eliminate the constant need to keep track and settle up.

2. Teamwork

When you’re in a committed relationship, engaged or married, you should function as a partnership. This means you approach life as a team, plan together and make decisions together. You offer support to each other and can count on the other person.

When you keep your finances separate, you’re putting up a barrier. That barrier can signal that you don’t trust each other fully or you don’t think you can or should work together on financial decisions.

You strengthen your partnership when you attack your finances together.

3. Transparency

You can more easily see your household financial activity when you combine your accounts. This enables you to:

a. Stay organized

  • More easily get an overview of your financial picture, including your assets, income and expenses.
  • More easily budget your spending.
  • More easily plan your saving and investing goals.

b. Stifle bad spending habits

Realistically, if one of you wants to keep a secret bank account or credit card, it’s hard to stop you. However, pooling your finances together enables both people to know where the shared money goes every month. This can help you to have a conversation if one of you spends money on things you don’t both agree to, like excessive shopping.

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The Cons – Reasons Not to Combine Finances

1. Lack of Trust

You should only combine your money when you’ve established full, mutual trust. This means that you’ve demonstrated to each other, with no doubt in your minds, that you can count on the other person. Trust can take months or even years to build. It’s a red flag if you have any doubts, so listen to your gut and don’t merge!

2. Different Money Styles

Now let’s say you fully trust each other. However, you just can’t find common ground for how to manage your money. You come from two different ends of the money management spectrum and just don’t see a way that you can peacefully coexist in the same house if you have to discuss your spend, saving, investing and retirement with each other. There are couples who have successful, long-running relationships with separate accounts – it can be done!

3. Past Financial Mistakes

Perhaps you’ve made some mistakes along the way and have $10,000 in credit card debt. Meanwhile, your partner has a squeaky clean financial history. Past behavior is an indicator of future behavior, so it can be a good idea – and more fair to your partner – to keep your finances separate until you pay off your debt.

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3 Ways to Manage Your Household Finances

1. “What’s Mine Is Yours” – Merge Everything

This means you combine the money in your checking, savings and non-retirement brokerage accounts (there’s no such thing as joint retirement accounts like a joint 401(k) or a joint IRA). It also means you treat all assets as joint and take joint responsibility for all debts. Finally, you both use the same credit card account(s) to pay for all expenses.

2. “Yours, Mine And Ours” – Partial Merge

This means you join some accounts but keep others separate. A common way to do this is:

  • Joint checking and savings accounts.
  • Each person also has their own checking account and sometimes their own savings account from which they spend on fun things for themselves and gifts for the other person. You agree on how much goes into these accounts every paycheck or every month, and the idea is you don’t have to consult with each other on how to spend it.
  • One credit card for joint expenses.
  • Each person also has their own credit card for their own expenses, to be paid for by the money in their individual checking or savings accounts.
  • Joint investment / brokerage accounts.
  • Separate retirement accounts (again, there is no such thing as a joint 401(k) or joint IRA).
  • Treat debt as joint and pay it off together. Some people keep credit card debt and student loans separate.

Ultimately, it’s up to the two of you what you want to merge and what is best left separate.

3. “What’s Mine Is Mine” – Keep All Accounts Separate

This means you each keep managing your assets and debts as your own individual responsibilities. However, you manage joint household expenses together. This means you decide how much each of you will contribute to joint expenses like rent, utilities, groceries and your Amazon Prime membership. Then you open up a joint checking account and, if you’d like, a joint credit card. You each transfer money into the account on a regular basis and then write checks from this account and/or use it to pay off your joint credit card expenses.

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Step 1: Organize Your Accounts

Organize Your Accounts

This first step to merging your money with your spouse or significant other is to know how much you have and where it is. So get organized!

Get Organized With The Free SageCouple Spreadsheet!

Each of you should make 3 lists:

1. Your Assets

Your assets are what you own. What accounts do you have and how much is in each account?

2. Your Liabilities

Your liabilities are what you owe. What debts and loans do you have and how much do you owe on each one?

