Our Marriage Is Happier with Separate Accounts

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Every one of us has had "aha! moments." Epiphanies. Days when we reach a crossroads and realize that we have to make some changes. For the next two months, we're sharing moments like those in our Life Stage Lessons series: Real stories straight from the financial lives of our DailyFinance contributors about times when they realized they were due for a serious course correction. So read on, learn from our mistakes, and get inspired to improve your relationship with your money.

When my husband asks me to share, my subconscious goes into panic mode. Before I can think about it logically, my emotions lead me to believe that I will end up with the short end of the stick. My fear of sharing led me to insist on maintaining separate brokerage, checking and credit card accounts when we got married.

Sharing Cookies and Ice Cream

I remember when my mother would go to the grocery and bring home a box of cookies for me and my brother to share. I would walk home from school dreaming about that delicious chocolate chip cookie waiting for me, only to find an empty box in the pantry. I suppose someone has to eat the last cookie -- but it usually was my brother. After several months of hearing me yell and cry, he got clever: he'd eat all the cookies but one.

My stepfather didn't teach or encourage us to share. I recall one summer after he and my mother divorced, he took me and my brother to Cape Cod with his girlfriend and her children. He'd take us to the Häagen-Dazs shop most nights and instruct each of us four kids to order our own pint of ice cream. When his girlfriend asked why we didn't just buy a few pints and share them, he'd explain that this way there would be no conflicts and everybody could have what they want. After living with my brother, the Cookie Monster, this seemed like a great idea. Why share when you can keep things separate?

Splitting Is Not the Same as Sharing

Before we got married, my husband and I lived together. Instead of renting, we bought a house. Since we made comparable incomes, we decided to split the down payment 50/50 and do the same with household expenses (mortgage payment, insurance, property tax, utilities, dining out and groceries). We set up a joint checking account for this purpose and transferred funds from our personal checking accounts once a month. This arrangement was about all the financial sharing I could tolerate. Since his daughter lived with us half-time, I asked him to throw into the joint account an extra $100 a month.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-I was terrified that marriage meant I would have to share all my money.%There was no discussion about co-mingling investment or personal checking accounts. And since we weren't married, I didn't see any reason why we would have such a discussion. Dan had no desire to be married again. He was divorced and already had a child. But after a few years of having his daughter refer to me as "my dad's girlfriend," Dan's desire for me to take a more active parenting role and our shared desire to be lifelong partners, I decided that it was important for me to upgrade to the role of wife. Dan understood that was important to me so we agreed to get married.

The only problem was that I was terrified that marriage meant I would have to share all my money. As I describe in my book, I spent my 20s and 30s living below my means and moving around the country to secure higher-paying jobs. I also devoted hours every week reading the Wall Street Journal and determining which stocks I would buy with whatever I had saved from my paycheck. I bought fewer clothes, cosmetics, electronics and furniture than my friends, and I put my heart and soul into building a stock portfolio so I could be financially independent and never have to rely on anyone else's money. I treated my stock portfolio like a virtual safety deposit box.

Sharing in the Losses of a Business

My mother's experience with her third husband made my fear of sharing even worse. Before Dan and I got married, I learned my mother was helping to finance her husband's business. David was a slumlord in Pittsburgh, where I had grown up. Every summer when I spoke to my mother on the phone, she would complain of back pain and how exhausted she was from cleaning the units after tenants moved out.

She also was scared that the inheritance she received from her father was getting low since David kept asking her to "invest" in maintenance and upgrades for the properties. Since I had a finance background, I advised my mother to obtain David's financial statements on the properties and I would help her review them. She needed to track how much money she invested each year and the annual return on those investments.

My mother either ignored my advice or was afraid to confront David, but after she died, I concluded her return was negative. My brother and I received an inheritance after her death that was a fraction of what my grandfather had left her when he died. Had she lived a few more years, I have no doubt that she and David would have run out of money.

Under Florida law (the state where my mother and David lived), the surviving spouse is entitled to the home. Even though my mother had made the down payment and there was equity in the house, I thought it was fair that David, as her husband, would be able to keep the home and live there.

I felt that way until a week after the funeral when he called to say he couldn't afford to pay the mortgage and wanted me and Dan to pay it each month. I was stunned. This man wasn't my father and didn't raise me. He had two kids of his own! When I suggested he either get a roommate or sell the home, he became irate. He yelled, "You and Dan are in your 40s earning money from your jobs. I'm 72 years old. What do you want me to do? Become a greeter at Walmart (WMT)?"

A Prenup and Separate Accounts

It's no wonder that when Dan and I got married, I asked him to sign a prenuptial agreement. Luckily he supported the idea. Although in my will I leave most everything to him (with the exception of some assets to my brother and half-brother), while I'm alive we do not co-mingle brokerage, checking or credit card accounts -- with the exception of the joint account for household expenses.

For years I felt ashamed about insisting that we keep separate accounts. Didn't my unwillingness to co-mingle funds show I wasn't truly committed to the marriage? I would read articles like the one Joanna and Johnny wrote and feel bad about myself and my refusal to share everything with my husband.

One evening everything changed and I stopped feeling ashamed. I was home cooking dinner when I heard the garage door open. Due to the unfamiliar sound of the car engine, I momentarily thought that an intruder had entered the garage. I ran down to the garage to see what was happening and saw my husband grinning like a Cheshire cat and standing in front of a shiny black Cadillac CTS-V . I suppose he saw the displeasure on my face because he blurted, "You won't believe the deal I got on this car!"

And that's when I stopped feeling ashamed about keeping separate accounts. This was his money, and he could do want he wanted without getting my approval. Had he used money from the joint account, I would have gone bonkers. Besides, he clearly he had no intention of sharing his purchase with me -– he knows I can't drive a stick shift.
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