Couples Sharing Money

How should couples share their income? Couples with greater relationship investments (e.g., having children together, being legally married) are expected to prioritize their families’ needs over their own economic independence. Further, we might expect such couples to establish more “collectivist money arrangements” (e.g., joint bank accounts). Still, the primary earner in the couple might be expected to withhold more money from a “shared pot,” due to feelings of greater entitlement to economic autonomy. To see how well expectation meets reality, Joanna R. Pepin explores how people reconcile competing cultural values in beliefs about sharing money in families.

Pepin designed a vignette-survey experiment to collect the first nationally representative sample of American adults’ beliefs about income sharing in families. Over 4,000 respondents were asked to read about a fictional couple described in one of 24 possible different vignettes. In each scenario, the couple differed by marital and parental status, relationship duration, and relative earnings. Respondents were asked to select whether the couple should have a “shared account,” “separate accounts,” or “shared and separate accounts.” For those who chose “shared and separate accounts,” respondents were also asked to determine how much money each partner should put in their individual accounts versus a shared account.

Pepin’s findings, reported in the Journal of Marriage and Family, reveal widespread support for collectivist approaches to money within families, with “shared and separate accounts” being the most commonly selected arrangement. A greater proportion of survey respondents favored married couples, compared to cohabiters, fully sharing their income. Parenthood and relationship duration did not garner greater support for fully sharing income among married couples, but they did among cohabitors. When respondents favored “shared and separate accounts,” the primary earner was expected to control a greater amount of the total household income. The preferred level of withholding was larger when primary earners were women. Pooled together in a shared account of family economics, Pepin’s findings underscore the complex interplay of beliefs about money, gender, autonomy, and family.