3. Your Loyalty Program Points

The loyalty programs of airlines, hotels, Amtrak and credit card let you rack up points, which you then redeem for goodies like free flights and hotels stays. Which loyalty programs are you a member of and how many points do you have in each program?

Now calculate your Net Worth, which is your total assets minus your total liabilities. (Ignore the loyalty program points for this calculation.)

Start Getting Organized!

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Step 2: Decide Which Accounts to Merge

Now you know how much you each have and how much you each owe. The next step is deciding what you want to combine and what you’ll keep separate.

Above, we laid out your three basic options:

1. “What’s Mine Is Yours” – Merge Everything

2. “Yours, Mine And Ours” – Partial Merge

3. “What’s Mine Is Mine” – Keep All Accounts Separate

This guide focuses on how to merge everything because this approach requires the most number of steps and explanation. That being said, the choice is entirely up to you.

Just remember – you both have to agree or your system won’t work!

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Step 3: Open Joint Checking and Savings Accounts

Many couples we talk to first open a joint bank account so they can deposit wedding gift money. However, you can open a joint account when you are living together or engaged, to start practicing money management together.

The most common practice is to open two joint accounts – one checking and one savings. Then you transfer the money from your individual accounts into the joint accounts.

Pro life tips:

  • Sometimes banks will run promotions for opening a new account, so search online for deals for new bank accounts. Here’s an example of a 2016 Chase promotion for a checking and savings account:Chase Account Promotion

 

  • Many banks charge a monthly fee for a checking account, but will waive it if you take a certain action – for example, if you maintain your balance above a certain minimum or have your paycheck deposited directly into your account. That being said, banks can charge other types of fees as well. Ask the bank for a fee schedule that explains all the fees you may be charged, and then ask how to avoid those fees.
  • If you’re planning to move, make sure the bank has a branch wherever you’re moving to. Even if you do much of your banking online, sometimes it’s useful to be able to walk into a bank branch and have a conversation with an actual person, face to face.
  • Some banks offer discounts if you have multiple relationships with them. For example, if you have your checking and/or savings account with Citibank, and then also decide to get your home mortgage from them, they’ll give you a discount on your home closing fees. Ask the bank you’re considering if there are relationship discounts like this.
  • Make sure you both have equal access and rights to the funds. For example, if one of you already has a checking account and you want to transfer the other person’s money into it, will your bank allow you to put both of your names on that account or do you have to open a separate, new joint account?

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Step 4: Get A Shared Credit Card

We at SageCouple are all about having you stay out of credit card debt. That being said, we love credit cards for one simple reason – you get points or cash back! Our philosophy is:

If you trust yourselves to ALWAYS pay off your credit card balance in full each month – that means you never carry a balance and so you never get charged any interest – then you should put all your expenses on a credit card so that you can earn points or cash back.

There are tons of different credit and charge cards out there. The main difference between a credit card and a charge card is that a charge card doesn’t let you carry a balance so you MUST pay it off each month.

When deciding which card to get, ask yourselves 2 questions:

1. Do you value points or cash back?

Cash back is easier to calculate, while the exact value of a point is harder to quantify and depends on what kind of point it is. That being said, points can be much more valuable than cash back, especially if you like to travel.

2. If you value points, what kind of points do you want?

There are 4 main categories of points:

  • Credit card issuer points like American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points.
  • Airline miles like Delta SkyMiles, United MileagePlus miles and American AAdvantage miles.
  • Hotel points like Starwood Starpoints, Hilton HHonors Points and Marriott Rewards Points.
  • Amtrak Guest Rewards for train travel.

The credit card issuers have their own proprietary cards that let you earn issuer points for every dollar you spend. They also team up with the airlines, hotels and Amtrak to offer “co-branded” cards that let you earn points for a specific airline or hotel or Amtrak for every dollar you spend.

The magic of points is that you can redeem them for free travel and gift cards – and who doesn’t like that!

