Marriage has a way of making people grow up and think about the future. Nights out with friends and crawling stores for clothes are replaced by eating in together and saving for a house. But while that priority shift eventually creates more stable finances, in the short term, it puts a squeeze on your wallet.
On a month-to-month basis, marriage just doesn't pay. At least not far beyond the honeymoon phase, after which the happy couple invariably decides to leverage its new status into better living quarters, nicer cars and more "mature" spending priorities like insurance and church donations.
Getting hitched does have financial benefits at first. We looked at the monthly expenses of three New York City households; a single person earning $90,000 a year, a childless couple earning $170,000 a year and a family of five whose annual income is just over $500,000, courtesy of New York-based Chestnut Financial. A peek at their actual household expenditures shows, not surprisingly, that a married couple pays substantially less proportionally toward basic living costs than a single person.
For example, only 9.3 percent of the couples' $14,200 monthly gross income goes for rent, compared with 23 percent of the single person's $7,500 monthly pay. The couple also pays less for food (5.6 percent vs. 8.3 percent), cable television (1 percent vs. 1.8 percent) and the telephone bill (1.2 percent vs. 2.8 percent). And auto insurers place married people in a lower risk class, saving them money on car insurance.
Married couples get tax relief
The married couple also gets some relief on both federal and Social Security taxes, thanks to the slightly lower tax rates associated with joint filing. They pay out a combined 29 percent of their salaries, compared with the 35 percent the single person pays.
“The Republicans have mostly eliminated the marriage penalty, and a higher-earning spouse can effectively shield his or her income from higher taxes,” says Chris Edwards, tax policy director at the Cato Institute.
A few other costs also tend to dwindle once a person has succeeded in snagging a spouse.
“Singles tend to spend a lot on gyms, fitness and clothes,” says Chestnut Financial's Valerie Adelman, who counsels individuals and families on financial planning.
But once a couple settles into married life, new expenses aren't far behind.
Wedding bells lead to smoother retirement
Married couples tend to start saving for retirement early on, while singles generally wait until their 40s. So while wedding bells usually lead to a smoother path to retirement, they produce a more expensive month-to-month life — and they mean less free cash in your pocket.
Newly married couples also tend to purchase a house or condo within a couple of years. This allows them to accrue equity — a positive thing — but also forces them to incur big expenses, like household maintenance, homeowners and life insurance, and furniture. While there are plenty of renting couples and home-owning singles, married people account for 77 percent of all homeowners, according to the Center for Politics.
Despite the expenses, single people actually do well when they buy a house. Even though affording a down payment is tough for most singles, they stand to benefit more than married people from the tax code. With a standard deduction of $4,750 annually, a single person sees the benefits of itemized deductions like mortgage interest and property taxes before a married couple filing jointly, for whom the standard deduction is $7,950.
There's no doubt singles who make an effort to do financially prudent things — buying homes and opening up retirement accounts early — wind up better off than their married friends.
Singles able to save more
Add it all up, and Chestnut's married clients shell out practically all of their monthly income on living expenses, scraping to save anything beyond a retirement plan contribution. The single earner, by contrast, socks away more than $300 per month, nearly 5 percent of his or her pay.
Once children enter the picture, married couples are really in financial trouble: The costs to raise and educate children are staggering.
A third Chestnut client, a married couple with three children, spends $2,400 a month on food and basic household items, triple what the childless couple spends.
The total cost of camps, day care, books, toys and after-school programs? Try $4,000 a month. And that bill more than doubles if the kids go to private school. Families living in areas less expensive than New York City will pay less, of course, but they'll also earn less and pay a similar percentage of their income for those expenses. And all the “family discounts” in the world at ballgames, amusement parks and museums won't put much of a dent in those bills.
It's not all bad news for married couples. A saving grace for the institution is the fact that that two heads are better than one. Like most any issue, finances are more easily worked out with a partner.
“Singles have no one to bounce things off of, while married people tend to work things out together,” Adelman says.