One of the Keys to a Happy Marriage?

Thank you once again, Dan Ariely, for offering advice that I disagree with; it gives me something to write about.

Today a reader asked Dan the following question:

Before we got married four years ago, my husband and I would give each other amazing, thoughtful birthday gifts. After we got married and set up a joint bank account, our birthday presents stopped being exciting or original—and recently, they stopped altogether. Now we just buy things we need and call them gifts. Is this deterioration because of the shared bank account, or is it just the story of marriage?

Here was Dan’s response:

Some of it, of course, is how marriage changes us once we’ve settled down. But the shared bank account is also important here, and that part is simpler to change. In giving a gift, our main motivation is to show that we know someone and care for them. When we use our own money to do this, we are making a sacrifice for the other’s benefit. When we use shared money, this most basic form of caring is eliminated. We are simply using common resources to buy the other person something for common use—which greatly mutes a gift’s capacity to communicate our caring. The simplest step to restore some excitement to your gifts is to set up a small individual account for each of you for your own discretionary spending. The longer, harder discussion is how to get marriages to sustain passion longer.

What I disagree with is the suggestion that when using shared money, that the most basic form of caring is eliminated. My wife and I have had a joint checking account since the day we were married, and that is the only type of account we have ever had. I’ve always felt that that when either one of us either gave each other a gift, it was always a sign that we cared about each other. The thought never entered our mind that we cared less about each other because the money used to buy the gift came from a joint account. If someone thinks like that when they receive a gift from their spouse, I think the marriage has bigger problems than the joint checking account.

There is research to support the value of joint accounts; the more you pool your money, the happier you are with your marriage. The research does show that these effects seem to peter out at some very high level — if you keep 5 percent of your income to yourself in order to have a little bit of discretionary spending, it won’t make you any less happy than you’d be if you pool 100 percent. But people who pool 80 percent are happier than those who pool 70 percent, and so on. People who keep it all to themselves are the least happy.

I realize Ariely has suggested setting up just a small individual account, but small is a hard number to quantify, so why even bother. That small account could start to become bigger, and the negative affects of such an account might start to creep into the marriage.

So to me, the solution is twofold – just have a joint checking account, and put some thought into the presents you buy your spouse.

I’ll admit I haven’t always bought the perfect gift for my wife (there was that book of poetry), but it certainly wasn’t because I didn’t care for her or because we used a joint checking account.

It’s just a sign that sometimes we make irrational decisions, something Dan Ariely knows all too well.

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