In children’s stories, princes and princesses had to get married to live happily ever after. Psychologists still debate whether marriage boosts happiness. Economists also wonder whether married people enjoy a better standard of living.
The standard of living question is intriguing because the answer changes dramatically over time. A century ago, it was a no-brainer. Married people had a significantly better quality of life and that was particularly true of married men compared to singles.
Back then, household activities were highly labor intensive. Whether it was getting firewood, drawing water, cooking meals, caring for children, baking bread, or doing laundry, all took considerable time and effort. Married men had much to gain because these services were provided by their wives and other women, mostly without wages.
Married women had higher social status because they ran their own household, because they often married up the social ladder, and because they were mothers. Moreover, it was both difficult and illegal to have a normal sex life, or to have children, outside wedlock.
Over time, households became less labor intensive thanks to the introduction of indoor plumbing and electricity, and the perfection of labor-saving devices, such as washing machines.
The service economy
Technological development is just one aspect of the changing household economy. Equally important was the growing service economy. Much of the growth in service jobs over the past half-century is explained by commercialization of services that wives and other women originally performed without pay (1). All of this entrepreneurial ferment means that single people need not be deprived of any of the comforts of home.
Life has improved for singles it would seem. The clearest evidence for this is that there are far more of them now than ever before with 40 percent of U.S. households being headed by singles in 2000 (1). Many singles are found living in modern cities such as New York, or Singapore where the service economy is very highly developed and includes a vibrant touism/entertainment industry ranging from sport to theaters and museums (2).
Domestic services of all kinds are available in the service economy but a person needs the money to buy them. Here, married households have an apparent advantage because they are wealthier. Before retirement (ages 55-64) married households have approximately twice as much wealth as two singles (3), a phenomenon referred to as the wealth premium of marriage.
Married people are less likely to be poor at the outset and also accumulate more wealth than singles with equivalent earning power. This Midas touch is easy to explain because most of the wealth takes the form of equity in homes and home owners are more likely to be married.
Here we meet the real crux of the issue because money that is saved and invested cannot be spent on a lavish lifestyle. Money invested in a home cannot be spent on meals at fancy restaurants, or exotic foreign vacations.
Compare apples with apples
Whereas very few married people are poor (about one in 20), poverty is very much higher in singles (about one in 3) and their quality of life is adversely affected. Still, one should not confuse the impact of income level with that of marital status.
The best question to ask is how the standard of living compares for two middle income singles compared to their married counterparts. If the couple have children, their economic quality of life declines. It costs approximately a quarter of a million dollars to raise a child to age 17 according to government economists (4). After that comes the intensified financial strain of the college years.
In general, married people, even childless ones. expend virtually all of their income on living expenses (Van Riper, 2006). In contrast, singles without children can set aside about 5 percent of their income each month according to evidence from the actual expenses of three New Yorker households.
Marriage helps people to stay out of poverty because two people can enjoy a better quality of life if they pool their resources than they would managing on a single income. They spend less on rent, food, entertainment, and taxes (thanks to favorable treatment of married couples in tax laws, 5).
Because they are less likely to purchase a home, singles pay substantially more on housing (6). Yet, this also means they can live in city centers close to work saving time, and money, on transportation.
Taking all of the key factors into consideration, middle-income singles likely have more disposable income than married people with children. So they are freer to spend with abandon.
That equates to a sense of being affluent and a better quality of life. It is also riskier because there is little left for a rainy day. Is it better to be a singing cricket, or a toiling ant?
1. Klinenberg, E. (2012). Going solo: The extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone. New York: Penguin.
2. Cotkin, J. (2012). The rise of post-familialism. Singapore: Civil Service College. http://www.cscollege.gov.sg/Knowledge/Pages/The-Rise-of-Post-Familialism...
3. Weston, L. (2011, May 3). Single? Can you ever retire? MSN Money. Accessed at http://www.money.msn.com/retirement-plan/single-can-you-ever-retire-west...
5. Van Riper, T. (2006, July 25). The cost of being married versus being single. Forbes. Accessed at http://www.forbes.com on 3/05/2013.
6. Kolko, J. (2012). Buying a home is 45% cheaper than renting. Accessed at: http://trends.truliablog.com/2012/09/rent-vs-buy-summer-3012 .