When today’s young adults do decide to get married, many of them are further along in their careers, with a better sense of who they are and what they contribute to their workplace. One 29-year-old I talked to, a medical resident in San Francisco, told me that for those who believe one’s bank account offers a clear reflection of a person’s work ethic or success, it can be hard to cede control. “It’s about wanting to maintain one’s sense of identity, individuality, and autonomy,” said Fenaba Addo, an assistant professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
When I asked several married Millennial couples why they decided to keep their finances fully or partially separate, one reason came up more than any other: A joint bank account seemed to blur each individual’s financial contributions at a time when women are earning more than they used to. “If we just had a joint account, it would bring an uneasy feeling—a sense of inequality,” said Zack Pasillas, a 26-year-old office worker from Orange County, California. Zack’s wife, Karina, works in customer service at the local water company. She knows that, in the future, she’ll likely make less money than Zack, but that makes her even more eager to keep their finances separate. “When buying him gifts, when picking up the tab at dinner, I like knowing that I am also contributing to this relationship,” she said. “It’s my work—it’s my money.” Another Millennial I talked to worried that, if he and his wife merged bank accounts, their relationship might begin to conform to antiquated gender roles, with the man in charge of all the finances. The concept of a joint account, to him, felt dated.
Through the mid-20th century, the vast majority of married women relied completely on their husband’s salary.* Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in 1974, it was difficult for many women to establish their own line of credit—they had no choice but to depend on joint accounts. Now that the American workforce is 47 percent female, there is a sense that perhaps women shouldn’t so readily put their money in a place where it doesn’t fully belong to them. In a forthcoming study, Pepin asked respondents to select an “income allocation strategy” for a variety of hypothetical couples. When the woman was the primary breadwinner, respondents suggested that she withhold more income than the man in situations when he was the higher-earning partner.
Similarly, many women getting married for the first time nowadays are keenly aware of how easily wives can lose control of their own finances, said Maggie Germano, a women’s financial coach based in Washington, D.C. Many of Germano’s clients grew up in homes where their parents shared a joint account, which meant that their fathers handled all the money.
“In a lot of those cases, the mother of my client ended up in a precarious financial situation because she had no say over what was happening with her finances,” Germano said. “My clients want to make sure they never end up in a situation where they don’t know what is going on.” That perspective, she says, leads many of her married Millennial clients to opt for separate bank accounts. Pepin, when I talked to her about this, added, “Women may have access to money when you pool total household income, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to control.”