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Redesign A Joint Bank Account, Save A Marriage

Smart Design’s Kathy Cheng identifies four ways banks can encourage couples to talk about the prickly issues of money.

We hear again and again that conflict over money is the number one cause of divorce. It’s such a difficult topic to navigate that social psychologist Terri Orbuch found in her research that six out of 10 divorced individuals chose not to combine finances in their next relationship. Could better designed financial services prevent couples from fighting over money?

To find out, Smart Design took a peek into why money is such a huge point of contention in relationships. Specifically, we looked at the joint bank account—the silent third party in couples’ disputes over money—and the role banks play in this very personal part of our lives.

As part of our initial design research, my colleague George Stafford and I went "bank shopping" as a pretend couple in a long-term relationship. We went to Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Capital One. Then, later the same week, we revisited one of the banks. We laid our IDs and ATM cards on the desk and warily punched new PINs into a keyboard. A few signatures and clicks of the mouse later, we had a joint bank account and a common pool of $300.

Going through this initial process as a design research exercise was revealing. At times it was quite personal and other times unexpectedly sterile. Along the way, we made note of a few simple ways banks could improve the joint-account sign-up experience for couples. Real couples, that is.

1. Make the materials beautiful

When all of our money is digital, the plastic cards in our wallets are the symbolic artifacts of our wealth. For joint accounts, you could say ATM cards are the equivalent of wedding bands. George and I walked out of the bank disappointed at how generic and impersonal our new ATM cards were—they didn’t even have our names on them. And we left carrying a folder of papers about the terms, conditions, and fees of our account that was in painfully small type. Elevating the design and delivery of these basic items, along the lines of what Simple did with their ATM card welcome packet, would make the shared experience feel more tangible, accessible, and meaningful.

2. Gamify the online experience

The new joint account appeared in our personal online accounts right away. But strangely, there wasn’t a welcome message like, "Looks like you just opened a new account with George Stafford!" For couples who open their joint account online instead of going into the branch, the experience is even more generic. All that’s involved is filling out an application for an individual account and tacking on a second name. Imagine if couples first completed an OkCupid-type questionnaire that let them exchange their habits and hang-ups. This would be a fun and nonthreatening way to promote transparency and talk about differences of opinions before problems arise.

3. Establish a thoughtful onboarding experience

Yes, opening a joint account is a significant milestone in a relationship, but it’s only the beginning. Our hypothesis is that couples can adopt good and bad financial behaviors during the first six months after the account is opened. Right now, couples walk out of the bank and they’re left to solve their own money disputes. But if banks hosted an onboarding period that gives couples access to resources like financial planners and weekly content like money tips, it would invite couples to talk regularly about their finances. Most important, it would establish healthy money habits that’ll kick into gear during big life changes—for instance, when kids come into the picture.

4. Create a couples-only rewards program

Since the interest rate on our account is an unproductive 0.01%, George and I assumed we might benefit from other rewards. Maybe stuff with a cute couples spin, like "buy one get one free" offers. But that wasn’t the case. There are no rewards at all for maintaining a joint account, and sadly, we even have to split the number of free monthly ATM withdrawals between us. When we asked our banker about a shared rewards program for couples, he replied, "That’s an interesting idea. Someone should do that." We completely agree.

Should banks take a chance on love?

This quick design research exercise made us wonder if the business goals of a bank could overlap with the personal goals of its customers. We definitely believe so. When a couple breaks up and closes their joint account, the bank loses those customers. However, if the joint account is considered a service experience, it could result in stronger brand differentiation, customer loyalty, and a long-term, trickle-up effect to bigger products like mortgages. This is a challenge neither Mint nor Simple have taken on yet.

While most of the innovation in the financial services area is focused on new technologies such as mobile payments and e-wallets, the truth is money will always be a deeply personal topic. If we can design financial experiences to influence people’s attitudes and behaviors for the better, then maybe—just maybe—we’ll see fewer couples breaking up over money.

Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design (Illustration)
[IMAGE: Torn Money via Shutterstock]

Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design (Illustration)

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  • Guest Poster

    Sorry, but what these two did was not research. In fact, they committed the first sin of design research: projecting your own biases onto the project. They surveyed some banks and developed solutions for themselves. Are those solutions what most people would want? Who knows, it seems they didn't try to find out.

    Ok, I understand that this article was just meant for entertainment purposes, but really, this much fluff?

    By the way, if your marriage is in trouble because of finances, the best thing you can do is establish individual accounts apart from the joint.You each get to put equal amounts into your accounts each month and you can spend it as you please. Saves a lot of heartache.

  • Anonymouse

     I agree. Having been through two divorces, one triggered by money, the other seriously complicated by money, this does absolutely nothing to address the real concerns, which is how to discuss boundaries with shared money.

