For centuries, American women were told marriage and two and a half kids would help them capture happiness—and that home-cooked dinners and unbroken monogamy would secure it. While that model works for some, it’s never been a one-size-fits-all proposition.
According to the Pew Research Center, more adults are single, living with a partner, or raising children outside of marriage than ever before. Those who marry are doing so later and the percentage of those who have never married is rising. In fact, one in seven never-married adults say they never want to marry.
“Traditionally, single women have been portrayed as stereotypes: Lonely, pitiful creatures desperate for a husband and family … and so on,” says journalist and Spinster: Making A Life Of One’s Own author Kate Bolick. She says that a lot of contemporary journalism has swung in the opposite direction, celebrating single women as strong, proud, and independent, but “in reality, of course, it’s more complicated.”
One of those complication is that despite the perks and rising popularity, single people—under-considered by policymakers and corporations alike—often end up with less cash in the bank. According to a recent TD Ameritrade study, singles both make less money than their married peers (on average, $8,000 dollars a year) and pay more on a wide array of costs, from housing to healthcare to cellphone plans. The richest way to live is as a DINC (double income, no children) married couple.
“Despite the perks and rising popularity, single people—under-considered by policymakers and corporations alike—often end up with less cash in the bank.”
Last month, Bella DePaulo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of SINGLED OUT: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored—and Still Live Happily Ever Afterfounded a Facebook group called “Fairness For Single People,” a community where members can share examples of how single people are treated unfairly by businesses and other organizations.
Examples that members share run the gamut from gyms that offer free memberships to partners but not friends, to meal delivery services that only offer plans for two or four people, to car insurance companies that sell family plans at a far lower per person rate than their single plans.
Christina Campbell is the co-founder of Onely.org, a resource center for singles’ advocates, and the co-author of a 2013 Atlantic feature, “The High Price of Being Single In America,” alongside Lisa Arnold. In that piece, Campbell and Arnold explored the hidden costs of what they called “institutionalized singlism, the discrimination of individuals based on marital status.”
Rent, pets, cable, utilities, furniture, annual credit card fees, hell, even delivery fees—these all work out to be twice as expensive if you’re single and have no one to split them with. And it’s harder to find housing to begin with if you’re single; a series of four studies found that landlords overwhelmingly favor renting to married people than to single people. Many view that as an acceptable discrimination; married people, they say, are simply more reliable.
Bolick says her housing costs were more expensive as a single person living in a small studio than when she was partnered and split the cost of a one-bedroom, but not significantly so: “Really leaning into the freedoms of living solo gives rise to an almost organic frugality. ”What did add up, however, was that, in her single 30s, she spent way, way more money than before on going out—seeing friends, dating. “The biggest, lesser-discussed financial cost is maintaining a social life,” Bolick says.
“Institutionalized singlism is the discrimination of individuals based on marital status.”
“People think single people are isolated and alone, when, in fact, single people are, in important ways, more connected to other people than married people are,” DePaulo says. A number of studies suggest that people who have always been single “do more to attend to their relationships with friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents. In contrast, when couples move in together or get married, they become more insular.”
A common microaggression that reflects this narrative is gift-giving; “single people with no kids are expected to give birthday and holiday gifts to all their adult family members and their children, when family units (for example, a sibling, the sibling’s spouse, and their kids) give one gift in return to the single person,” DePaulo says. “This is a hard one to think about because single people usually do not begrudge gifts to the people they love; it’s just that it can get very expensive, especially when the single person has just one source of income to draw from when their coupled relatives have two.”
Then there’s the bar or Ubers—if you’re switching rounds with a single person and a couple, are you going one to one between the three of you or two to one? To be a good coupled friend for a single person, split drinks/cars/gifts between every person there, not every couple. Otherwise, you’re taking a person who statistically makes less money and sticking them with a higher bill. And of course,“When it comes to travel,” DePaulo says,”the dreaded single supplement is still ubiquitous.”
“Singlism: It’s both insidious and all too real, and the intergenerational wealth that helps ease the financial blows for single white women is unavailable to many others.”
“There are many tax advantages that only legally married people get,” DePaulo says. In their Atlantic article, Arnold and Campbell ran the numbers and found that, over the course of 40 years: “Our single woman earning $40,000 per year paid $245,000 in income taxes. Our married woman earning $40,000 paid $206,000 in income taxes—a difference of $39,000.” They continue: “Our single woman earning $80,000 per year paid $645,000 in income taxes. Our married woman earning $80,000 paid $490,000 in income taxes—a difference of $155,000.”
As Lily Kahng, an attorney who worked in the Treasury’s tax office, wrote: “There is never a single person’s bonus–that is, a single person never pays less relative to a couple, whether married or unmarried, with the same amount of income as the single person.” There are also significant disadvantages in how IRAs and healthcare plans are structured for single people. When Campbell was terminated by her employer several years ago, for instance, she was able to extend her healthcare coverage for 18 months. If she had been the spouse of a terminated employee, she says, she would have gotten 36 months of extended coverage.
And if society wasn’t having enough fun screwing singles over during their lifetimes, when they die, their social security contributions revert to the government. “They cannot give that money to anyone else, and no one else can give their contributions to lifelong single people,” DePaulo says. You can’t earn it or keep it—and you can’t take it with you, either.
Women with overlapping marginalized identities have, on average, less financial stability than white women. For instance, single black women over 60 with a college degree have only $11,000 in wealth, while single white women with a college degree have $384,400. Yes, those commas are correct: More than thirty times the amount.
“Single black women over 60 with a college degree have only $11,000 in wealth, while single white women with a college degree have $384,400.”
One of the compounding reasons? “White women benefit more from wealth being passed down from their families. Intergenerational transfers like financing a college education, providing help with the down payment on a house and other gifts to seed asset accumulation are central sources of wealth building,” say researchers from Duke University and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.
Singlism: It’s both insidious and all too real, and the intergenerational wealth that helps ease the financial blows for single white women is unavailable to many others. The first step to healing is admitting we have a problem. The second is picking up your share of the bill when you’re out to dinner with a single friend—and maybe, you know, offering to add them to your family cellphone plan or celebrating one of their life markers with a lavish gift every now and then.
The third is, yep, raising the issue to companies and governmental agencies you see enacting singlist policies. Don’t forget to report back to the “Fairness for Single People” Facebook group with how you get along.