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Couple privilege: The wealth gap between single and married Americans has more than doubled in the last decade — how do you get ahead when it’s just you?

·5 min read
Couple privilege: The wealth gap between single and married Americans has more than doubled in the last decade — how do you get ahead when it’s just you?
Couple privilege: The wealth gap between single and married Americans has more than doubled in the last decade — how do you get ahead when it’s just you?

If you thought the endless swiping and scrolling on dating apps were the worst parts about being single in 2022, then hold on, because there’s an even colder reality awaiting you.

While one is the loneliest number it’s also, increasingly, the poorest.

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Though it’s not surprising married couples have a higher net worth than singles, over the last decade that gap has more than doubled and married couples are pulling out far ahead of singles.

The sky rocketing value of assets — especially homes — over the past couple of years is largely to blame for the growing gap, but high inflation and rising interest rates aren’t helping either.

And at a time when more people are staying single for longer, building wealth on your own is becoming increasingly difficult.

The gap that keeps on growing

In 2019, a net worth of about $60,000 separated married and single households, more than double the size of the gap that existed in 2010 (which was about $25,000), according to data from the survey of consumer finances, analyzed by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

But the ballooning value of assets such as investments, vehicles, and real estate especially, has widened the gap even further over the past couple of years, estimates Lowell Ricketts, data scientist at the Institute for Economic Equity at the St. Louis Fed.

“What we've seen since [2019], is really this incredible asset price appreciation,” says Ricketts.

“Houses are getting more valuable as have been financial assets, although until recently with the market volatility, financial assets have had a much more of a roller coaster ride, but housing assets still remain very strong.”

The median house price in the U.S. in 2019 was about $300,000, according to Realtor.com, while in May of 2022 the median list price was $447,000. And that increase is showing up in the disparity of wealth.

That extra $150,000 makes applying for a mortgage that much harder if you’re on your own and trying to get in on a competitive market. But if you already own, that value adds to your wealth.

Married couples are “going to have… greater net worth of accumulation through housing equity. And so I think that's going to potentially balloon this gap even further… barring any sort of housing market downturn, and rapid price depreciation.”

In 2021, married couples were twice as likely to buy a house than singles. That year, 60% of house buyers were married couples, 19% were single women, and 9% were single men, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Inflation and rising interest rates hit single income households hard

High inflation, which was 8.3% in August, and the increasing interest rates aren’t helping singles either.

“That can be a factor for the single households as well, that they just have less choices in front of them to deal with inflation across a broad range of goods,” says Ricketts. “So we might see some exacerbating factors there.”

The smaller your income or net worth, the more likely it is that you’re already buying items on the cheaper end of the scale. And when those items rise in price, there aren’t many options for an even cheaper item.

“Dual earning couples not only are bringing in two incomes in many cases, but also sharing the expenses, food, clothing, shelter, anything. So that there is an innate disadvantage,” says Margaret Price who co-wrote the book Single Women and Money: How To Live Well On Your Income.

And single women have the added hurdle of the gender pay gap.

Over the course of their career, women make about $400,000 less than men, according to the National Women’s Law Center and it’s doubly worse for women of color.

“Inflation only exacerbates the problem,” says Price. “But the point is that even if inflation cools, which certainly everyone is hoping for, the fact remains that single women are at a notable disadvantage.”

Tips for making up the difference

While this is more than a little depressing for single people, there are some small steps you can make to help yourself get a little further ahead.

Make sure you have an emergency fund

Adding to an emergency fund is also important to becoming financially secure, says Price.

If you lose your job as a single person, you need to make sure you have funds to [support yourself] through a time of unemployment.

“The burden is all on you. And chances are, you earn less than a man. And chances are you earn less than dual-earning couples.”

Price suggests a fund that could cover at least three months of necessary spending.

Anything could happen, so plan for that

And lastly, Price recommends you do some estate planning, even if you’re young and healthy.

“We don't know if something is going to happen to us,” she says. “We could be in a car accident anytime, we could develop an illness. And the question is not only just about mortality, but also who will help us out.”

Price says that includes planning who would be able to make decisions for you in the case that you aren’t able to.

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This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.