LCC Working Paper Series: 2016-30


Yangtao Huang, Francisco Perales and Mark Western

Non-technical Summary

Studying financial arrangements within heterosexual couples provides insights into intra-household family processes. In this paper, we consider an aspect of couples’ financial arrangements that has been largely overlooked in the literature: bank account choices. Joint bank accounts have symbolic meanings involving mutuality, collectivity and trust, whereas separate bank accounts have symbolic meanings of financial autonomy. The choice between joint and separate bank accounts also has important substantive implications on whether and how different partners within a couple can access money. Individuals who rely exclusively on joint accounts, but whose partners have also separate accounts, may find themselves particularly disadvantaged. This imbalance can become the root of power differentials within the couple, and a potential source of tension and conflict.

In this paper we examine the patterns, dynamics and predictors of bank account arrangements in contemporary Australia, using household panel data stretching from 2002 to 2014. We contribute to the existing literature by (i) systematically assessing how economic, life-course, and socio-cultural factors determine couples’ bank account choices, using relevant information from both couple members; (ii) examining couples’ bank account choices as they evolve over time; and (iii) providing first-time evidence for the Australian context that complements the limited international evidence available.

Heterosexual couples in Australia tend to favour mixed banking strategies; that is, they often hold joint and separate bank accounts at the same time. The most prevalent scenario involves the exclusive use of a joint bank account, but alternative ‘separate but equal’ models are on the rise. These involve both the male and female partners holding separate accounts in addition or instead of a joint account. We also find that, as for other countries, couple’s bank account choices in contemporary Australia are reflective of partners’ socio-demographic characteristics (e.g. age, marital status, employment status, education, and ethnicity). In addition, we provide new evidence that such choices are also contingent on other economic, life-course, socio-cultural and intergenerational factors. For example, joint bank accounts are associated with egalitarian contributions to household income, more dependent children, less complicated relationship history, longer relationships, traditional gender ideology, and coming from a traditional family background. Conversely, separate bank account arrangements are associated with unequal income contributions to the household, fewer dependent children, remarriage/re-partnership, short relationship duration, egalitarian gender attitudes, high parental socioeconomic status, and a non-traditional family background.

Our results indicate that examining the predictors of bank account choices constitutes a novel and insightful way to further probe into the gendering of every-day life family processes. Our findings also have important implications for gender equality in financial arrangements within Australian couples and on the financial emancipation of partnered women.


December 21, 2016