“I can’t get married yet! I need more savings.”
“I need to wait until I get that promotion.”
“I have to finish school!”
“I can’t marry until I own a house and make six figures!”
“Marriage is just too expensive!”
Perhaps you have heard these refrains. In developed countries by far the most common explanation for the decline in marriage relates to economics. Pundits point to sluggish wage growth over the last few decades and the standardization of two-income households. Millenials in particular complain of poor job prospects. They lament, with a not so subtle tinge of bitterness, that they cannot expect to enjoy lifetime employment at a single company and support a family, a car, and a house in the suburbs while allowing one parent to stay home with the kids — as their boomer parents did.
Certainly it is true that today’s economy is very different from that of our parents’. Globalization, technological change, the decline of union membership, the mass entrance of women into the workforce — all of it has taken a toll in disrupting lifestyle expectations. Yet we should not forget that there have been positive changes as well. Today there are numerous new fields of knowledge-based jobs and greater opportunities than ever to work from home. Furthermore, through decades of economic upheaval, one source of improving an individual’s standard of living has remained constant: Marriage.
The Power of Teamwork
For a long time, marriage was one of the main ways that poor and working class people raised their economic status. Marriage was understood to be a source of economic security for women and a motivator for young men. Now with more women working there is greater pressure on young men. Women in the past were more willing to marry a young guy just starting in his career and grow along with him. This remains a good strategy by the way. Many guys who get shot down by all the ladies when they are in their 20’s have great careers and comfortable lifestyles in their 30’s. Women who wait until their 30’s risk reduced fertility and a greater likelihood that desirable men their own age are mostly already taken.
Men also suffer from postponing marriage. There is strong evidence that marriage improves a man’s economic prospects significantly. There are a number of reasons for this. The practical support he may get from his wife in terms of supporting his career either financially or through time saving labor is likely a big part. No doubt another reason married men earn more is that they are motivated to improve the standard of living of their loved ones.
Cynics liken this to a slave driver cracking the whip. This is balderdash. A man seeking to make his wife and kids comfortable is no more her slave than anyone caring for a loved one. Is a man caring for an elderly parent or sick friend a “slave”? Are all pet owners “slaves”? For many, the greatest satisfaction to be had in life comes from the love and care they give to others, not what they receive.
Let’s focus purely on the material consequences of marriage. Consider the case of two average people: Tom and Sally. Let’s say both are in their early 20’s and have entry-level jobs and are living alone. What are the practical financial benefits for them to get married?
Let’s consider three scenarios after they get married:
1. Both Tom and Sally continue to work full-time.
2. Tom works full-time but Sally stays home
3. Tom works full-time while Sally works part-time.
Note that we could of course do the same analysis with Sally working full-time and Tom staying home.
In scenario 1, if Tom and Sally move in together, they immediately have a huge boost in income. They no longer need to pay for two apartments. They can move into a larger place in a better neighborhood. They can afford more luxuries, go on vacations, save more money, and buy a nicer car. Both can continue full steam ahead with their careers without worry until children come into the picture. Furthermore, the legal status of being married let’s them file their taxes jointly and keep more of their income. Insurance will also likely be cheaper.
In scenario 2 Tom has to support Sally. However Sally also supports Tom in many ways. By handling the housework she saves him time while creating a low-stress home environment. By shopping, cooking, and managing the budget, she may even save enough money that Tom spends less than he would if he lived alone. Sally can also support Tom’s career by helping him study and giving him the freedom to go back to school or work extra hours to get a promotion. Perhaps most importantly, Sally’s emotional support of Tom — her love and admiration — may drive him to be more ambitious and successful as described above.
Finally, scenario 3 confers some combination of the benefits from scenarios 1 and 2. The couple has more money to spend than they would have living separately. Tom enjoys career support from his wife and Sally has more economic security and can work less.
The basic point is that marriage leaves the couple materially better off in all three scenarios. When we look at the data and compare the lives of married people to single people, it becomes clear that it does not make sense when people say they cannot get married because it is, “too expensive.” As the scenarios above illustrate, the teamwork effect of marriage — the pooling of resources — objectively raises both partners’ standards of living.
But what about the skeptics who cannot imagine actually affording a stable marriage lifestyle? To really drive the point home let’s create a sample budget:
A Sample Budget
Let’s assume a person is living alone in New York City. New York is known as one of the most expensive cities in the world, so that will give us an additional challenge. Keep in mind though that we can do a similar calculation for any major city in a developed country.
