On Her Own

The Dark Side of Joint Accounts

Not very long ago, I got myself an Amazon Echo. Though I thought about the implications of having an always-on microphone in my living space, I figured it was also going to live in my office and my not-so-secret geeky side got seduced by being able to say, “Computer, play me some music.” Imagine my surprise when I looked at the screen one day and saw a delivery alert for someone in my Amazon Household and realizing that they could see the same about my online shopping habit. I don’t mind sharing that bit of information with that person, but I wouldn’t have been nearly so comfortable if that account was still linked with my ex. Combine that with an article someone sent me the other day about electronic surveillance through shared accounts, well….how many of you have joint accounts with someone else? I’m not just talking about bank accounts and credit cards here, but also things like Amazon Prime accounts, family cell phone plans, even email and social media accounts. Have you thought about what that really means to your life, besides the convenience and perhaps the cost savings?

Joint bank accounts and credit cards are not uncommon between spouses, partners, and family members. Many of us have had a shared account with a parent at some point in our lives, where they could drop a few dollars in as an allowance or to help us out with an emergency. Maybe they made us an authorized user on one of their credit cards to start us on our own credit journey. It’s also not terribly uncommon for married or long-term partnered couples to have partially or completely joint finances. It’s a transparent and easy way to share money and figure out how to pay the bills together. But perhaps it’s a little bit too transparent. Aside from independence issues when you are trying to cut some of the closer ties on those relationships for whatever reason, they also make it difficult to have even the most benign secrets from each other, like what you’re buying each other for birthday gifts. They can also get tricky when one of the people on the account passes away. Banking regulations can require certain joint accounts to be frozen until the legalities are worked out – and that can take months or longer. If you don’t have individual accounts during that time, you might be stuck without access to your money or credit.

Sharing an Amazon Prime account or using a family cell phone plan or family health insurance can save you a lot of money, as you split memberships and get discounts. It gets a little more awkward, though, when you can dig into what someone else is ordering, who they’re calling, or the doctors they are seeing. There are some privacy controls between Amazon accounts linked into a Household, and between some cell phone accounts linked into family plans, but some of the information sharing can’t be blocked or can’t easily be blocked. If you haven’t had the information closed off before but want to start doing so, the new restrictions can also be noticed by the primary account holder. That might be okay today, but perhaps not so much in the future. Turning on privacy protections and splitting off accounts while relationships are still friendly can be wise, before the available information becomes a point of contention or used in a future dispute. It’s not about being paranoid; it’s about maintaining personal boundaries because you don’t, in fact, need to be a single unit with another person even if you do choose to entwine your life with theirs.

As for email and social media accounts…it’s one thing to run, say, household, wedding, or childcare through a single account somewhere. It’s another entirely when it’s your entire online presence. I won’t get into the “someone must have cheated” implications that sometimes follow on those accounts because I know that there are couples where that happens because one person isn’t technologically savvy or interested. In those cases, I’d recommend, you still stick to the more techie person being named on the account with the understanding that they will pass on messages, but it’s still not that other person’s account. Or, even better, maybe it’s time to teach that less techie person how to use a tablet or smart phone for basic functions so that they can have their own account even if they don’t use it often. That way, neither person can ever be entirely cut off from the community who wants to communicate with them via those avenues because the other person on the shared account is unavailable or unwilling. And either person can actually get away with planning those surprise events for each other.

Finally, an enormously serious consideration. Joint accounts of all types can be extremely problematic within abusive relationships. Not only are they a means of tracking what the abused person is doing all the time – even more so, as location tracking and the like become ever more common – they are also a way that the abuser can exert control. With joint accounts, you can be restricted from buying (or not buying) what you want, from going (or not going) where you want, from communicating with concerned friends and loved ones, from getting necessary medical care, and more. None of that is okay. The best way to protect yourself from that angle of abuse? As much as you can, maintain your own personal accounts, even if you don’t use them very much now, and be careful who you choose to link your accounts with and how. It may be okay today. It may be okay a year from now. But what about five years from now? What if that relationship ends? It might be friendly, it might be unavoidable, but it could still end. Then what?

Hi, I'm Annette.

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