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Being Married is More Expensive Than Being Single

real cost of marriage

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We’ve been told over and over that being single is more expensive than being married. But when you look at the real cost of marriage, there are many reasons why marriage can be more expensive than being single.

The Real Cost of Marriage is Higher than Being Single

So many of my blog ideas come from asking whether personal finance wisdom common sense makes any sense at all. I came across one such statement:

[t]here’s no way around it: marriage is more economically efficient and cost-effective . . . If you have two people adding money to a retirement fund, it grows a lot faster.

The assumption is that if you’re married, you have two incomes, and your combined income is more than two single incomes. But is that true? I will argue that there are many reasons why being single is financially advantageous compared to being married.

Marriage Doesn’t Mean More Income

Consider, among married households who earn incomes, about 19% were single-income. Ok 80% of marriages have double the income of singles? Not so fast. The assumption is that both partners earn an income sufficient to support each of them. Even with two incomes, that’s not necessarily true.

Let’s say you make $70,000/year and your spouse makes $10,000/year. Yes, you have two incomes, but you are living on less per person because you have another person to support. Among married couples with children, 44% have one spouse either not working or only working part-time.

Can you have a higher combined income if you’re married? Of course. But it’s not a given, and  many married couples do not.

Marriage Doesn’t Mean Fewer Expenses

Whenever comparing singles with married couples, people tend to think married couples spend less because they don’t go out as often. It’s true that couples tend to spend differently once married, but these costs aren’t any cheaper.

According to one financial planner, married couples increase their living expenses to meet their monthly incomes. These costs include more expensive housing, more expensive furniture, home maintenance, and other nesting expenses. By contrast, single earners, save nearly 5% of their pay each month.

Dual income couples bank on both spouses continuing to work, whereas single income households or single people tend to build in more buffer, knowing the risks in case of job loss. So dual income households take on higher fixed costs. That means they save less even if they earn more. Further, dual-income couples spent eight times as much on childcare as those with one unemployed spouse, and twice as much as couples with a part-time employed spouse.

The Chance of Divorce Means Marriage Is Expensive

Everyone knows that the rate of divorce in this country is 40% – almost half. Is it fair to talk about divorce as a cost of marriage? Divorce is so common, it would be ridiculous not to discuss it as a marriage risk.

In a study on the effect of marriage and divorce on household net worth, single households increased their net worths from an average of $2,000 to $11,000 after 15 years. Married people grew their net worths to an average of $43,000 after 10 years of marriage.

Net worths went in the opposite direction for the divorced. Divorced people’s net worth bottomed out a year before their divorces at $3,500 and was still below $10,000 10 years after marriage.

Of course no one wants to get divorced and many people don’t even think about it when they think about marriage. But if you were given a 60% chance of winning $4,000 and a 40% chance of losing $1,000, wouldn’t you consider that 40% chance? If you did, you’d probably say no way.

Why Married Spouses Earning More Might Not be a Good Thing

There have been a number of studies of identical twins to show that when one of a set of identical twins was married, the married twin earned more than the single twin. Well, does that mean that employers give a bonus to people who are married? Unlikely, because it’s against the law in many states to ask about marital status in an interview.

Instead, earning more is likely self-selecting behavior. A spouse is motivated to earn more because he/she has a spouse to support.

Well, if a spouse is pressured to earn more, isn’t that a financial benefit? It depends on why the earner wants to make more. Anecdotally, my doctor friend works with many other doctors who calculate how many hours they need to work based on the spending desires of their spouse. In order to be better off, the earnings have to go into savings and investments – earning more to spend more doesn’t help a couple’s financial security.

High-Powered Couples Go All-In on One Earner, to the Detriment (Usually) of the Female Spouse

Obviously, the dream is to create a power couple where both spouses have big careers and they are able to equally support one another. But it’s difficult to maintain one high-earning job, let alone two. The more likely scenarios are:

  1. one spouse shifts to a lower power career or drops out of the workforce to support the other;
  2. both spouses shift to lower power jobs; or
  3. both spouses maintain high-power jobs but one has to take on more household duties.

