Marriage and the sacrament of joint checking

Marriage and the sacrament of joint checking February 7, 2011

Photo by seanmcmenemy, Flickr.
Marriage has the power to make you better or worse as a person, and nothing proves the point as quickly as money.

You can become the very worst version of yourself while looking over bank statements with your spouse. (Been there.) Disagreements and rifts build over issues like overspending, hidden habits, unequal responsibilities, and overwhelming debt. No surprise that financial discord is at the root of many divorces. But what if a bank statement could make you the best version of yourself, particularly in your marriage?

Christian marriage assumes unity and mutuality. The goal is harmony and communion as the couple edifies and sanctifies each other.

Unfortunately, marriage in our culture today often looks more like a union negotiation in which disharmony is assumed from the outset. This is especially so when it comes to economics. Modern marriage looks, as Wendell Berry suggests, like divorce itself:

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.

It doesn’t have to work this way, of course. Following Berry’s lead, imagine instead that the pronoun “ours” trumped the pronoun “mine.” I have come to see that finances can actually bring couples together in pretty powerful ways, particularly as they pool and plan their finances together. Having been divorced and now remarried, what I now know to be true I learned all by accident, God’s grace, and the care of a loving wife.

Megan and I started jointly planning our finances as we saved for our wedding. It was deep-end-of-the-pool stuff. After short inspection, we realized that we had debts and commitments that needed immediate attention.

We started a spreadsheet to list all our debts and built a biweekly budget to track every expense. We learned a lot about priorities, discipline, and sacrifice; that was needful for us both. But we also began to experience a sense of shared vision for the future as we planned and brought our separate lives into alignment.

After we were married, our biweekly budget sessions became a place to discuss our values, our hopes, our ambitions and find agreement. We brought order to our finances, paid off our debts, and, by starting with the one of the hardest subjects, also developed and improved our communication skills. It wasn’t quick or easy—believe me—but it was the best possible thing for our marriage.

I have a picture in mind that perhaps best explains it all. Rather than sitting across from each other, trying to carve up mine and hers, we sit side by side looking at a screen. On that screen there is a spreadsheet which contains our past expenses (now over two years’ worth), a snapshot of our present moment, and projections about our future. We sit together. We face our life together, our finances transformed into a means through which we express the unity of our desires and plans for our family.

It’s much more than joint checking. It’s turned into an icon of harmony, mutuality, and love—in other words, of marriage itself.

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  • You guys are such an example to me!!!

    • Budgeting together has been such a tremendous blessing. It’s like it says in Ecclesiastes: u201cTwo are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.u201d Especially when they share.

  • I love this post—and the example you two have set. I’m proud of you!

    • Thanks. I’m excited about what it’s meant for our marriage. Much of the practical, day-to-day learning came from applying Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. Super helpful.

  • Joel,

    Very helpful post. Thanks for sharing. And thanks for reminding us of what a powerful tool “joint checking” can be for building a strong relationship that will stand the test of time.

    I especially like your reference to sitting “side by side” rather than across the table from each other. I’m preaching thru Philippians right now and it reminds me of Phil. 1:27b, “…striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”

    Well said,


    • Thanks for that reference. Any time we can see ourselves as aligned rather than opposed, we stand to win — especially when it’s around the things of God.

  • Love this post! Everyone needs to read it.

  • I must be very lax religiously.

    I’ve been married for more than 35 years, and my wife and I have never got round to checking each others joints.

  • Great post, Joel. I appreciate your transparency on this subject.

    When my wife and I do pre-marital counseling, we spend a lot of time on this topic, as 80% of divorces occur because of conflict with finances.

    A few years ago, I helped advise a couple on how to get out of $40K of consumer debt as they were getting married. On meager salaries, it took them a whopping 2 years!

    Best of all, they have such a tight teamship in their marriage now.

    For all of you with much debt, know that you could possibly look back on it as something God used to unite your marriage all the closer.

    • Thanks for the real-life perspective. It’s good to hear that this issue is being discussed in premartial counseling. Megan and I sort of fell into it by accident at first and then got more intentional and proactive about it as we grew into the task.

      The best resource for us was Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. Being at Nelson, I’ve worked around or with that brand for several years now. We finally applied the learning, and it is amazing what focused intensity will yield.

      I truly think that approaching our finances in alignment with our spouses can be transformative.

  • Joel,
    I enjoyed your post. There is real wisdom in your comments. As a financial advisor who discusses cash flow with clients, I understand it’s a difficult topic. I also understand that through knowledge can come improvement in this area.

    I often find that many folks are fearful to talk about the topic of budgeting. This is what I really enjoyed about your story. You both enbraced the challenged and worked as a team to accomlish your task….that’s something many couples should learn from.

  • Carrie Starr

    Thanks so much for sharing this! My husband and I are passionate about a common vision for money being an opportunity to bring couples together instead of tearing them apart. This is such an important message!

    • Thanks, Carrie. Megan and I have been so blessed by finding unity around our finances.

  • My wife and I have a joint checking account and it works out well for us. I know some people that primarily have a joint checking account, but the wife also has her own account. For them it helps the wife to have the sense of freedom to have a fund of money that she does not feel she has to budget or ask permission to use. I think this approach is the same as you describe, but it adds another aspect to it that maybe some people need.

    • Great point. The desired outcome here is harmony and alignment. There are many different roads to get there.

  • Joel, what a great post. I’m always moved when writers share their own personal experiences.

    As a financial planner, I can tell you that I often see the yours/mine/ours issues crop up in relationships. The picture you paint is an important one, it’s not the budget that makes things work, it’s the two of you sitting together working on it, that makes things work. The budget isn’t a rigid framework that boxes you in, it’s a solid foundation that allows you two to thrive together.