Here is our basic cost of living per month:
1 bedroom apartment outskirts of city: $800 monthly rent
Groceries / Food: $400
Utilities / Internet / Phone: $300
Entertainment / Misc: $300
Cash Savings: $200
Total Needed: $2000
This is a pretty tight budget but from experience we know it is doable. A quick look at Craigslist shows that there are a number of one bedroom apartments throughout Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, New Jersey, and the greater New York City area, though not in the choicest locations. $400 a month for food assumes about $100 a week which works out to about $14 a day. That should serve for a light breakfast, an inexpensive meal out of the home, and a decent homecooked meal each day. $300 should also cover the electric and gas bills as well as phone and basic internet service.
So you live in New York City. You’re just starting out, so you aren’t making the NYC median salary of $51,000. Let’s say instead you are starting at $31,000, which is the median yearly income for all of America but somewhat low for New York City (for comparison, public school teachers in New York City start at $54,000). After taxes you are going to take home at least $2300 every month. That lets you do everything outlined in the budget above and have $300 left over for video games.
But what if you get married? What if you have children? Is it possible for a family to survive on a similar budget with only one spouse working in New York City? Let’s try making a budget:
2 bedroom apartment outskirts of city: $1000 monthly rent
Groceries / Food: $600
Utilities / Internet / Phone: $400
Entertainment / Misc: $150
Cash Savings: $150
Total Needed: $2300
We made it work by using up the remaining $300. We bumped up our grocery budget because we have more mouths to feed. Some might argue that $600 is not enough to feed a family of four for a month. Those people would be wrong. See the food budget links below. We also increased our utilities and housing budget to get a larger space. Notice that we still have a bit left over for savings, entertainment, and incidental expenses. By cutting those even further we could afford an even nicer place to live.
In practice, the bread-winning spouse in this scenario won’t be at $2300 per month forever. He (or she) will likely get a promotion or move to a better job eventually. A few years down the road and he could be taking home $3000 a month. That would let the family upgrade in a number of ways — a bigger home, more saving, vacations, eating out more often, etc. It all depends on what families choose to prioritize. For some families the most important thing is having time together. Others wish to live in a larger home, or travel, or just have extra money to go to watch IMAX movies every now and then. In a healthy marriage, husbands and wives work together to pursue their values.
Some might argue that legal marriage is not necessary to reap the economic benefits outline above. Could not our young couple just move in together and enjoy the same results? This is true in theory but not in practice. For one, cohabitating couples have a greater chance of splitting up than married ones. The legal status of husband and wife strengthens both partners’ commitment to one another. It also leads to better outcomes for children and confers economic benefits regarding taxes and insurance.
The last point we want to leave you with is a seemingly obvious one: Marriage offers a number of non-economic benefits as well. Marriage helps to ensure a lifetime of love and companionship for many people. It is also the best environment for rearing children. For most parents, the joy and sense of legacy that comes from having children is incalculable. Very few people ever regret having children even in cases of rocky marriages and divorce. The abstract benefits of having a spouse and children are beyond the scope of this article, but it is worth reminding those who remain skeptical of our economic argument.
Hopefully you take from this article one core idea: Marriage is not just for rich people. It can be a path to a more comfortable life for people at all economic levels.
Some Links to Help You Eat Well on a Budget
Tasty meal preps (cheap but not super cheap) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoGI78-FSko
Living in NYC for $50 a week: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGAiihQZxpI
$1 Healthy recipes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFt7zAsO-8U
7 days of meals for family of 5 for $50: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NauHhTVV-M
5 meals that feed 10 people for only $5: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slAeBEc_GPA
More $1 meal ideas for weight loss: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BATYypB-TSI
Full week meal prep for $20: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vVvT_3FI8c
Fun ways to improve cheap mac and cheese: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvTlZTjH1QU
$50 per week bodybuilder budget (language): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQ3HZX5Cqxo
Life of Boris fun cheap food guide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKfmRhfuI8g
For our vegetarian and vegan friends:
7 vegetarian recipes at $3.50 each: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ylk9Sq70XT4
$1.50 per day vegan food budget: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LGCG_Bd-XI
5 Vegan meals for under $1.50: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bcGOnkdsHs
$20 full week vegan meal prep: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3eYVEyMpTY