For Richer, For Poorer: Can Separate Bank Accounts Really Help A Marriage?
Published on 24 May, 2021 | Matt Hodgson
It seems that there are almost as many suggestions as to what makes a happy marriage as there are marriages.
Flick through any lifestyle magazine or newspaper supplement and you’ll find commentators espousing the merits of everything from date nights, regular counselling sessions and even a good row (https://www.itv.com/lorraine/articles/what-is-the-secret-to-a-happy-marriage).
Such recommendations are often very subjective: what brings one couple closer together might drive other husbands and wives further apart.
I was reflecting on that very point while reading a recent article on the personal finance pages of The Times, which swore by the benefits of spouses keeping their bank accounts separate (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/7d40e400-b41b-11eb-9055-64edaa2be8dd?shareToken=a150e2b425614d99f93042fffdc25342).
The writer outlined how she and her husband pooled their finances for common expenses, such as mortgage and bills, but otherwise their personal accounts…well, personal.
For previous generations, the joint account was something of a norm for married couples.
However, greater workplace equality between the sexes and earning power for women has undermined the hoary, old notion that a wife’s place was in the home and men were many households’ breadwinner.
According to briefing documents issued by the House of Commons and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, almost 72 per cent of women had jobs of their own by the end of last year, compared to just over half (57 per cent) in 1975.
That professional momentum has brought at least a degree of financial independence.
As a result, the fortunes – if you pardon the pun – of the joint account have followed those of marriage and divorce themselves.
One recent study claimed that only 42 per cent of Britons currently had a joint account with their partner (https://www.moneysupermarket.com/current-accounts/opening-joint-account-couple/#:~:text=According%20to%20our%20findings%2C%2042,that%20have%20previously%20had%20one.).
If we cast our mind back to 1971, some 404,737 couples married the knot in England and Wales out of a total UK population of 55.7 million.
The latest published data (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2017) shows that in 2017 there were 40 per cent fewer marriages (242,842), even though the country’s population had risen by almost a quarter (68.19 million) over the intervening decades.
Even the reasons for ending a marriage have changed over the years.
Back in 1993, the year which saw a record 165,018 divorces, adultery was cited as the factor for almost one-in-three couples breaking apart. In 2019, it ended less than 10 per cent of marriages.
Unreasonable behaviour has remained steady, though, accounting for just under half of all divorces in England and Wales (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2019).
In order to substantiate a claim of a spouse’s behaviour contributing to the “irretrievable break” of a marriage, petitioners need to provide four or five examples.
As Tini Owens discovered when the Supreme Court ruled against her (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hereford-worcester-44949856), it’s not enough to simply be unhappy.
Many of the divorces which I have dealt with have certainly featured an element of disagreement over finances but it would be fair to say that relatively few marriages are ended because of rows about cash alone.
What is true is that disputes about money are indicative of broader problems. Couples who have issues when it comes to talking about their finances often seem to be unable to communicate effectively about other areas of their relationship too.
That’s not necessarily resolved by keeping separate bank accounts. If anything, not knowing what your other half is up to can actually breed mistrust.
Anecdotally, when spouses discover any misconduct, such as debts, spending sprees or gambling habits – financial cheating, if you will – their reaction can be stronger than if they had been made aware of physical adultery.
Detailing these problems in order to pursue a divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour can cause its own difficulties by building tension between the individual being seen to point the finger and their spouse.
It’s one reason why the Government threw its weight behind the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill which eventually became law last June and will see so-called ‘no-fault’ divorce take effect in the coming months (https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2524).
Whilst changing the law will mean differences in how broken marriages come to a close, it won’t necessarily alter the factors in their demise.
Regardless of whether accounts are joint or separate, I suspect that arguments about household finances will always remain…current.