Do your research and decide what kind of points are important to you.

Is there such a thing as a joint credit card?

Yes, some card issuers do offer joint credit cards.

This means that when you apply for the card, the card company will consider both of your credit histories when deciding whether to approve your application. It also means you are both liable for the charges on the card.

However, but many of the major issuers – American Express, Chase, Citibank – do not offer a joint card. So, what do you do?

If you want to get a card from one of the major issuers, then the way to have a shared card is to make one of you the primary cardholder and make the other an additional cardholder with rights to manage the account. This may be called an authorized account manager or authorized user. Ask the card company what roles they offer for the secondary cardholder and what kind of account access each role allows.

A primary + secondary cardholder arrangement generally means:

  • Only the primary cardholder’s credit history will be evaluated when applying for the card. If one of you has better credit, then that person should apply to maximize your chance of being approved.
  • Only the primary cardholder is legally liable for the charges on the card. Therefore, there needs to be significant trust before you add a secondary cardholder to your account.
  • Each of you will have your own card with your name on it.
  • You will share one credit line.
  • The credit history of the account will be included in your individual credit reports. This is good because it means you can continue to build your credit history even if you’re not the primary cardholder.
  • In many cases, the authorized account manager / authorized user can call in to customer service with questions and disputes without needing to involve the primary cardholder. This is convenient, but again, there needs to be significant trust between the two of you.
  • The primary cardholder can create an online account to manage the card digitally. Some card issuers will have the authorized account manager / authorized user create their own login from which they can also access this account, but for others card issuers you may need to share one login.

 

Pro life tips:

  • A great resource for choosing a card is The Points Guy site, where you can get very thorough explanations of all the different cards and points programs. They also do a monthly valuation for each points program so that you can see which points are the most valuable.
  • Card issuers often run promotions to incentivize you to get a new card from them. For example, get 50,000 points if you sign up for X card and spend $2,000 in the first 3 months. There are tons of these promotions out there, so make sure that you do research and get one of these offers when you sign up for a new card.
  • As your cash back or points start to accumulate, remember that you should decide together how to best redeem them.

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Step 5: Evaluate Investment Accounts

Couples Invest Together

This section focuses on investments that are SEPARATE FROM your retirement accounts. Investments you may own:

  • Certificates of Deposit (CDs)
  • Stocks
  • Bonds
  • Mutual Funds
  • Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)
  • Commodities
  • Equity Investments in Private Companies
  • Stock Options

1. Be methodical with your planning and start by asking each other two questions:

a. What’s your current approach to investing? Some answers could be:

  • I’ve never had extra money to invest in the stock market or other types of investments.
  • I’d like to invest but don’t know where to start.
  • I invest and my approach is to use an automated service that is globally diversified across different assets.
  • I invest and my approach is to buy mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs).
  • I invest and my approach is to hold a handful of stocks that I research and monitor closely.

b. What are your investment goals? Some answers could be:

  • Build wealth.
  • Diversify where our money is parked.
  • Save up for our kids’ college.

2. Once you know where you both stand on approach and goals, work on your joint investment strategy.

  • Talk to a financial adviser or someone you or parents know who can advise you.
  • Do your own research into different types of investments.
  • Educate yourselves on the risks involved with investing.
  • Take a long term approach, since your money will fluctuate with the ups and downs of the economy.
  • Beware of the Bernie Madoffs of the world and be careful who you entrust with your money.

3. To physically merge your investments, what to do depends on your situation:

a. If NEITHER of you has an investment account…

You can start fresh by setting up one or more new joint accounts, after you’ve done your research.

b. If ONE of you already has one or more investment accounts…

Ask the financial institution where you hold your account(s) if they have a joint account option. If so, ask if you can add your partner’s name to your existing account or if you must open a new joint account and move your money into it. If you have to move money, what you don’t want to do is be forced to sell your investments, unless you want to.

