This Is What It Costs to Be Single
The lifetime singles penalty may top a million dollars
Posted Jan 14, 2013
It may be over a million dollars. I’m talking about what it costs a single woman, compared to a married woman with the same income, over the course of a lifetime, in penalties for her single status. These are penalties written right into the laws of the U.S. government, and into the policies of private companies.
If someone had suggested that million dollar figure to me as just a guess, I would have dismissed it as way too huge. I admit that as someone who has been railing about the high price of singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people) for well over a decade. With the help of many collaborators, I even wrote a book about it, Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It. (Paperback is here; ebook is here.) But a million dollars? Really?
Really. Hats off to our friends Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell from Onely. Their analysis of the lifetime costs of single life was just been published, hours ago, at the prestigious Atlantic magazine: “The high price of being single in America.” I am so very happy about this. I’m happy for Lisa and Christina – what a tremendous accomplishment! – and I am happy for all of the single people who have been insisting for decades that they are getting a raw deal, only to be treated dismissively for daring to make such a claim.
Well, take this, doubters. Here’s the last sentence of Lisa and Christina’s painstakingly detailed analysis: “Singles get screwed.”
The Onely wizards were inspired by a New York Times story comparing the lifelong price of being an unmarried gay couple relative to a married couple. The difference ranged from $41,196 to $467,562.
In the analysis published in the Atlantic, the comparable range for a single woman compared to a married woman was $484,368 to $1,022, 096.
Lisa and Christina used the New York Times methodology as a template. They based their calculations on two imaginary single women and two imaginary married women who worked in Virginia from ages 26 to 66 and lived another 20 years after retirement. One pair of single and married women each made $40,000 and the other made $80,000. Then they estimated the singles penalty in income taxes, Social Security, IRAs, health spending, and housing.
I will share a few of the highlights here, but it is well worth your time to read the original Atlantic article in its entirety. There, Lisa and Christina explain how they came up with their figures and what it all means.
Over the course of her working life, the single woman pays between $39,000 and $155,000 more in income taxes than her married counterpart. That’s a singles penalty! Big time.
Both single and married women can earn Social Security benefits after they retire. But married women have additional options, all “subsidized in large part by single people.” For example, “our hypothetical married woman could receive up to 50 percent of her husband's benefits while her husband is alive. Spouses can also receive 100 percent of their dead spouse's benefits, if the deceased's benefits are higher than the recipient's would have been.”
Using the example of the married woman making $80,000: She can “defer retirement between ages 66 and 70 and earn an extra $55,896 in addition to her own income, simply by also collecting her husband's Social Security.”
There is so much more to the Social Security section – do take a look.
In some ways, IRAs are way better than Social Security in their treatment of single people. Single people can designate someone of their choosing to be their beneficiary and other people can designate single people to be the beneficiaries of their IRA. That’s not so for Social Security. If you have lived your life as a single person with no kids, say goodbye to your benefits when you die – you don’t get to will them to anyone else, and no one gets to will their benefits to you.
But oh, are there penalties for singles built into IRAs! See if you can figure out what they are on your own, then compare your guesses to the critique in the Atlantic.
Single women dole out between $24,000 and $48,000 more on health spending than married women do. Add in the extra that disability can penalize single people, and the hits to single people’s retirement accounts (as explained in the article), and it turns out that:
“Singles pay thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, more in health spending. This is largely because of discriminatory policies by companies and the U.S. government.”
Over 60 years of spending on housing, single women will pay between $381,600 and $763,200 more than married women will.
“Our lower-earning woman paid $484,368 for being single. Our higher-earning woman paid $1,022,096: more than a million dollars just for being single.”
The bottom line was calculated based solely on income tax, Social Security, housing, and health spending. As the authors note, there are countless other domains in which singles pay more. (Many are described in Singlism.)
I think it is also worth noting that Lisa and Christina focused their herculean efforts only on financial costs. As we have been discussing here for years, there are other significant costs to being single and stigmatized. Singled Out covers many of them (paperback is here; ebook is here), and most of the posts I’ve published here at “Living Single” are relevant, too.
[Note: My latest posts elsewhere are below.]