The Two Shall Become One ... Checkbook

Nov 17, 2009 |Heather Koerner

Joint vs. separate checking. Why don't secular and Christian financial advisors agree?

In the financial world, there seems to be plenty of common ground between Christian advisors and those coming from a secular perspective.

Neither camp would approve much of revolving debt on credit cards. Both would advocate saving for college and retirement, having an emergency fund and, even, giving.

But when it comes to specifics, the divide can widen ... significantly. Take the issue of whether a married couple should have joint checking and savings accounts or whether each spouse should maintain separate, individual accounts.

Look at what some popular secular financial advisers have to say:

  • Suze Orman, host of her own CNBC show, writes on Oprah's web site, "Both of you are to keep separate checking accounts and open a joint account from which you'll pay all shared expenses."
  • "Each partner needs his or her own money," writes David Bach, author of the Finish Rich book series. "Regardless of whether or not you both work, each of you should maintain your own checking and credit card accounts."
  • "If you're part of a couple, maintain separate accounts — yours, mine and ours," writes Glinda Bridgforth in Girl, Get Your Money Straight.

Others take a more "whatever works" approach. Usually, something along the lines of this advice from about.com:

Neither of these methods is right or wrong ... what's right is what works for you as a couple.

But you'll be hard-pressed to find many in Christian financial circles advocating separate accounts or the "whatever works" approach.

  • "Couples should avoid having separate financial anything, including checking accounts," says Crown Financial Ministries.
  • "Separating the finances and splitting the bills is a bad idea," writes Dave Ramsey, popular radio host.
  • Larry Burkett, a respected author, wrote that maintaining separate accounts "makes about as much sense as maintaining separate houses."

Why the disparity? Why are so many secular advisors pro-separate accounts or, at best, neutral, while so many Christian advisors advocate joint accounts?

One study by the Raddon Financial Group showed that 48 percent of married couples had two or more checking accounts in 2005 — up from 39 percent in 2001. So, are Christian financial advisors ignorant or just behind the times? Or, is there something more?

The more I read, the more I tend to think that there is something more.

Specifically, that it's not just about the accounts. It's about what each group believes about marriage — what marriage is and how to make it work well.

For those of us deciding which advice to take, those beliefs are important.

What Marriage Is

For many who advocate separate accounts, "independence" plays a crucial role in their rationale. As one online author put it, the reason for separate accounts is so that "each person retains his or her own autonomy and financial independence."

Consider Suze Orman's advice to a young woman contemplating marriage:

You're perfect. You love this guy, yet you're smart enough to hold on to your identity....
I want you to have both a joint and a separate one [account]. The former ensures that you're protected as a couple; the latter is where you find the certainty that you'll never be dependent on somebody else.

"Never be dependent on somebody else."

And yet, shouldn't a Christian marriage should be marked by dying to our own independence? The Word calls a wife to submit to and respect her husband. It calls a husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.

"Thus," Dr. Albert Mohler writes, "marriage is not merely a bilateral contract, but is a sacred bond."

"Independence decreases," Howard Dayton writes in Money and Marriage God's Way, "interdependence increases."

In fact, you'll find that many Christian advisors will appeal directly to God's design for marriage (Genesis 2 and Matthew 19) when explaining their views on joint accounts.

Crown Ministries writes:

A couple cannot be one if they separate their lives by separating their finances.... No viable marriage can survive a "his or her" relationship for long, because it is totally contrary to God's plan.

Dave Ramsey concurs: "The preacher said, 'And now you are one.'"

Of course, that begs the question: Are secular advisors giving advice specifically for married people? It really struck me as I read their material how often they referred to a "partner" or "being part of a couple" as opposed to a "spouse" or "being married." It seemed that secular advice was tailored to apply to the entire spectrum from cohabitating couples to married couples.

Even when secular advisors do refer specifically to marriage, it's often with a distinctly secular view of marriage: that marriage is a contract or agreement for the purpose of personal fulfillment. Yet, from a biblical point of view, marriage is sacred. It's purpose: to bring glory to God.

