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Sunday, April 21, 2024

The cost of being single

The cost of being single

06.22.2023

U.S. citizens have long been sold an American dream that includes a spouse, two children, a white picket fence, and a once-a-year family vacation. And so it’s no surprise that our economy — from the way we pay people to the way we package products and services — has been based around that idea.

Anyone who has gone from single to married (or the other way around) can attest to the added costs that accompany single life. Some of these added costs seem rather harmless, such as meal delivery services that only offer two servings per meal instead of one. But others are far more challenging, such as the alarming wage gap between married and single people.

The way the deck is stacked against single people simply doesn’t reflect the current demographic landscape in the United States. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 37 million people1 — or 15% of people aged 18 and over — lived alone in 2021. Meanwhile, roughly 31% of people2 report being single in a Pew Research Center study.

Unfortunately, this means that nearly one-third of people are pushed into a more expensive lifestyle than their partnered or married counterparts.

7 ways single people are at a disadvantage

Sure, there are areas that individuals can cut back to reduce their spending. But many of the increased costs associated with singlehood are structural rather than personal.

Here are just a few examples:

  • You’ll pay more for housing. The cost of a house or apartment doesn’t change depending on the number of people living in it. A single person in a one-bedroom apartment will pay twice as much per person as a couple living in the same apartment. Additionally, landlords have been shown3 to prefer to rent to couples versus singles, and mortgage lenders may be more hesitant to offer a home loan to single borrowers.
  • You’ll be in a higher tax bracket. The way our tax brackets are laid out, there’s often a tax benefit to marriage. A married couple making a joint $100,000 per year will be in a lower tax bracket than a single person bringing in $100,000 per year.
  • Many products are designed for two people. From hotels to meal delivery services, most companies don’t package and price their products and services as if they’ll be purchased by single individuals.
  • Your Social Security benefits may be lower. When collecting Social Security benefits, individuals can choose to collect based on their work history or their spouse’s, depending on which is higher. Single people have only one work history to rely on. This particularly disadvantages women, who often earn less and, therefore, will likely have a lower Social Security benefit during retirement.
  • You don’t have as secure of a financial safety net. Losing a job is a financial hit regardless of whether you’re married or single. But if you’re in a partnership, you have another person’s income to fall back on if you lose your job. If you’re single and lose your job, you may quickly face challenges like unpaid bills and eviction or foreclosure.
  • You pay a unique sort of gift “tax”. Imagine you’re invited to a wedding or baby shower. Rather than splitting the cost of the gift with a partner, you’ll foot the entire bill yourself. And because many gift giving occasions revolve around marriage and children, your loved ones may not return the favor.
  • Insurance may be more difficult to get. Married individuals are able to be on their spouses’ health insurance. But if you’re single, your only option is to have your own employer-sponsored plan, purchase private insurance, or go without. Unfortunately, this setup may discourage single people from seeking self-employment or from leaving toxic workplaces for fear of not having access to healthcare.

It’s also worth noting that in addition to not having anyone to share the expenses with, single people also don’t have anyone to share the emotional burden of their finances with. Our data shows that for 76% of people, their spouse or partner is the first person they turn to to discuss finances. Single people need to find other people in their network to have money conversations with.

How the numbers break down

It’s easy to see how being single would be more expensive than being in a partnership. Some of the advantages of a partnership are available only to married couples, while others are available to partners regardless of their marital status.

It may be especially helpful to see how the numbers break down in real life. The MIT Living Wage Calculator4 shows the average cost of various expenses for both single and partnered adults with no children, one child, two children, or three children.

For the purposes of this comparison, we’ll compare annual costs for single adults with no children to those of two working adults where both are working. Here’s what the average costs look like across various categories:

Expense category

Single adults (1 income)

Partnered adults (2 incomes)

Food

$4,010

$7,352

Medical

$2,972

$6,522

Housing

$9,976

$11,402

Transportation

$5,356

$9,634

Civic

$2,959

$5,878

Other

$4,811

$8,394

Total

$30,084

$49,182

Total Per Person

$30,084

$24,591

Note: MIT’s calculator doesn’t have data for the United States as a whole. Instead, we’ve used data for Minnesota which, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center’s Cost of Living Data Series5, is roughly in the middle of states in terms of cost of living. To see the cost of being single in your state, visit MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.

As you can see in the table above, the average annual cost for a single person is about $5,500 more per year than for a partnered person. And remember that this is only the data for one year in a state that’s more affordable than about half of all states. That $5,000 could add up to nearly a quarter of a million dollars over the course of 40 working years.

