Are couples happier if they merge their finances or keep them separate?

A recent study suggests couples with joint bank accounts tend to be more satisfied with marriage—and think their relationship with their spouse is relatively good versus relatively bad—compared with couples who keep their finances separate. Such couples also are more in sync with each other on money issues and more likely to respond to each other’s needs without expecting reciprocity, the study found.

“Money is one of the main reasons couples argue, but having joint accounts may actually help improve the quality of many couples’ relationship,” says Jenny Olson, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and one of the co-authors of the study.

The researchers conducted a two-year experiment with about 230 newlywed or engaged couples. At the outset, all participants had separate bank accounts. The researchers then divided couples into three groups: one group was asked to keep separate accounts, a second was asked to merge money into joint accounts, and a third could structure accounts as they saw fit. (Most couples in the third group chose to keep their accounts separate throughout the study.) 

The three groups then participated in a series of surveys, answering questions at the beginning of the study and then three, six, nine, 12 and 24 months later.

To assess couples’ relationship quality, one part of the survey asked participants to rate on a five-point scale the truth of a statement like: “My relationship with my partner makes me happy.” Couples also were asked questions about how well they handled conflict, such as how often they shouted or yelled at their partner. Lastly, couples addressed statements about how well they interacted daily with each other.

At the end of the two-year period, couples with merged accounts felt like their relationships were better compared with couples with separate accounts. The relationship-quality and satisfaction score for couples with joint accounts increased by about 6% over the survey’s two-year period. Scores from the group assigned separate accounts and the group where couples were left to their own devices both declined over the same period—by about 8% and 13%, respectively. 

“The first two years of marriage are often called the connubial crucible, and relationship quality tends to decline over this period,” says Olson, so the fact that relationship quality for couples in the joint-account group increased slightly is significant.

In another part of the survey, the researchers asked questions about financial harmony, including: “When it comes to our finances, my partner and I see eye to eye,” and “My partner is satisfied with my attitudes toward money,” and “Money is a constant source of conflict with my partner.” Couples with joint accounts also tended to have higher scores on these types of questions.

The authors found that financial harmony likely improved participants’ relationship quality, says Olson, noting that higher scores on the financial-harmony questions predicted which couples would also score highly on relationship-quality questions about 75% of the time.

The researchers then took things a step further and ran a separate survey of 507 people who had been married for 15 years on average. Participants answered questions about keeping their finances separate, together or in some combination.

They were asked the same questions as the others about financial harmony. They also were asked different questions about financial-goal alignment to better understand if joint accounts actually help couples get on the same page financially. Lastly, the survey contained questions designed to determine “communal-norm adherence”—that is, if spouses responded to each other’s needs without expectations of reciprocity. For instance, did a spouse volunteer to do the dishes because their partner was exhausted or because it was their turn since their partner cleaned them the night before?

The authors found that couples who had merged finances scored about 29% higher on the communal-norm adherence questions than couples with separate accounts. Couples with merged accounts also scored about 43% higher on the financial-alignment questions.

“It’s likely that people with joint bank accounts had to be more transparent about how they spent money,” says Olson, “and that made them feel more aligned financially and better about the quality of their relationship.”