Published April 05, 2013
While nowadays, everyone buzzes about how expensive weddings can be, it turns out the price tag on one’s nuptials is a mere pittance compared to the cost of remaining single.
In The Atlantic Monthly’s “The High Price of Being Single in America,” authors Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell argue that, compared to a married woman of the same income, a single woman, over the course of her lifetime, could pay an extra $1,022,096—just for being single.
Yes, you read that right.
What, other than a second income, would the single woman be missing out on? Tax breaks and extra Social Security benefits, plus savings in health and housing costs, for starters.
Really? Then why are married people always complaining about the marriage penalty?
Amazed by this figure, I dug deeper, plus found out how these differences play out in the lives of real single and married people—men and women. What I learned is that the calculations are not quite so clear cut.
The Married/Single Tax Divide
The Atlantic authors claim that due to laws favoring married couples, a single peson earning $40,000 a year pays $6,181 in taxes on that income, while a married individual with the same income pays only $5,162—a savings of more than $1,000 annually.
Those calculations do not mention the “marriage penalty,” in which married couples pay more taxes if their newly combined income pushes them into a higher tax bracket.
After marrying in 2008, Laurie Itkin from San Diego began paying more than $20,000 extra in federal and state taxes annually. “My husband jokes that we should get divorced not because he doesn’t love me anymore, but because we experience the so-called ‘marriage penalty’ in filing a joint tax return,” she explained.
Even though the Itkins are victims of the “marriage penalty,” some couples actually do receive the “marriage bonus” mentioned in The Atlantic’s article, which typically occurs when the income levels of the two spouses are widely disparate. For instance, couples with only one earner almost always enjoy a bonus, because the higher earner’s income moves into a lower bracket.
Take Greg Davis from Los Angeles, California who got married in 2009; his wife’s work as a tutor did not bring in much money, so he enjoyed the marriage bonus. “I save money on taxes now because when my wife and I combined incomes we didn’t get pushed into a higher tax bracket and got much better deductions than when we were single,” said Davis.
Of course, whether or not you pay more in taxes depends on a lot of factors: You can use Tax Policy Center’s Marriage Bonus and Penalty Tax Calculator to see how marriage would affect your tax payments.
A Roof of One’s Own: Comparing Housing & Health Insurance Costs
While tax breaks may vary person-to-person, data shows living costs such as housing and insurance—or what we at LearnVest would call Essential Expenses—are almost always higher for singles.
Using averages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a single person in his 20s spends about $9,964 on housing where a married couple the same age averages $8,844. Over 60 years this can add up to over $67,200 in savings for a married couple.
Not only do singles pay more in living costs, but they also don’t have a spouse to help them cover the expenses. Kimberly Michel of Columbia, Missouri said, “All of the home expenses fall to me and my one income. If I were married and my husband also worked, my rent and bills on my two-bedroom apartment would be split in half.”
The same pattern emerges for expenditures on healthcare. Singles spend about $570 per year on healthcare while couples average about $963, which is only $482 per person—far less than their single peers, because of the reduced costs of coverage.
But LearnVest Planning services certified financial planner Sophia Bera cautions that while in general, a couple might save by being covered by the same plan, you should never assume so. Instead, look at your personal situation and the policies available to you. “Sometimes it’s better for a husband and wife to stay on separate insurance; other times they might benefit from going on a family plan under one spouse’s company,” she says. Still others, she adds, might do better to decline insurance through their employer and instead purchase their own policy.
Melinda Hurley-Patterson is one such exception to the averages showing singles pay more. She faced a higher joint health insurance bill when she married her husband because his job does not cover health insurance. “I now pay an extra $300 per month out of pocket for his medical insurance because neither of our jobs cover his. It’s killing my paycheck,” she says.
Dating & Mating: The Social Cost Comparison
While having higher living expenses is fairly predictable for singles, what many find maddening is that they also typically have higher social costs—or what we at LearnVest would call Lifestyle Choices—for items such as hotel rooms, health club memberships and cell phone plans.
Author of “Singled Out” Dr. Bella DePaulo explains, “Whenever companies charge less per person for couples or families than they do for single people, singles are paying more and subsidizing the couples and families who are paying less. Examples include big-ticket items like health club memberships and travel costs—and the dreaded ‘single supplement,’ ” which is a premium charged to solo travelers for taking a room alone. She also points out that singles pay the full cost of bridal shower and wedding gifts without ever receiving gifts at a wedding of their own.
Singles also bear the costly burden of dating. Now engaged, Farnaz Shahri said she had more expenses while she was looking for love. “When I was single I spent a lot more money on self-care to become more ‘marketable,’ so to speak. Now the money we spend is carefully calculated and put to better use,” said Shahri.
Scott Gralnick lives and dates in New York City and believes that he spends more money than his married friends because he takes women out on dates. “As a single man, the spending is more one-sided because I pay for dates. When you are married your income and spending are split 50/50 because you are a team and things are shared. I often pay for two dinners on one income,” said Gralnick.
However, while the newly married might initially save on social costs, those savings will probably find a new use if the couple chooses to have children. Wendy McKibben Spies, married with children, not only feels her expenses are higher, but also that she needs more savings to secure her children’s future. “I have less control over costs and I feel like I need a bigger buffer to protect my family,” she says.
Spender vs. Saver: How a Mate Affects Your Money
Whether or not getting married affects your personal finances, one factor that is bound to change your bottom line is your new partner. Among people interviewed for this story, newlyweds found that the financial attitude of their new spouse mattered more than any marital tax breaks.
Those who married ‘savers’ were more likely to lessen their expenditures and those who married spenders began to splurge more than before.
Denise Taylor, for example, credits her ex-husband with teaching her financial smarts, which saved her a lot more than any tax bonus could. While the marriage didn’t ultimately work out, “I credit him with teaching me the value of saving and the pride of owning every dollar I earned,” she says.
But, of course, we’re not advocating that anyone get married to learn to save money. After all, divorce is expensive.
And, whether you’re single or married, the best thing you can do with your finances is determine your (individual or joint) financial goals and decide on a plan that will help you achieve them. That, more than your marital status, will have the biggest long-term influence on your finances.
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