Another option is to add your spouse as a beneficiary to the account, if you aren’t going to create a joint account.

c. If BOTH of you already have one or more investment accounts…

Take it slow and decide over time how you want to handle this. It can get tricky to quickly merge all of your investment accounts. You may need to liquidate some accounts and move the money into others in order to do a true combination where you have everything in one or two places. However, this may not be to your advantage, especially if you have to pay transaction costs for selling and buying, or taxes on the capital gains.

In the short term:

  • Both ask your financial institutions if they have a joint account option. If so, see if you can add your partner’s name to your existing account or create a new joint account where you can move the money seamlessly without having to sell or buy any investments.
  • Alternatively, both add your significant other as a beneficiary to each of your accounts, in case anything happens.

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Step 6: Evaluate Retirement Accounts

If you and your partner have a 401(k), Roth IRA, IRA or other type of retirement account, keep in mind that you can’t merge them into a joint account simply because retirement accounts are structured as individual accounts. That being said, here is what you CAN do:

  • Discuss if and how much you are each contributing to your retirement account(s). If you’re not saving for retirement at all, does your employer offer a 401(k) plan, and will they match the money you put in, up to a certain percentage? If so, you should start using this benefit since your employer will basically give you free money.
  • If you are already saving for retirement, do you both feel like you’re saving enough and do you need to change how much you’re saving in order to be on track to reach your joint goals? Also, look into other plans like an IRA and Roth IRA to see if you qualify. Additionally, if you’re self-employed look into a SEP-IRA.
  • Make each other a beneficiary on your accounts in case something happens.

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Step 7: Evaluate Loyalty Program Accounts

Redeem Points for Travel

Loyalty program points/miles are an asset, even if you can’t put an exact dollar value on them. You can redeem them for travel, gift cards and other fun and useful things. If one or both of you have built up a significant bank of points/miles, you can literally save yourselves hundreds or even thousands of dollars!

As discussed above, your credit card(s) of choice can help you rack up significant point/miles, so discuss which loyalty program(s) are important to you and start building up a bank of point/miles together going forward.

As far as what to do with any loyalty programs where you have already built something up, it depends on your situation:

a. If ONE of you has loyalty accounts…

Ask your loyalty program if it’s possible to add your partner to the account. If not, you can still book travel for your partner even if their name is not on the account.

b. If BOTH of you have loyalty accounts…

If you both have points with United, for example, it can make sense to physically pool them together under one United loyalty account if you want to take a big trip and one of you doesn’t have enough points.

Ask your loyalty programs if they have a joint account option. Most likely, they will tell you to transfer points from one person to the other in order to pool them together.

However, many loyalty programs will charge you to transfer points between accounts, so make sure you know the fees ahead of time. It may not be worth it depending on the cost.

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Step 8: Tackle Each Other’s Debt

Since this guide is about merging all your finances, we’re handling the sensitive topic of taking on each other’s debt. You may not feel that great about agreeing to help pay off your partner’s credit card debt, for example. You may even feel somewhat judgmental that they have this debt. However, if you’re all in, then you’re all in, so you take the good with the less good.

Of course, it’s totally fine not to do a full merge. Do what makes sense for the both of you!

Typically, couples don’t try to add their name to the debt and loan accounts of their spouse. The debts and loans stay in the name of the person who initiated them, and then couples work together to pay it off. The advantage of keeping your name off the debt is that it will never enter your credit history.

Pro life tips:

