Money generally remains, in the collective ideal, attached to the theme of love. However, as the poet Charles Baudelaire noted:
“It is unfortunately quite true that without free time and money, love can only be an orgy or the fulfillment of a marital duty.”
Managing a couple’s finances seems to be a sensitive topic, perhaps because it’s an aspect directly related to intimacy. According to sociologist Jeanine Mousse Lavaeau, in France “money is more taboo than sex”.
In our work, we wanted to address this black box of spouse decision-making by identifying influencing factors that explain the ways in which spouses function in terms of financial management. The topic is far from anecdotal insofar as disputes over money often surface between spouses, which can lead to separation and divorce.
Freedom, Equality and Fraternity
A couple’s financial management actually influences various day-to-day decisions regarding money such as savings, investments, and current expenses. From the first meeting of the spouses, rules begin to be laid down between the two partners who will lay the first stones in building the relationship: is the bill joint or is it paid by one of them? Then, the procedures put in place since the first cohabitation shape the couple’s way of managing money, which happens over time.
An important aspect concerns the choice of method of organizing bank accounts. According to INSEE, only about 3 out of 5 couples choose to operate the joint account, and therefore accept to share all cash flows within the household. Among the many couples who reject this method of working together in terms of money, about half use separate accounts, while the other half choose a mixed mode that combines individual accounts with a joint account. But what drives couples to prefer one organization over another?
In an ongoing study, we show that the way couples organize their bank accounts and expenses is a reflection of their perception of a romantic relationship. The motives of individuals in connection with their choice of money management, echoing the motto of the French Republic, can be translated by the triptych “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.
Often couples who choose a joint arithmetic are in the logic of combinatorial idealism and refuse to adopt an arithmetic logic in their relationship with their partner. Thus, one respondent explained:
“When we got together, we decided to think everything together, share everything and not start counting every penny. For me, loving each other means sharing everything, including money!”
Couples who choose single accounts generally strive to maintain their financial independence, give themselves a certain amount of autonomy in decision-making, and reduce difficulties in the event of a future separation. On this latter topic, one respondent said:
“My personal account allows me to think about myself, make purchases that I like and my partner doesn’t necessarily like. Then finally, not arguing with a yes or no for the smallest thing I want.”
Thus, the approved bank account management method reflects the values that characterize each couple. Individual accounts are often associated with notions of independence and freedom, while joint accounts are linked to a search for solidarity and participation, echoing brotherhood. Finally, the pursuit of equality leads to a proportional distribution of expenditures, by integrating income inequalities.
“Non-financial manager” is more exposed
Spousal decision-making regarding financial management may reflect the exercise of power relations between spouses and generate feelings of dissatisfaction. Many respondents evoked a sense of injustice or a system imposed by their spouses that did not suit them.
Surprisingly, the method of financial management changes relatively little over time within the spouses, even if one of the partners explicitly requests it. This tendency can be explained by the difficulty of questioning the initial contract, implicitly or formally discussed between spouses. As a result, partners must ensure that their views are taken into account financially from the early stages of their romance.
Formal exchanges between spouses, aimed at observing each other’s values and finding mutually beneficial common ground, seem to be an indispensable condition for a balanced relationship.
A better understanding of how couples organize around money can help suggest solutions aimed at improving well-being, supporting aging well, and strengthening individual skills in financial management for the most vulnerable partners.During difficult times (spouse illness or death, unemployment, divorce, etc.).
With regard to this last subject, the ‘non-financial manager’ of the family, i.e. the partner who prefers to offload decisions about money to his wife, will be especially exposed during these stages of life. Specialized wealth management companies, such as Quintésens, also offer spouses an opportunity to analyze their financial situation in order to determine the most appropriate support solution to prepare for retirement and protect a surviving spouse. The banking industry, like Fortuneo, also provides personalized savings advice for two people based on marital status.
The management of a spouse’s finances can also be characterized by financial infidelity, when one of the partners voluntarily conceals financial information from the spouse. If this aspect is associated with risky behaviour, such as gambling, for example, it seems important to suggest concomitant organizational solutions to prevent the family from finding itself in a financially sensitive situation that is detrimental to the well-being of the partners. Accordingly, legal emergency measures, at the request of one of the spouses, such as a ban on emptying a bank account, remain possible.
Understanding the different forms of practical regulation of French couples also helps fuel public debate about social policies. The debate over decoupling the Allowance for Adults with Disabilities (AAH) in the National Assembly in the fall of 2021 is a stark example of this. A member of the Social Affairs Committee, referring to a perception of the couple as a total pool of resources, explained it as follows:
“We believe that the individualization of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq would call into question our entire socio-financial system that is based on familial, marital and national solidarity.”
However, taking into account the heterogeneity of financial management styles by spouses appears to be essential to support them in a realistic and relevant manner over time and according to different potential life challenges.