The high price of being single: ‘It’s all on one person’

February 13, 2023, 5:00 PM UTC
Woman traveler navigating with the use of her cell phone
Being single seems to help individuals navigate their finances better, but remaining single can be less affordable.
PRImageFactory/Getty Images

Why aren’t you married yet? Do you like being alone? 

Maybe it’s the well-intentioned refrain from parents and family. Or an annoying comment from your coupled friends. Or even an off-the-cuff remark from someone you barely know. But versions of this query on your relationship status are commonplace for many unmarried Americans. 

Yet everyone has experienced singledom at some point, though it’s likely that many of your married friends try to downplay that era of their lives. Nearly 118 million Americans, or 46% of those over 18 years old, are single, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

And while many find themselves in this state by happenstance, a quarter of Americans, including 35% of Gen Z, say they’re not actively looking for a relationship either, according to a new survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by the Harris Poll. 

And being unattached seems like less of a big deal these days. About 68% of Americans believe that the stigma of being single is gradually diminishing, Harris finds. Plus, despite what married friends and family tout, having to rely on yourself does mean that single Americans tend to feel more confident in managing their finances. 

Seven in 10 single Americans believe that the experience has taught them how to work with their own money really well, according to Harris’s survey. A similar percentage feel financially empowered and more in control of their finances. 

“We need to reexamine our perceptions of single Americans,” says Libby Rodney, futurist and chief strategy officer at the Harris Poll. “It's worth noting that being single isn't void of anything. There is a spectrum of deep and meaningful relationships single people are involved in, and it's important to recognize the richness of their relationship choices.”

That said, for many, the financial, emotional, and mental costs of being single persist. Being without a partner can establish a very different set of circumstances, says Lisa Gralnek, 45, founder and principal of the independent strategy consultancy LVG & Co, as well as the creator and host, Future of XYZ podcast, an interview series exploring where we are as a world and where we want to go.

“I think we tend to want to learn because we really, frankly, don't have a choice,” Gralnek says of managing her finances. “We've become more well-rounded, in that sense, than a couple—certainly someone who has been together forever—because they never had to learn on their own."

Yet it’s far from easy. “I've worked my ass off and done it on my terms—which I'm very proud of,” Gralnek says. And while she is by no means a poster child for single Americans, her experiences do echo some of the broader issues facing adults who aren’t partnered up. "I look at all of my couple friends, whether they have a lot of money or not that much money, and they are financially better off than I am.”

In fact, three-quarters of Americans say that it can be more affordable to be in a relationship—especially when it comes to splitting everyday costs like housing expenses or food prices or monthly bills.  

They’re not wrong. The median household income for married couples was $106,921 as of 2021, according to Census data. Single women earn a median income of $51,168, while single men make $70,525.

But the costs facing single Americans go beyond the simple fact that couples have an additional income in the mix. The extra time spent doing tasks that a couple could split, the risk reduction steps singles may take because there’s no safety net, and even the outright discrimination facing singles, particularly against women, all add up. 

​​Time is money

The "single tax" is real, and frustrating to people who aren’t in relationships. But perhaps the most expensive aspect of being alone is how much extra time you spend on a wide variety of things, when compared to couples, Gralnek says.

Photo of Lisa Gralnek
“I’ve worked my ass off and done it on my terms—which I'm very proud of,” says Lisa Gralnek. Yet she notes that her paired-off friends are better off financially than she is.
Lisa Gralnek

Dating by itself is not only expensive—60% of singles report that dating is becoming an unaffordable luxury thanks to inflation—it’s a time suck. As a single person, the amount of time and energy it takes to find a partner can be substantial, Gralnek says. “Think about all the time that is lost in terms of money, time that could be focused on your career, or focused on making money, focused on a side hustle, or just living.”

As someone who never anticipated being single, Gralnek says it’s been frustrating, but she doesn’t just want to settle. “That feeling of being alone when you're with someone is so much more lonely,” Gralnek adds. “Happily single is probably an overstatement. It's great to have the right partner, but in the absence of the right partner, I’m fine being where I am.”

Beyond the time suck of dating, for people without a partner, there’s no one to help with all those everyday tasks. Unless you’re able to hire a personal assistant, it’s on you to make time for running errands like picking up the dry cleaning, stopping at the gas station, and feeding yourself. “It's all on one person,” Gralnek says. 

Even doing simple tasks like going out to eat takes more time if you don’t want to go alone because you have to schedule a time to meet up with a friend versus just popping into the restaurant together. Traveling? There’s often an extra fee for single occupancy. 

Discrimination can still be an issue

Single Americans might not experience as many people bugging them outright about marriage these days, but some inequity still exists. 

“There are a number of places where unfortunately there are very overt ways in which singles are discriminated against,” Gralnek says. And she’s not just talking about the U.S. tax code. (Although 79% of single Americans say they’d like to see the government offer more tax breaks for single people, according to the Harris survey.)

For Gralnek, the biggest hurdle she’s faced in being single came when she tried to buy a home. After selling her home in Boston in 2018, Gralnek moved to New York City and began house hunting. After being preapproved for a sizable mortgage, she met with a mortgage officer who declined to okay her for a loan after finding out she was single and recently self-employed. 

“I've done everything right. I have more cash than this house is worth, and I couldn't get a mortgage because I'm single and self-employed. And there's no logic behind it,” Gralnek says. 

After waiting two years to generate the paper trail of tax returns required to qualify, Gralnek found herself in the midst of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and lenders tightening their credit policies. So in the end, despite sitting on a substantial amount of cash, she bought a house in Connecticut. 

“When I go to sign the papers for the closing, it says ‘Ms. Lisa Gralnek, an unmarried woman…’” she says. “My lawyer says don't worry about it, that's just standard Connecticut legal language. But I really care. I have a real problem with this. Does it say an unmarried man? That I don't know.”

Maybe there still would have been problems if Gralnek was married, but her initial mortgage would have likely been approved if she had an additional spousal income. Not to mention the emotional support you get from a partner. “Some of the benefit of being in a partnership—some people have family for this or friends—is really going through it together, so that you get to the right answer together. Whereas when you're single, male or female, you actually really need to just decide for yourself.” 

Taking risks is harder when you’re single 

Starting your own business. Making a career change. Quitting a bad job. All of these can be healthy risks for the average American to take, but they’re more challenging to take advantage of when you’re single and there’s no fallback if you make the wrong move. 

“There's no safety net unless you happen to have a family who can take care of you,” Gralnek says. “Everything is on your shoulders.”

Now, there is some satisfaction in not answering to someone else. In fact, single Americans report they enjoy having more time to focus on their passions, personal growth, and career. And more than eight out of 10 say that they enjoy not worrying about a partner’s debt or financial obligations, according to the Harris survey. 

For many single Americans, Gralnek included, the risk analysis is different when you’re single. “You don't have someone to bounce ideas off of—you don't have someone who can be like, Oh, babe, take six months to find your ideal job,” she says, but notes that even a lot of working couples don’t have that luxury either.

Singles can still succeed, no doubt, but it may take longer, and there are certainly costs along the way that are unavoidable. “You're paying in so many ways,” Gralnek says. 

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