It actually makes more sense to go all-in on one earner, as in many high-earning professions (such as law), work is not rewarded linearly. That is, working part-time means earning less than half full-time wages, but working more than full-time can come with large bonuses.

Even high-performing high-achieving married women tend to assume lower power roles to support their husbands’ booming careers. (E.g. Michelle Obama supporting Barack; Hillary Clinton supporting Bill.)

Female Harvard Business School graduates in hetero partnerships expected more egalitarian partnerships but found that more likely, she was saddled with more childcare and housework while his career blossomed. That creates a vicious cycle for her career; no investment from her husband and additional responsibilities at home lead to less investment in her career.

Hetero Married Women Do More Chores than Single Moms (Making it Harder for Married Moms to Have High-Powered Jobs)

It’s hard to do a high-powered job. So of course having a spouse that helps would relieve a great deal of stress. Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly if you’ve ever talked to married couples) married mothers do more housework than single moms.

Married women tend to increase their “gendered” chores in order to meet social expectations. That means more cooking, cleaning, and more laundry – at the expense of leisure and sleep. Further, married and single mothers spend the same amount of time in childcare (counterintuitively, because married mothers have a spouse that could theoretically share the burden).

Having to do more chores means that married women have less time for fun, for sleep, and for advancing in their careers.

Marriage Can Work Out – But The Risks Rise for Women

You may be noticing that some of these latter reasons actually show higher earnings for one spouse, which could result in higher household income. If a wife helps support her husband becoming a law partner, the couple might end up with a very high household income. Of course, if she wasn’t supporting her husband, then maybe she could have been partner.

If they get divorced, she stands to be in poor shape because her career has been on the back burner while his is thriving. After divorce, he will be much better positioned to regain his financial position than she will be. And even if they don’t get divorced, the power dynamic in the marriage changes so that the lower-earning spouse might make further concessions in order to stay married. The higher warning spouse might feel more freedom in doing whatever he/she wants. While the couple stays together, it’s not necessarily an egalitarian financial relationship.

Husbands Sabotaging High-Achieving Wives

In 2008, Forbes wrote an article about the trend of husbands sabotaging their wives’ careers. The husbands either never accepted that their wives would have a career as significant as theirs or they initially agreed to support their wives, only to passive-aggressively attack their spouse as resistance and rebellion.

I’ve seen this play out in real life as well. I have a friend who experienced similar pressure from her husband when she started excelling at her career. Her husband, who worked in the same industry, created “accidents” to try to prevent her from taking business trips or otherwise stressing her out as she was trying to do her job. It can play out more subtly by a husband reducing his household chores so she has less time to advance (see above). There’s also just the added stress of coming home every day to someone who is unhappy with your success. Honestly, it’s easier to just come home to an empty house.

Marriage is More Expensive than Being Single

In sum, the people who assume marriage is a financial slam-dunk assume that a married couple is basically two single people who reduce their rent. But marriage is different than a lease agreement. Based on how people change their lives after marriage, it may be a good financial choice and it may not be.

Marriage is a good financial idea if you stay married, and if you marry someone who earns more than they spend, but marriage is a terrible idea if you’re going to get divorced. Of course, no one goes into marriage thinking they’re going to get divorced. And of course there are reasons to get married that aren’t financial.

Conclusion – Every Decision Carries Risk

Too often, people get into major financial problems because they have been told over and over that some decision is a definite winner. People are not told, this is a good decision IF the following are true and NOT if the following are not true. Believing that the decision by itself will lead to fortune is a huge mistake. For instance, believing the myth that college always leads to better outcomes, leads people to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt with no better career prospects. Believing credit card points are a great deal can lead to overspending and getting into debt. The myth of buying being better than renting, can lead to buying way more house than one can afford, leading to chronic financial worry.

Make sure you understand that every decision has risks. Every slam dunk financial decision has been someone else’s worst financial decision.

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