Bank accounts are among the most common sources of strife for couples. Should there be a joint account… multiple individual accounts… and how do you decide the amount that each person contributes and how much discretion each person has over spending? Even for couples who don’t generally disagree over spending, having just one checking account is often not the best choice because it is difficult to keep track of the balance. And for couples who tend to disagree over spending — watch out! Having one account just adds fuel to the fire by exposing every bit of spending to both partners.

Solution:Use a joint checking account for truly necessary or shared expenses, such as the mortgage, utility bills, car payments, insurance and basic groceries… and set up a personal checking account for each partner to use for his/her discretionary spending.

Important: Contributions to the joint account must come first. To do this, have all regular income — paychecks, Social Security benefits, pension payments, etc. — deposited into the joint checking account and only later divert some remaining money into individual checking accounts. How to use these accounts…

Joint account. Seek middle-ground compromises when the inevitable differences of opinion arise about which expenses are shared expenses.

Example: A couple agrees that most food bills are a shared expense. But the husband enjoys high-end delicacies, while his wife is just as happy with more affordable fare. This couple might have to agree that certain foods, or a certain percentage of the overall monthly food bill, will be paid for out of the husband’s discretionary account.

Personal accounts. Maintaining these personal accounts cuts down on squabbles about spending by segregating discretionary purchases from shared expenses and perhaps even keeping them private.

Why this helps:A discretionary purchase — whether it’s football memorabilia or antique dolls — often seems frivolous unless you’re the one doing the spending. When these purchases are made from an individual rather than a joint account — with the total amount of the account “preagreed” by both partners — it can head off many disputes.

Individual accounts should be funded with whatever is left over after the joint account bills and the family’s investment plans are fully financed for a given period — monthly works well for most couples. Both individual accounts should be funded with equal amounts to avoid feelings of unfairness.

To maintain harmony, couples need to realize that the funding of both discretionary accounts might have to be reduced or suspended if eitherpartner sustains an unexpected expense or income setback.

KEEPING TABS

When two people spend money out of the same joint account, it is all too easy to bounce a check. For married couples, bounced checks do not just trigger hefty bank fees, they often trigger fights about which partner is to blame.

Accurate record-keeping is key. Spouses need to be vigilant about keeping the checkbook up to date by recording all deposits, checks written and other withdrawals in the checkbook register.

On-line banking can be a big help. Log on to the account at least once a week to make sure that the balance is where it should be and that each purchase has been recorded in the check register. You will have fewer bounced checks, and there will be less finger-pointing if a check does bounce. Still, spouses need to warn their partners when they plan to make large withdrawals from joint accounts and when they notice that the balance is dangerously low.

Couples would be wise to hold meetings once a week or once a month to discuss bank accounts and other financial topics. Aim to treat these sessions like business meetings, with no sarcasm or personal attacks allowed.

It is perfectly reasonable to have one partner take full responsibility for the mechanics of paying the bills and balancing the joint account checkbook. If this is the case, the other partner can take full responsibility for a different chore in order to avoid feelings of unfairness.