Is advice intended for such a wide spectrum, or from a secular perspective on marriage, really ideal for a Christian marriage? It's a good question to ask.

Trust or Not?

Christian financial advisors also contend that separate finances can signal deeper problems or lead to destructive patterns.

Crown Ministries gently warns, "Unwillingness to join all assets and bank accounts after marriage is perhaps a danger signal that unresolved trust issues could still be lingering or developing in the relationship."

One credit union consultant agrees, citing "a growing distrust between men and women on money matters" as one of the reasons driving the increase in separate checking accounts in marriages.

"It may seem helpful to keep separate accounts when one partner has some insecurity, financial or otherwise," Dr. Robert Smith, a pastor and financial counselor told Christianity Today, "However, even then, a separate account only treats the symptom and doesn't confront the real issue involved — trust."

No Secrets

What about money fights? If money is the number one reason for divorce, wouldn't keeping the finances separate decrease that stress and make a divorce less likely?

No, Christian advisors say. In fact, they argue that the exact opposite is true — that developing a "his money/ her money" philosophy usually leads to a "him-versus-her" mentality. As David Brooks writes in the New York Times, "separate accounts can easily turn into secret accounts."

The money, essentially, is a symbol of the two spouse's values and priorities that need to be worked through together. Those issues will still rear their heads in other areas. Separating the money just delays those discussions or, worse, ensures that those discussions never happen. While joint accounts may bring difficult topics to the surface, Christian advisors believe that dealing with these issues is vital for a healthy marriage.

If you have disagreements about money, Dave Ramsey explains, "you are normal. But if this is a real problem area for you, there is also an opportunity to improve your relationship."

No Plan B

Finally, Christian advisors point to the fear of divorce that is such a strong undertow in this discussion.

If I keep my own account and keep my own credit history, seems to be the thought, then I am safer if "something" happens.

But by keeping that one foot outside the door, by refusing to really "cleave" to your spouse financially, you may be doing more to ensure a divorce than protect yourself from one.

Howard Dayton writes in Money and Marriage:

Unfortunately, many people get married with an escape hatch mentality. If their spouse is no longer attractive enough or finances are too tight, they can bail out of the marriage. We need to slam the hatch shut and give ourselves completely to the marriage God has given us.
So, What Now?

The decisions we make about our finances are very important and also intensely personal. As the Word says, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

No two Christian married couples will look exactly alike and each one will have to work out the how, when and why of earning, spending and giving. Some Christian advisors recommend that couples agree on all budgeted purchases, but that each spouse also has some "blow money" for the week. Others recommend a threshold — "I won't buy anything over "x" dollars unless I discuss it with my spouse.

But they all agree that there is a big difference between taking some money out of "our" account for individual wants and taking money out of "my" account for things a couple shares.

As Crown Ministries writes, "God uses money in the lives of any couple to draw them closer together. In contrast, Satan wants to drive a wedge between a husband and wife. Why? In hopes that the resultant turmoil will drive them away from God."

In my marriage, I can attest that money has drawn us closer together.

It's taken a lot of dedicated time, patience and hash-it-out sessions over the budget to get where we are. I don't know if we're "one" in our finances yet, but I know we've gained more compassion for each other, more discipline over ourselves and grown very much of the same mind with money.

And I have to agree with the Christian financial advisors on this one. I don't think we'd be where we are if we had separate accounts.

Dr. Mohler quotes Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, with this wisdom about marriage:

How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in home, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice.... Nothing divides them either in flesh or in spirit.... They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God's church and partake God's banquet, side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other's company; they never bring sorrow to each other's hearts.... Seeing this Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present.

I especially like the line: "Nothing divides them either in flesh or in spirit." As Christians, we have to remember the biblical definition of marriage: oneness. And we have to ask ourselves: Is how we handle our finances going to help to achieve that or not?

Copyright 2009 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved.

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