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.
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.
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.
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.
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]