On Joint Accounts and Cappuccinos

Photo credit: May Wong, CC BY 2.0.

The first time it came up was at the grocery store. I swiped my new debit card for the joint checking account my fiancé Eric and I had just established. “I’ll pay for these. Well, I guess we’ll pay for them. Since it’s all our money. Together.”

“Are you okay?” Eric asked, thankfully putting a stop to my rambling.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Totally fine.”

A year and a half before we got married, Eric and I set up our first primary joint checking account. We initiated direct deposits for our paychecks and officially pooled our money. After reading wedding blogs for the previous year about all sorts of relationship milestones—signing leases together! choosing a couch!—I had expected the joint checking account to be an extra mini-milestone on the practical side of getting married, a sort of “look how we’re merging our lives!” type thing.

Instead, I kind of freaked out.

As the youngest sibling, I’d grown up with my older sisters and brother treating me to ice cream or movies. I looked forward to my opportunity to be equally generous as soon as I could afford to be. Once I got there, it was different than I expected. Though I worked during high school and college, I only received my first full-time paychecks around the time Eric and I set up our shared account. As I started feeling more secure in my own earning power, my financial choices no longer felt like my own. I realize this is the point of merging finances, but it didn’t sink in until after our debit cards were linked to a shared pile of cash.

When we had separate accounts, if Eric and I went out for coffee, I could say, “Oh, I’ve got this,” and treat him to his cappuccino. After merging our finances, if I took a friend to dinner, I felt like Eric and I were covering the bill together whether he joined us or not. If a server brought Eric the check, I didn’t offer my card—after all, the money would come from the same account regardless. I felt like I’d lost one of my go-to methods for showing affection.

Buying Eric a birthday present felt less like an opportunity to give a gift than a balance between “I want to be generous” and “You can see exactly how much I spent on you.” Deciding on a gift was a calculation—would the value of the gift itself be outweighed if the cost was more than Eric might want? “Thanks for the great dinner and board game, but I wish we had put the money towards flights for vacation.”

Clear expectations around everything from Christmas presents to what constitutes overpaying for yogurt became essential. I hadn’t realized how bad I was at communicating about money until the joint account forced me to improve. All of us have our various romantic notions about relationships, but merging finances was one of my first introductions to what a partnership can mean in a practical sense. We decide our financial values and goals for the future we want to build together.

With our funds pooled, I also had to rethink generosity within our relationship. I had to discover how to show appreciation and affection to my partner without making a financial transaction—cooking a favorite dinner, for example, or pointing out cute dogs on walks. I also learned that sometimes a treat still feels like a treat even when it comes from a shared bank account. I can still go to the coffee shop and bring Eric an unexpected cappuccino. The cappuccino, not the receipt, is the important part.

Laura Chanoux lives in Michigan. Her writing has appeared in The Belladonna Comedy and Chicago Literati.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Money and Relationships series.

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