How Do Single and Married People Spend Their Time?

The biggest difference: Single people spend more time on their education.

Posted Jan 28, 2019

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Most people know better than to ask why I am single, as if there is something wrong with that. There is, though, a different question that people wonder about when they learn that I am single — what do I do with my time?

I can do better than to tell you just about me. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts an annual American Time Use Survey, in which more than 26,000 people answer questions about how they spent their time on the previous day. Households are chosen from every state in the nation. If more than one person lives in the household, one participant is selected at random from the people who are 15 and older. The most recent data available are from 2017 and are posted at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For people interested in how people of different marital statuses spend their time, the reporting only offers answers in broad strokes. I’d like to see the results for different kinds of unmarried people (never married, divorced, widowed, cohabiting) reported separately, but the findings are presented only for two categories: (1) married people (and only if they are living with their spouse) and (2) everyone else. Also, the analyses simply compare all of the married people to all of the people who are not married, without trying to take into account other ways the groups might differ. That means we can’t know whether it is marital status that matters most, or something else, such as the participants’ age, their financial status, whether they are working, or whether they have kids in the house.

Keeping those qualifications in mind, here are the ways in which married and unmarried adults in the U.S. differ most in how they spend their time.

1. Every day, single people spend an average 52 minutes more on educational activities than married people do.

The biggest marital status difference is in educational activities, such as taking classes for credit or for fun, and doing relevant activities, such as research or homework. Single people spend about 56 minutes a day, whereas married people spend only 4 minutes a day.

2. Single people spend 43 minutes more per day on sleeping and personal care.

On average, single people spend just under 10 hours a day sleeping, showering, dressing, and engaging in “health-related self-care and personal and private activities.” (I wish they reported the results for sleeping separately from everything else.) Married people spend 9.24 hours per day on those activities.

3. Every day, married people spend an average of 41 minutes more on household activities than single people do.

Household activities are chores, such as housework, yard work, taking care of the house, taking care of the car, cooking, and taking care of pets. Married people spend an average of 2.15 hours per day on chores; single people spend just under 1.5 hours.

4. Single people spend an average of 40 more minutes per day on leisure and sports.

Leisure includes relaxing, listening to music, reading for fun, watching TV, using the computer or the internet to pursue your own personal interests, and going to artistic, cultural, or entertainment events. The category of sports includes participating in, attending, or watching sporting events, as well as exercising, dancing, and playing games, such as pool or horseshoes.

Single people spend about 5.6 hours a day on leisure and sports, whereas married people spend about 4.9 hours.

Leisure does not include texting, emailing, or calling people for reasons other than work. That’s a separate category, and the married and single people hardly differed at all in the time they spent on those activities.

5. Married people spend an average of 38 minutes more per day working.

Work includes activities you are paid for, including traditional jobs as well as more informal activities, such as selling items you made yourself. It also includes work-related activities. such as looking for a job and business lunches.

Married people spend an average of 3.89 hours per day working, whereas single people spend 3.26 hours. (The numbers are not higher, because weekends are averaged in, and some people haven’t started working yet, or have retired, or are out of work.)

Another way to look at the survey data is to rank-order the activities that the married and single people spend most of their time doing. From that perspective, the two groups are very similar. The top five categories are the same for both:

  • Sleeping and personal care
  • Leisure and sports
  • Working
  • Household activities
  • Eating and drinking (the amount of time the married and single people spend on this is similar)

The two groups don’t differ in rank-ordering until we get to the activity ranked 6th: For single people, it is educational activities, and for married people, it is purchasing goods and services, whether online or in person (for example, grocery shopping, clothes shopping, and putting gas in the car). Married and single people don’t differ much in the time they spend purchasing goods and services, but that category ranks higher for married people.

In summary, married people spend more time on chores and working, whereas single people spend more time on educational activities, sleeping and personal care, and leisure and sports. Overall, though, both groups spend more time sleeping and having fun than they do working.