In celebration of Valentine’s Day, an NPR show stepped away from all the syrupy cooing about couples and instead hosted a discussion of the economy of single women. No longer do single women need to wait for a man to buy them a diamond or anything else; more and more of them can take care of themselves.
Single people should not feel that there are things they don’t deserve, just because they are single. And I have no problem with people – single or otherwise – treating themselves to nice things with their own money.
But the emphasis on diamonds and other expensive indulgences eventually made me feel uneasy. It seemed to perpetuate the stereotype of the selfish, self-centered, self-indulgent single person. It is a stereotype, I have learned over the years, that often even single people believe. But here’s the thing: Single women – and single people more generally – are extraordinarily generous. I make this claim not as a matter of opinion or anecdote, but of science.
If you look carefully at studies and statistics, as I have been doing for decades, it is hard to find any examples in which married people, on the average, are more generous than single people. There are a few, but they seem to be the exceptions. As I will detail below, single people generally are more generous with their time, their money, and their caring. When single women do spend money on themselves, they are often putting it toward investments far more consequential than a diamond ring.
Single People Are More Generous with Their TIME
Single people give their time to important causes and organizations, as the following studies show.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps tabs on volunteering for eight different kinds of organizations and two miscellaneous categories. They compare single people, married people, and previously married people. The single people volunteered more than the married people in (1) social and community service organizations, (2) environmental or animal care organizations; (3) cultural, arts, hobbies, and sports groups, (4) hospitals and other health organizations, (5) public safety organizations, (6, 7) the two miscellaneous categories, and (8) educational and youth services. That last category is especially striking because single people are less likely to have children than married people are. The single and married people volunteered equally for the category of civic, political, professional, and international organizations – but the unmarried people who were previously married volunteered the most for those organizations. Only in 1 of the 1o categories, religious organizations, did the married people volunteer more than the single people or previously married people.
A study that followed thousands of participants from their high school days into their 50s and 60s found that singles are more likely than adults of other marital statuses to provide help to friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Among the types of help they provided: transportation, errands, and shopping; housework, yard work, repairs, or other work around the house; and advice, encouragement, moral and emotional support.
A study of more than 10,000 Australian women in their 70s found that the lifelong single women with no children were more likely to provide volunteer services than any of the other groups they studied: married women with and without children, and previously married women with and without children.
With one exception (a familiar one), men are more giving of their time when they are single than they are if they get married. I learned this while writing Singled Out, when I studied a book on marriage in men’s lives line for line, including all the data points that were reported. The single men gave more of their time to groups such as professional organizations, unions, and farm organizations than they did after they married. The men who married did not spend any more time in service clubs, political groups, or fraternal organizations than they did when they were single. The men did not even give more of their time to doing housework when they married (a kind of gift to their wives); they spent less time on household chores than they did when they were single. There was just one way that men who married gave more – they devoted more of their time to church groups.
Studies of people who live alone have shown that they use their time in ways that benefit the places where they live: “Compared with people who live with others, single people and solo dwellers are also more engaged in the life of the cities and towns where they live. They take more music and art classes, participate in more public events and civic groups, go out to dinner more often, and pursue more informal social activities.”
Single People Are More Generous with Their MONEY
To cover their expenses, single people have just their own income. They are financially disadvantaged in many ways, including some that are written right into the laws of the land. By one estimate, over the course of a lifetime, single women may end up paying more than a million dollars more in taxes, healthcare expenses, and more, than married women. Single men are disadvantaged, too: They get paid less than married men, even when their accomplishments are the same. Still, they are more generous.
Data from the study of marriage in men’s lives showed that the men who married gave less money to friends than the single men did. They gave no more to relatives than the single men, despite sometimes having two incomes to draw from instead of just one, and getting paid more, too.
What Single Women Do with Their Money
When single women spend money on themselves, they do not just spend it on personal indulgences. They seem to look at the big picture, what might matter in the long run, and invest there. For example, when single women get a windfall in the form of an inheritance, there is something they do more often than married women, married men, or single men: They start their own business.
When single women want something substantial, such as a home, and they don’t have enough money, they save more and work more. It is not just their lower incomes (relative to married couples, unmarried couples, and single men) that stand in the way of single women’s home ownership. They are charged higher mortgage interest rates and end up with higher-priced loans – disproportionately so, relative to their reliability in paying back their loans.
Still they persist. They often cut their spending and get a second job. They figure out what they want in a house and learn about the home buying process. In the end, they are least likely to say that the process was more difficult than they expected or that they had to compromise on what they wanted most from their homes.
Single People Are More Generous in Their CARING
Who helps their aging parents? The results of a study of nearly 5,500 pairs of older parents and their grown sons and daughters were unambiguous: No matter whether you are looking at Blacks or whites, sons or daughters, whether help is given at all or how many hours of help are given, the results are the same: the single sons and daughters help more than the coupled sons and daughters.
The greater caring provided by single people is not limited to the help they give to their parents. When other people need the kind of caretaking that can go on for months or even more, single people are there. A representative national sample of 9,000 British adults found that more single people than married ones had regularly looked after someone, for at least 3 months, who was sick, disabled, or elderly.
Marriage Is a Greedy Institution
Sociologist Naomi Gerstel, who has made some of the most significant myth-busting contributions to the study of single and married people's social ties, published an important article, "Rethinking families and community: The color, class, and centrality of extended family ties." In it, she explained what she means when she says that marriage is a greedy institution (short version: "…marriage reduces kinship, community, and even the vibrancy of public life"). She also made the case for why it matters that marriage is so greedy:
"Marriage clearly has troublesome implications for the community that are often overlooked. As the population ages, the greediness of marriage deprives more elderly parents – who, ironically, have often pressed their children to marry – of the help and support that they want and need. Marriage can also generate excessive burdens on those who are single, as they are expected to provide the care that their married siblings do not. Although marriage is greedy across race and class, because those with fewer economic resources are more likely to rely on extended kin, this is for them a particularly costly outcome. Thus, not only is the focus on marriage a narrow vision, but it may actually detract from the very resources – rooted outside the nuclear family and marriage – on which Americans depend."
The evidence is starting to seem overwhelming. With just one consistent exception (married people give more to church groups), single people are more generous with their time, their money, and their caring than married people are.