When you’re in a committed relationship, you and your significant other may consider opening a joint account in order to help you manage your money and household budget. Doing so can help you save money, but it can also cause big headaches.

For this reason, merging bank accounts should only be done after the two of you have several thorough and thoughtful conversations.

Open the lines of communication

Stephen Mack, a Certified Financial Planner and president of Mack Investment Securities, Inc., says clear and ongoing communication about finances early in the relationship is paramount to laying the groundwork for a strong marriage. The ideal time to actually merge bank accounts is after marriage, when there is a legal commitment between both partners.

However, Mack says, before you even think about the ring, the wedding, and the honeymoon, you need to talk finances.

Skipping the money discussion early on can lead to significant problems later. Having the conversation up front gives you a deeper understanding of each other’s personal and financial goals, the kind of debts you currently have and are willing to take on in the future, and your individual comfort levels on future spending and saving.

Ask the right questions

Carefully planning for monthly expenses eases the transition from thinking only about oneself to the needs of a whole family. Yet even in the strongest relationships, the process of shifting one’s mindset to consider the other person’s needs—and spending habits—can be tricky.

Mack encourages couples that are considering merging accounts to think about a number of factors before proceeding:

  • Are both partners independent earners, or is one dependent upon the other?
  • If one partner is dependent on the other, are both able to use the income as equals?
  • How does each person feel about debt and savings? If the partners choose to maintain joint investment accounts, with how much potential loss and fear can each live?
  • What is the level of egos in the relationship? Is one person more controlling, and will he or she have trouble giving up some control of the money?
  • Does it seem that one person has a lack of interest in the family’s finances? Does this lack of interest put more pressure on the other?
  • Is one person in the relationship more capable of communicating about and managing money? Can both agree to this arrangement?

Clearly outline responsibilities

Establishing good habits from the beginning can set you and your partner on a path toward success. Mack encourages a team approach, where both partners have an ATM card or checks, and withdrawals are immediately recorded.

Still, there can be mistakes, especially if you rely heavily on online banking instead of recording your spending in a checkbook.

Typically, balancing and tracking falls to one partner, but both you and your significant other should be reviewing and keeping up with your goals (savings for future needs, education, retirement, and so on) on a routine basis.

If you aren’t comfortable merging all of your finances, consider maintaining separate accounts in addition to the joint account. You can designate one of the accounts to pay the mortgage or other specific expenses.

Ideally in this situation both partners will have access to everything, and it’s all about openness and transparency. “No secrets,” Mack says. “Clear, open, and continual dialogue and disclosure is the key to success.”

Elizabeth Abrams is a freelance writer and communications specialist. Throughout her 15 years working in public relations she has secured media placements in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and on CNN, to name a few. In addition to operating her own agency, Elizabeth Abrams Communications LLC, she has contributed to several media outlets including Yahoo! Homes, Chicago Parent Magazine, MOMeo.com and BabbaCo.com. Elizabeth’s writing focuses on information and experiences impacting parents, children and families.