We were sitting in our tiny studio apartment discussing our plans for the next day when he popped the question.
"Why don't we just join accounts?" my boyfriend asked when I said I needed to open a bank account. I had recently moved to Australia with him and just started my first job there.
I froze. I focused on maintaining a neutral face, but inside I was screaming, "Absolutely not."
We were hardly a new relationship. We’d been together about a year and had been living together for 11 months. I was American, he was Australian, and we met in the U.K., where he was visiting family and I was studying abroad for one short semester. We had to decide very quickly whether we were willing to get serious, and we said yes, fast. Neither of us had hesitated to move in together — in Australia — after about a month of dating. I moved to the other side of the world to be with him, and he had agreed to return the favor when my Australian visa ran out. I knew I would marry him.
From the beginning of our relationship, we had shared money freely. We met while we were, like most twentysomething travelers, broke. If he had money one week, he would buy groceries. If I had a positive balance, then I would refill both of our Oyster cards so that we could ride the London Underground. There was no splitting the bill and no keeping track of expenditures. We simply shared. And yet the idea of sharing a bank account bathed me in panic.
"What if we break up?" I asked, grabbing the first logical concern that might explain my reaction.
"If we broke up, I would never leave you stranded," he said, his hurt feelings evident.
We ended the conversation, but there was a tension between us that money had never caused. The next day, I stewed while I was at work. I hated the idea of joining accounts, but even more, I hated the fact that I couldn't put my finger on why. I trusted him completely, and I had already sacrificed a lot more than my solo bank account in order to make our life together work.
Was it social pressure telling me that strong, independent women in the 21st century should maintain control over their own money? Part of me felt obligated to keep my own account because women had fought so long and hard for the right to financial independence. My grandmother and countless other women never would have had the option to do so.
And yet, hadn’t women just been fighting for the ability to choose what was best for them? What if joining accounts was the best decision for me? We already shared all our money, so having only one account to maintain would be simple. Plus it would look good on our immigration application when it was time to pursue permanent residency for my boyfriend in the United States, proving we were a real couple.
But I still hesitated.
Was it an issue of control? I knew I had nothing to fear because there was no doubt I’d be the main financial planner in our household. Plus, both of us were young and just starting out financially, so we weren’t about to merge huge savings accounts or retirement funds.
I let my mind wander back to my childhood. I was raised poor, which led me to hold tightly to money. When I was growing up, there was never enough money to go around, and because of that, finances took on extra emotional significance. My parents disagreed about how to spend their limited resources; ultimately, my father spent based on what he decided was most important. My mother, struggling to gain control, would sneak five-dollar bills into a secret stash tucked away in a kitchen vase and distribute the funds when my siblings needed money for a class trip, or when I had to buy books for school.
On the other hand, my boyfriend grew up with a relaxed attitude toward money, and the differences were clear. He did not attach emotional baggage to a bank account the way I did.
I didn't want money to have this kind of power over me. I had already begun working hard to fight against repeating my parents’ financial mistakes and to distance myself from the emotional triggers of growing up poor. If I felt financial anxiety coming on, I confronted it immediately by checking my account balance, arranging late payments on a loan if necessary, or otherwise taking control of the situation.
I realized that was what I needed to do when it came to joining accounts: take inventory of my emotions and take control of the situation. It became clear to me that joining accounts made the most sense rationally, and that my hesitation came because the idea was dredging up something from my past — an emotional reaction that I was already working hard to move beyond.
I wanted to make a decision based on what made our lives easiest, and what was best for us. I didn’t want to let my past experiences with money stand in the way of what I envisioned for my — and our — financial future. I wanted to join accounts. And we did just that a week after our first conversation. Instead of adding my name to his existing account, we opened a completely new account together so we would be equal partners moving forward.
When he asked me to marry him a few months later, I said yes instantly.
Looking back five years later, I still find it amazing that it took me longer to commit to officially joining finances with my husband than it did to merging the rest of our lives. Today we have bank accounts, car loans, and a mortgage in both our names. Having one account makes it easier to understand where we are financially, to pay our bills, and to plan for our future.
Since confronting my fears about sharing financial responsibility with someone else, I’ve never second-guessed my decision to join accounts. Rather than pulling us apart, it’s let us work together as a financial team to accomplish our goals. It simply works for us, just like sharing money had worked for us all along.