It took 16 months to pay off my husband’s student loans after we got married. It’s a feat that he couldn't have accomplished as a single person. There wouldn’t have been enough time in a day to work a full-time job and a side hustle, and handle the tedious tasks of laundry, cooking, cleaning and general adulthood without some level of additional support.
As a cohabiting couple, we split household responsibilities and were each able to pick up the slack when the other hit a busy season. Bills were shared and once we were married, our joint financial powers enabled us to aggressively pay off debt while also living a balanced life. As a self-employed person, I reaped the benefits of my husband’s high-quality and low-cost health insurance.
All of this amounts to what is often referred to as “couple privilege.” An admittedly obnoxious term for the way in which twosomes, especially married people, tend to benefit from a society that is set up for couples. That advantage is only growing, with a report from the Wall Street Journal (based on data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve) showing the median net worth of married couples aged 25 to 34 was almost nine times the median net worth of their single peers in 2019, in part because of rising home prices.
Trying to buy a home or car with just one salary can be near-impossible, especially now. US hotels don’t charge less for one person instead of two to stay in a room. Chores won’t be completed unless you do them yourself or pay for them to be outsourced. Cooking for one can be a frustrating process of always having a surplus.
Then there’s the fundamentally unfair expectation that a single person has a more flexible schedule and can pick up overtime or work holidays, or get slotted in less desirable vacation times because they’re not accounting for other people. (Granted, this is operating under the assumption it’s a child-free single person.)
Even within family dynamics, a single person can be relegated to second-class status by getting the worst room on the family trip or always being expected to do whatever is easier for those who are married with children. This doesn’t even get into the cost of gift-giving for weddings and baby showers without reciprocity.
Some of these examples of a so-called single's tax may seem like they’re less material because they’re temporary and single people may eventually get married. But more people are getting married later, if ever, thereby delaying the financial benefits or losing them forever.
It becomes even bleaker as you get older. Unmarried Americans are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to Social Security. Those who are married are able to receive a surviving spouse’s benefits after they die. Non-working spouses are eligible for benefits, and partners in a marriage where both worked can claim the lower benefit for the early years and then switch over to a higher payout upon reaching full retirement age. After a single person dies, their benefits end, unless they have a dependent parent to pass them to.
In some ways, it feels like the system isn’t even set up for single people. Plugging “what happens to Social Security benefits when someone dies” into a search engine yields a bunch of articles about survivor benefits and passing on benefits to a spouse. The Social Security Administration website about death benefits never mentions the word “single” or “unmarried.”
None of this even covers how stressful it can be to handle retirement planning as a single person without the benefits or earnings of a partner to help cover potential shortfalls. It makes it that much harder to delay taking Social Security to maximize the payment.
All of this isn’t to say you should just settle and get married for financial security. Long-term, couple privilege is only a reality if the married couple ends up staying together. Divorce can be a death blow to financial stability, especially if there’s only one working spouse who may be carrying the costs of alimony, child support and two residences. That’s not even accounting for the actual cost of lawyers and paperwork to formally sever your relationship in the eyes of the government. And remember, in terms of Social Security, an ex-spouse isn’t entitled to a benefit if the marriage doesn’t hit the 10-year mark.
Still, the “you could get divorced” argument doesn’t eliminate the many financial ways single people are marginalized in a world that’s fundamentally structured with the assumption that adults will couple up. It may seem small, but married couples can do their part to be more considerate of the ways in which they may unintentionally impose a tax on their single friends. At the very least, next time you’re at a restaurant do the right thing: Split the bill in thirds, not half.
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