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How Do Single People Navigate the "Singles Tax"?

It can be costly to be single. Do some people seek relationships to save money?

There are many deeply meaningful reasons to love single life. But all single people in the U.S., regardless of how they feel about being single, are at a disadvantage in one important way: financially.

The most obvious way single people lose out financially is if they live alone and don’t share any of their expenses. Without those “economies of scale” that benefit couples (and anyone else who lives with other people), single people living alone pay for everything themselves—including rent or mortgage, utilities, food, and anything else they need to navigate daily life.

For people who love living alone, the extra expenses may be well worth it. But perhaps more troubling are the other ways in which all single people, even those who live with other people, are financially penalized.

Federal laws massively advantage married people over single people. So do policies and practices in which coupled people pay less per person for goods and services than single people. Those can include big-ticket items, such as getting on a spouse’s healthcare plan at a discounted rate, as well as miscellaneous examples, such as the extra money solo travelers pay for a room of their own (the “single supplement”).

Do single people realize that they pay a singles tax? And are those financial considerations relevant to people’s decisions to get into romantic relationships or to stay in them longer than they otherwise might?

A recent Forbes Advisor survey of 1,008 adults in the U.S., conducted by a market research company, addressed those questions. The participants were categorized as either married; in a romantic relationship but not married; or single (not married, not in a romantic relationship). The participants included approximately equal numbers of women and men and 3 percent who identified as nonbinary. They ranged in age from 18 to 58.

Do Single People Think They Pay a Singles Tax?

In the Forbes survey, here is how the “singles tax” was defined for the participants:

The “singles tax” refers broadly to financial burdens incurred by people who are single, as opposed to those in a relationship or married. The “singles tax” can refer to anything from tax advantages for married people to opportunities for shared expenses like rent, groceries, car payments, digital subscriptions, hotels and more.

Given that definition, 93 percent of the single people agreed that yes, they had experienced the singles tax.

It is not surprising that single people living alone realize that their expenses are greater than those of coupled people living together. But most single people do not live alone. In 2019, for example, there were 119 million Americans, 18 or older, who were legally single (divorced, widowed, or always-single), but only 36 million lived alone.

In the survey, about 1 in 3 single people (35 percent) said that they split some expenses with other people, such as roommates, parents, or siblings.

Of those single people who split expenses with someone else, 29 percent think they have fully wiped out the singles tax and would not save any more money if they were in a romantic relationship. They are wrong about that. There is no way around the tax breaks and other financial advantages written into law that are accorded to married people just because they are married. Unmarried couples sometimes have access to policies and discounts that advantage them financially, too. Over the course of a lifetime, the financial advantages that married people have over unmarried people can add up to extraordinary amounts.

Do People Get into Romantic Relationships, and Stay in Them Longer, for the Money?

The survey revealed these markedly unromantic dynamics of romantic relationships:

  • Asked for reasons why they might want to be in a romantic relationship, if they did want to be in one, 31 percent said that the opportunity to share expenses was one such reason.
  • Asked whether financial stability or financial benefits had ever kept them in a romantic relationship longer, 33 percent said yes.
  • Asked if they had ever stayed in a romantic relationship only because their partner was supporting them financially, 14 percent said yes.
  • 24 percent said that recent economic pressures made them want to be in a relationship even more.
  • Among married people, 14 percent have a spouse who pays for everything.
  • Among unmarried people in romantic relationships, 11 percent have a partner who pays for everything.

Financial Risks to Romantic Relationships

Despite all the ways that couples—especially married couples—benefit financially, there are still financial risks to coupling.

In the survey:

  • 41 percent said they had been in a romantic relationship that was financially draining
  • 59 percent said that if they were single, they would have less conflict, and that might make the singles tax worth bearing

There are other ways, too, that coupling can be financially risky or even ruinous. Divorce, for example, can be quite costly, especially for women. The survey did not ask participants whether the potential costs of divorce or a financially risky partner figured into their decisions to enter a romantic relationship or stay in one.

This post was adapted from a column that also appears at Unmarried Equality (UE), with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own.

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