    Much more useful would be simply to sign up for Mint and set up the budget together, and then bucket money like the "envelopes" concept. Then, you mitigate the squabbles over "you spent my money!"

  • Pete Iorns

    While I like the idea of a difference-indentifying questionaire for dual account holders when they are a couple, the last thing I want from my financial institution is a pervading cuteness. Unless it's for childrens accounts. The suggestion to "Gamify" the experience of bank interaction is just ludicrous for anyone over 13yo.

    And why on earth should anyone be rewarded for utilising a joint account? Some sort of rewards (interest rate point increase, fee rebates)  are a great idea for incentivising financial education but it's nonsense to suggest it be geared to couples only. In fact if anything, individual education is far more important. Couples don't have a monopoly on financial illiteracy. A couple is fundamentally made from 2 individuals, and the basis for the relationship starts from the inside.

    The perception that couples have more issues maybe comes from the fact that when it happens couples make more noise about it. The impact is shared and there's always the opportunity to lay the blame rather than resolve. Lay the blame on someone else.

    If a couple is having issues - they're having issues. Money is simply an area that the issues see light in a cold, hard way. It's not necessarily where the blame or problem lies, it's just that you can't brush it under a rug. It's a powerful signifier.

  • Pamela Trounstine

    I don't want any of that crap. I want, as an equal member of a joint account, to be treated as such. Joint accounts should not have primary and secondaries, and I should not have to spout off my spouse's social security number, MINE should be just as valid for example. I want the same login and online access. The only thing I get right now, and I am at a credit union which is better than na bank, is my own PIN for my ATM card.

  • C.

    Oh boy! What a load of crap! Everything has to be entertaining and everything has to be so centered towards you and your happiness. Unfortunately, that's the way of Gen-Y!

    Having a shared account makes financial sense of course and is in many ways a way to keep the peace in a couple but come on. While would the bank care about special reward for couple? If they cared, don't you think they would simply raise the rate from 0.01% to 0.02% and give you a 100% increase without costing much of anything to them. Do you really believe that your banker cares? He is only interested in capturing as much of your revenue as possible since that's what they are paid off. So off course all your ideas will be great!

  • Cameron

    No need for contrived designs to promote better relationships. Be a team, share an account. The simplicity is its own reward. If someone's honest with themselves, the reason they wouldn't want to do this is because they aren't willing to sacrifice too much for the relationship and/or they want stuff they can't afford yet.

    Just as with design, you can't cheat the process (of money management as a team in a relationship). Avoiding it is not the solution.

  • Rachelle503

    This is an interesting idea. Last year I was a bartender at a campus bar and this couple would come in every Thursday and the card for their bank card had their wedding picture on it. Unfortunately I cannot remember the name of the bank.

  • C.

    a lot of banks are allowing to customize your credit card. Wells Fargo is one of them...

  • Agodinez80

    I think only having a joint account for monthly bills is the smart way to go and then each person having their own checking account for personal expenditures. Lumping all of your income into one account is what causes frustration because it's hard to manage what each one is spending.

  • guest

    Banking is a highly regulated industry.  Providing special benefits to joint account
    holders could be considered discriminatory.  A joint bank account is a legal agreement
    between two parties and has nothing to do with love or marriage.

  • Amy

    But surely going by that logic, anyone can apply for a joint account if they want the benefits - whether they're in a romantic relationship or not (as also proved in the article). So I could join up with a friend, family member? So... not discriminatory?

  • Christophe Franco

    Something's bugging me... Why do you need a joint account for ?

    My wife and I are have been in a long term relationship since 2004, got married in 2005, but it wasn't until 2008 that we opened a joint account - and only because the bank required the payments for the loan it had granted us for buying our home, to be withdrawn from a joint account. 

    So we have that joint account sitting there, where we put money each month just before the loan payment is taken by the bank, and that's all. No other use, we don't even have ATM carts on that account, only checks (and money transfers through the bank website of course).

  • Kindersk

    We find it really useful – we each put in a certain amount each month, and use the joint account to pay rent and bills, to buy shopping, to book holidays... all sorts. It saves owing each other money all the time.

    It's not for everyone but it works for us!

  • Jrammerm

    My fiance and I are just now looking into a joint account. Previously we simply had "our fund", we would through an equal amount of cash into an envelope each month. In order to pay shared bills and the like. We haven't yet signed up anywhere, but we have found the experience incredibly similar to the findings in the article. The suggestions for redesign would make the process friendlier guaranteed. 

  • Kindersk

    As a joint account holder, I'd find it really useful to be able to annotate statements online. That way my partner and I could suss out otherwise baffling individual costs without the confusing back and forth that the current system entails.