And that’s just a minimum estimate. A report by Vox6 found that unmarried people can pay more than $1 million more than their married counterparts over the course of their lifetimes.

The role that wages play

It would be impossible to talk about the cost of being single without addressing how income affects that. For women, there’s little impact on wages whether someone is single or married, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.7 The 2016 study found that throughout working years, married women earn slightly more than their single counterparts during most parts of their working lives, but the difference isn’t significant.

It’s worth noting that this data doesn’t separate mothers from non-mothers. Women with children often face a motherhood penalty where their wages are lower than their non-mother counterparts. The majority of children are born to married women,8 meaning if we looked only at the data for non-mother single women and non-mother married women, it’s likely the married women would have an even greater advantage.

The difference is even more profound for single versus married men. Married men earn significantly more than any other demographic, meaning single men or either married or single women. In fact, at their peak earning age, they earn roughly $30,000 more than everyone else.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics,9 in the first quarter of 2023, men earned a median weekly wage of $1,186, while women earned a median weekly wage of $996 (or roughly 84% of what men earn).

So how does that impact the cost of being single? In partnered households with at least one male partner, the household wage will be significantly higher than that of single women. As a result, the average per-person income in those partnered households is higher than it is for single women — and that’s not even taking into account the data that shows that married women tend to earn more than their unmarried counterparts.

How to overcome the financial challenges of being single

For single people, the financial deck is at least partially stacked against them. And while there are certain structural changes that we have little control over, there are things that individuals can do to better situation themselves financially.

Increase your wages

Perhaps the most impactful thing someone can do to improve their financial situation is to increase their income. There’s only so much you can cut from your spending, but the amount you can increase your income can significantly help you meet your goals.

Not only will increasing your wages help close the gap and make up for the increased costs, but it could have other benefits as well. For example, someone with a high-paying job may be more likely to have good employer-sponsored health insurance, which addresses a major disadvantage that single people face.

Are you wondering how to make more money? You aren’t the only one. Our research shows it’s the number one money question on Americans’ minds.

Get on a budget

When there are so many factors outside of your control, the best course of action is to focus on the things that are within your control — and that includes your budget. To ensure you’re spending intentionally and in a way that’s in line with your income, create a budget and track your spending to make sure you’re sticking to it.

Have a safety net in place

As we addressed previously, single people have less of a built-in safety net than partnered people do. After all, if you lose your job, you can’t simply rely on your partner to pay the bills.

For that reason, it’s even more important that you have a safety net in place. First and foremost, that safety net should involve having an emergency fund with at least three to six months' worth of basic living expenses.

Be selective about where your money goes

We talked about how products and services are often packaged and priced for pairs and families rather than single people. While it may take a bit more work on your part, it is possible to find companies that cater to single individuals shopping for just one person. You can reduce your costs by identifying those companies.

Prioritize your retirement

Everyone should consider planning and saving for retirement, but it can be even more critical for single people. First, as we talked about previously, some single people are at a disadvantage when it comes to Social Security benefits since there’s no higher-earning partner to help you earn a higher monthly benefit.

And remember, if you remain single during retirement, you’ll face the same challenges you do today where some things (like health care expenses) are generally more expensive.

The bottom line

There’s no doubt about it: being single in America is expensive. While there are some things that individuals can do to address their own finances, there are other issues that can only be addressed at the structural level from closing the wage gap to ending discrimination.

1 U.S. Census Bureau, “Census Bureau Releases New Estimates on America’s Families and Living Arrangements,” November 2021.

2 Pew Research Center, “A profile of single Americans,” August 2020.

3 Sage Journals, “No Shelter for Singles: The Perceived Legitimacy of Marital Status Discrimination,” October 2007.

4 Living Wage Calculator 2023.

5 Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, “Cost of Living Data Series,” Q1 2023.

6 Vox, “The escalating costs of being single in America,” December 2021.

7 Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, “Married Men Sit Atop the Wage Ladder,” 2018.

8 Statista, “Percentage of births to unmarried women in the United States from 1980 to 2021,” January 2023.

9 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Median weekly earnings were $996 for women, $1,186 for men, in first quarter 2023,” April 2023.

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Erin Gobler

Contributor

Erin Gobler is a money coach who helps people pay off debt and reach their big financial goals without giving up spending on the things they love. She is a freelance writer for Empower.

Author is not a client of Empower Advisory Group, LLC, and is compensated as a freelance writer.

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