  • Make a list of all your debts, the amount you owe on each one, the interest rate for each one, and when it must be paid off (if there is a specific term, like 15 years for a student loan).
  • Sort the list from the highest interest rate debt to the lowest interest rate debt. The loans with the highest interest rate should be top priority. Try to pay them off as quickly as possible by paying more than the minimum monthly payment. This could be challenging, especially if you’re not able to save enough extra cash to throw at the debt. But it’s well worth the effort when you’re paying off a crazy high interest rate, like 18%. You should not ignore the other loans, though! Keep making the minimum monthly payments on them.
  • If your loans have extremely low interest rates (like 2.5%, which is possible for some student loans), then paying them off as quickly as possible with all of your excess cash may not be the right answer. If the stock market is on the rise, one strategy can be to invest your excess cash. This way your money can grow at a faster rate then the interest rate on your loan, and you can use some of the gains to pay for your loan. Basically, you can continue to pay off your debt and grow your money at the same time, rather than just using your money to pay off your debt. This is just one strategy, so do your research to figure out how to tackle your debt.
  • Remember that debt is not inherently “bad.” Student loans are an investment in your future, since a degree should ideally help you get a higher paying job. Debt also helps build your credit history. If you responsibly make your debt payments on time each month, you demonstrate to the credit bureaus your ability to handle debt as a creditworthy person.

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Step 9: Decide How To Split Responsibilities

Split Financial Responsibilities

Did your mom pay the bills and did your dad handle the investments? This is how most people from a two parent household describe the way their parents split financial tasks.

Well, guess what! Old school is out. Modern, 21st century thinking is in. There is more than one way to divvy up financial responsibilities in your house!

Basic responsibilities:

  • Track how much you have in each asset and debt account over time.
  • Set a budget.
  • Track expenses against the budget.
  • Check bank account and credit card statements for fraudulent or unexpected charges.
  • Make calls to dispute charges and follow up on refunds.
  • Pay the bills and/or set up automatic payments.
  • Track how investment and retirement accounts are performing.
  • Check loyalty program accounts to make sure they reflect points from recent travel.
  • Check credit reports for mistakes.
  • Track credit scores.
  • Stay on top of expiring funds in Flexible Spending Accounts, Groupons, etc.

How to manage financial responsibilities:

1. Do everything together.

This means you have joint responsibilities for all your tasks. This can be useful when you’re first managing money together. Over time, you’ll likely feel this approach is inefficient.

2. Divide and conquer.

The key is to do what you like or what you are good at – hopefully both! If you geek out on checking your expenses daily on Mint.com, then be the person who tracks expenses. If you love finagling discounts and refunds from customer service reps, then sign up to make calls for disputes and refunds. Decide what you both like to do and where your strengths lie, and divvy up the list that way.

3. Have one person do everything.

This is not a recommended approach for a partnership, but maybe this is what works best for you two.

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Step 10: Establish Regular Check-ins

At your job, you probably have regular meetings with your boss or your team. Regular meetings are a good way to communicate updates or changes, get everyone on the same page, get a pulse check on morale and discuss upcoming milestones.

Managing your money is no different. As a couple, you are a two-person company and you are the managers of your little (or big!) empire.

1. Set up weekly, bi-weekly or monthly check-ins to sit down together and review your money situation.

This is important regardless of how you split up your financial responsibilities but especially needed if you’ve decided that only one of you will manage the money.

If you’re meeting weekly, 20-30 minutes should be enough. If your meeting is once a month, give yourselves an hour.

This feels so serious. Can we liven it up?

Of course! Have a drink, talk over dinner, go to a coffee shop. No one says you have to wear a suit and sit at a conference table!

2. What you should talk about:

Remember the list of financial responsibilities above? That’s a perfect starting point.

  • Overview of all your assets and debts – how much is in each account and how much you have left to pay off.
  • How much you’re spending in major categories and if you’re staying within your budget.
  • Is your budget working for you or do you need to change it.
  • How much you’re saving vs. what you hoped to save.
  • Disputes, refunds, fraud or issues that you resolved or working to resolve.
  • How your investment and retirement accounts are doing.
  • Changes in your credit score and what caused them.
  • Expiring funds or deals that you need to use.

Beyond the day-to-day, there are bigger topics that are just as important:

  • Are you still on the same page for what your financial goals are? For example, saving up for a big trip this year, paying off $10,000 in student loans in 2 years or saving enough to quit your job and start your own business in 3 years.
  • Are you on track to reach your goals?
  • How do you feel about your joint financial situation? Is anything bothering you?

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