Why are we all so afraid of shared bank accounts?

The intersection of feminism and finances can be murky.

Some women think that everything should be split evenly. Others like to be taken for dinner every now and then. Most women are just sick of always being the one to buy toilet paper.

To be realistic, there’s no single way to be a feminist, and therefore there is no single way to manage you and your partner’s finances as a feminist. But one thing that has certainly been slapped with the ‘anti-feminist’ tag is sharing a bank account. Why?

This week, The Age published an piece on shared bank accounts that has caused quite a stir. The article by Polly Dunning, When having separate bank accounts is the opposite of independence, discusses the unfair split of expenses when a couple do not share an account. Women, says Dunning, invariably end up having to save their ‘pocket money’ from their husbands in order to buy personal items like clothes, gym, or coffee dates.

“Just last week Vanessa* posted in one of these mum groups about her ingenious ways of saving money on the weekly grocery shop,”” writes Dunning, “so she could “keep it for a rainy day and spend it on little luxuries for myself like a cup of coffee and piece of cake!”

“Vanessa’s husband transfers $200 each week into the joint account to be used on food shopping for their family of five.”

The article hit a nerve. Some people thought that Vanessa should have to save for ‘frivolous’ items, because it wasn’t her money. Others were furious, because as a full time mother Vanessa had no other income stream. The term ‘pocket money wife’ was tossed around, as both an insult and a compliment.

A woman confessed to keeping a little of the grocery money on the side without her husband knowing (Image: iStock)

The Age article has been shared among my friends over and again, with some in staunch support of sharing their money, whilst others are sure that it causes nothing but arguments. Everyone had an opinion.

Just as feminism comes in many forms, so do relationships. There is no blanket rule to what will and will not work for you and your partner - and that goes for everything from who buys the groceries to who feeds the baby at 3am. But is it fair to expect the woman to scrimp and save just to carve out her own independence?

Life as two, fully-employed adults is very different to life as a family with a stay-at-home-mum. Therefore, the dynamics of a shared bank account should be approached differently.

As a young defacto couple living together, money can be an awkward topic. Opting for a ‘your round, my round’ approach to household necessities like groceries can create a massive rift between a couple. It never feels equal. What, your loaf of home-brand bread and half-litre of milk is meant to rival the $70 I just spent on ingredients for tonight’s roast lamb? Uh, no thanks.

This is where a shared bank account becomes practical. By both contributing to a ‘kitty’ each week, the politics of who paid for what is removed. It forces you to have conversations about spending and saving - something that you want to do long before mortgages or kids come into the picture.

For Bianca*, money was a dirty subject that she and her partner went out of their way to avoid in their 20’s.

“It was the first time living with a partner for both of us,” says Bianca, “and we were both so excited that money didn’t really come into the picture. But in time, I felt like I was paying for everything, and it caused a huge amount of tension as he hated speaking about money.”

Bianca says that as the female in the house, she was more conscious of buying items like washing powder, or groceries, or shampoo. Little costs, she said, that added up when she was buying for two instead of one.

But for other couples, the ability to split costs was more straightforward.

“When we first moved in together at about 6 months, it was into his place so he was paying mortgage, and I was paying outgoings,” says Lucy*.

“So we started out sharing really well - then we bought a unit, and opened a bank account together. If we had a little money left over from that it was ours. It made it easy because there was no question over who was paying for dinner or the groceries or whatever.”

getting a mortgage
"For some couples, the ability to split costs was more straightforward." (image: iStock)

Indeed, the couples I spoke with who were tied together with children, marriage, or a mortgage seemed much more open to the idea of shared bank account than couples who were yet to commit.

Jason* and Kate* were dating for two years before getting married. From the start, his higher earning capacity meant that she was given an allowance into a separate bank account to manage household costs including groceries and kid’s clothing.

So whilst they effectively ‘share’ an account - in that she doesn’t earn an income - their spending is kept very separate. He handles bills, mortgage, and school fees; she takes care of the household.

“We worked out a couple of years ago (under advice of financial planner) it's much better to keep things separate so I know what I have for the month and can budget accordingly,” says Lucy.

“I spend much less and more thoughtfully now that it's out of 'my money' than I used to - which is better overall for everyone! I guess it's the modern version of 'housekeeping money' but I don't feel in any way constrained or oppressed. To be honest, I have more disposable / leisure money than my husband.”

Many imagine the ideal arrangement to be separate bank accounts and separate income streams. Joint costs such as bills would be divided as per income. Fair’s fair, right? And no one would feel like their spending habits were under scrutiny.

However, secrecy in finances can be like a thorn in your side. Suspicions arise. How much are they really earning? Why does it feel like you’re constantly paying for groceries? Why did they bulk at the water bill like that? Honesty and transparency are the only way when it comes to money.

"No one would feel like their spending habits were under scrutiny." (Image: iStock)

Scott Pape, author of Barefoot Investor says that the best way to bring money talk into your life as a couple is at a monthly date night. Wait, what?

“You and your partner are going to get dressed up, go out to dinner and put in place the Barefoot Steps [of financial planning],” says Pape, “and actually do them: set up the accounts, have the conversations while you munch on garlic bread and have a glass of wine.”

By carving out a regular time to talk money, says Pape, you start to break down the awkwardness about spending habits, and start to put rules and goals in place for your money. Do this, and a shared account will start to feel a whole lot safer.

As a young couple sharing a home, this should also mean sharing a bank account. You’re not just sharing a living space, you’re sharing how and when you spend your money.

Teaming up and doing it together will bring forth a conversation that you would inevitably have to have further down the track. And don’t forget - you can absolutely still have your own bank account for personal use!

As for married couples, or couples sharing children, a shared bank account is about making sure both parties are able to feel free and comfortable in their spending, regardless who is earning the income.

Being a ‘pocket money wife’ may spell out an anti-feminist sentiment to some women, but when you consider the hours committed to unpaid labour around the home, it starts to make a lot of sense.

Shared bank accounts. What are you so afraid of?