You Don’t Need a Joint Account, You Need a Joint Spreadsheet

Nothing in the world of couples and money is more divisive than the “should you and your long-term partner share finances, and how” issue.

There’s the “If you don’t have 100% shared finances, are you even really together?” camp, and the “I’ll never share a bank account, ever” camp, and a ton of other camps in between. And for a lot of people, they’re pretty convinced that their camp is the Only Right Camp (which, let’s be real, doesn’t exist in personal finance).

So because I’m all about ~controversy~ these days, I figured I’d share a look into how one engaged couple handles their finances.

Spoiler alert: it’s me and The Fiance.

But the real reason I’m sharing our approach is that it’s equally useful if you share all of your bank accounts, none of your bank accounts, or something in between.

All you really need is a joint spreadsheet.

First of all, who is this for?

This isn’t just a post for couples, by the way. This spreadsheet-based approach is good whenever you’re making joint purchasing decisions with other people.

You could use it to share groceries and bills with a roommate, you could use it with family to fund and plan a family vacation… basically any time you’re collaborating with other people and their money for more than one purchase.

PS. I made a simple version of a spreadsheet to get you started, and you can grab it here. It’s set up for two people, which is most of the time who uses it, but feel free to take it and run with it for multiple people if you’re up for editing!

So, what is this exactly?

No matter how you structure your accounts, if you’re sharing the decision-making power over a pool of money, a joint spreadsheet is an invaluable tool to help keep track of that money and where it’s going. My preferred tool is Google Sheets, since you can access the spreadsheet, and give other people access, directly in your web browser.

And yes, you got me, I’m just using this as another post to convince you to track your spending—but stay with me here.

Let’s say you aren’t up for sharing accounts, but you and your partner (or roommate) decide that between the two of you, you’ll spend $500 on shared food for the month.

If you’ve got a spreadsheet set up, you can track your spending (seriously just do it) every time you buy something you consider part of that budget.

Restocking bananas? Totally goes in the food budget. Getting your nails done? Probably not.

All you have to do is add the transaction to the spreadsheet, including as much or as little detail as you want.

True life confession: one of my line items in our shared spreadsheet, to describe a trip to Sobey’s, literally said “I don’t even remember, probably vegetables”. Still went into the “Groceries” category, still had an accurate number… but my description was a tad vague. Got the job done though.

You’ll both have full visibility

Here’s the thing about sharing spending with one or more other human beings: unless you have some kind of futuristic notification system set up, you probably have no idea how much the other person is spending until the end of the month when it comes time to settle up or check in on the numbers.

Hi, “read your grocery receipts” is actually one of my best real-life ways to save money on food, so you might not even know how much you’ve spent on food in this situation if you’re not paying attention.

If you update a shared Google spreadsheet every few days, both people can easily see how much has already been spent, and on what, this month.

Which will help you do the next thing.

You’ll be able to make better decisions

When you’re planning to go out at the end of the month, or buy someone a gift, or buy a new winter coat, or do a massive Costco run, how often do you know how much money is left in that spending category in your budget?

Hmm? What’s that? Never?

If you’re not tracking your spending, that’s totally normal. Mental math is not easy, and neither is keeping a mental running tally of your spending in every budget category for an entire month (which actually sounds like the Worst Game Ever).

But if you did have that information at the tip of your fingers, let’s say in some kind of shared spreadsheet, you could easily check to see if this is going to be one of those “let’s buy all the things!” Costco trips, or more of a “we are STICKING TO THE LIST” Costco trips.

Both valid and useful Costco trips, but one has much more of a place in a tight end-of-month budget.

You can divide things “fairly”

Oh boy, this is so not where I lay down the law about how you should share expenses—although I’ve always been a fan of the percentage-based system if there’s a sizeable discrepancy in incomes.

What counts as (and what feels like) a fair split of expenses is really, incredibly personal, and should be something you decide with your partner, not with a stranger on the internet (that’s me).

That said, if you’re using a spreadsheet, you can make the math of it a h*ck of a lot easier once you’ve made the choices.

All you have to do is add up who paid for what, and apply the percentages you’ve decided you each want to handle. You can set it up so that the spreadsheet will tally up what each partner already spent, and it’ll give you an exact dollar amount that one of you needs to send to the other to “settle up”—or how much you need to withdraw from your joint account to do the same thing.

(Or you can download the simple tracking spreadsheet I made for you, and all you’ll have to do is update the percentages. Easy peasy.)

Is this exactly what we do with our money?

Yes and no.

Our spreadsheet is the heart and soul of our shared daily finances (and it’s fancy af and The Fiance must really love me because he built us such a great spreadsheet) but we do also have a joint account, a joint budget, and joint savings goals.

The joint account is one we both contribute to, based on our shared budget for the month—which we came up with together. We get paid into our individual accounts, and we also save monthly in separate savings accounts for shared goals, like funding the wedding (which yes, we also budgeted for together).

But if you asked me to rank the importance of each tactic involved in our joint financial lives, the spreadsheet is hands-down at the top of the list.

See, thanks to the spreadsheet, we could get rid of our joint account tomorrow if we wanted to, and all we’d have to do is update a few cells in the spreadsheet, and a few transactions linked to that account.

The decision-making, and the money-allocating, all happens in the spreadsheet, so the other pieces matter a whole lot less.

But the “how” isn’t all that important

The biggest, most important—and hardest—part of sharing finances is always going to be balancing two different people’s wants, needs, and spending habits within a not-unlimited amount of money every month. Not to mention the whole Trust Thing.

The accounts and the tools? Totally secondary.

Keep that in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that your chosen setup is inherently wrong… except me, because you need a spreadsheet, or at least a way to stay on track with your spending. (But realistically, people get a lot more righteous about joint accounts than they do about spreadsheets.)

So while I couldn’t care less how many accounts you share, take this post as just another piece of my lifelong mission to get people to track their spending.

It’s good, and it will help you make better money decisions—either as a duo, or on your own. Do it.