We’re going to give it to you straight: “After about 10 years, married people have about four times as much wealth as single people,” says Jay Zagorsky, an economist at Ohio State University who’s studied marital wealth trends. “The best thing you can do to increase your wealth is to get married—and stay happily married.” Wait, what? In 2018, are the finances of coupledom still so…retro? In some ways, yes, but needless to say, that doesn’t mean you should find the closest available single person and say your vows. Here’s what to know about how your relationship status, whatever it is, can affect your net worth, and how to protect yourself accordingly.
If You’re Coupled Up
What’s good: First things first—what’s up with those findings about marrieds being wealthier? It’s partially because relationships can provide a safety net. “A spouse can be a cushion if you lose your job or hit a rough patch,” says Kerry Sweeney, vice president of women investors at Fidelity Investments, whereas single women without enough savings may fall into debt. Economies of scale—everything from splitting rent to sharing groceries—can also help marrieds quickly build wealth (that’s the value of your assets like savings and stocks and property, minus any debt). Cohabiting couples get some of these benefits, though not as many since they don’t typically combine finances and can’t take advantage of things like some tax breaks and joint benefits. Insurers and lenders may see married couples with two incomes as more reliable than singles and thus might offer lower premium or repayment rates, making it easier to sock away for home buying or retirement savings. The net effect: A woman’s wealth increases about 16 percent per year after walking down the aisle.
What’s not good: Marriage typically hurts a woman’s overall salary and career advancement, dinging her lifetime earnings, according to PayScale, an online salary and compensation data company. Why? Women still tend to sacrifice their career for their spouse, say, by moving for a partner’s job or leaving work to take care of kids. That can make financial sense at the time— perhaps his salary is higher, or the opportunities bigger—but “you don’t have the same economic security if death or divorce happen,” says Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington. Stay-at-homes face an even steeper penalty: Women lose 19 percent of their lifetime earning power when they take five years off (starting at age 26) for caregiving, the Center for American Progress found.
To offset the damage: If you take time off for family needs and plan to jump back in later, keep your skills fresh. Take courses, renew certifications, or do strategic volunteer projects in your industry through sites like catchafire.org or idealist.org, says Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of career reentry firm iRelaunch. “You have to stay current.” That shows employers you’re a serious candidate with clear value, she says.
It’s also critical to stay involved in your family finances. Only 22 percent of married women over 25 say they’re the primary money decision maker, according to a Fidelity retirement study. “You both have to be in the financial front seat,” says Sweeney, “to ensure you’re prepared for the unexpected.” Know what you own and owe as a couple, put both of your names on documents like a mortgage or insurance policy, and set money goals together.
If You’re Single
What’s good: Compared with their married counterparts, single women (with or without kids) face a smaller gender wage gap. And women with a college degree who remain single until they’re at least 30 earn up to $18,152 more a year than married peers, one study found.
Not having a partner also means single women become their own financial experts, says Mariko Ling Chang, Ph.D., author of Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It. “They don’t have to answer to anyone, and they realize they’re good at managing money.” Plus, singles are never surprised by a spouse’s maxed-out credit card. “You can create goals that will benefit you as opposed to you plus your family,” says New York City career expert Jill Jacinto.
What’s not good: Your wealth. Chang’s research found the average single woman has just $3,210 of wealth, compared with $10,150 for a single guy and $78,000 for married couples. (The gap is even worse for single women of color.)
To offset the damage: Since you’re solely in charge of seeing your earnings grow, Chang says to make sure you’re being paid what you’re worth by researching salaries for similar roles in your area. “I push women to negotiate as much as possible early on because that sets you up for the rest of your career,” says Jacinto. Next: Start saving now. “It’s the best thing you can do to build wealth,” says Chang. “The benefits of compounding interest will leave you better off than if you invest larger sums even five or 10 years later.” And don’t just save—invest. A Fidelity report found that single women are twice as likely as men to say they keep savings in cash. “That may mean you miss out on potential long-term growth,” says Sweeney.
Take advantage of employer-sponsored retirement plans or open your own Roth IRA (go to rothira.com for steps, or services like Betterment, an online financial adviser, can help you make a customized plan). “You are your own support system,” Sweeney says, “so keep your financial engine finely tuned and operating at its best.”
If You’re Divorced (or Thinking About It)
What’s good: Divorced women feel a surprising sense of happiness when it comes to money, even if they have less of it, Fidelity found. That’s because 84 percent feel more in financial control than when they were married, and almost half say they’re in better financial shape post-breakup. “Both spouses, especially the one earning less, need to think carefully about how they will live independently after divorce, which may mean lifestyle changes,” says Sweeney. Brace yourself—divorce is generally not good for the wallet. “But some of those changes can be positive,” she says.
What’s not good: Zagorsky’s research found divorced couples quickly lost the wealth they’d accumulated together and ended up worse off than peers who’d never married. The drop is tied to a few things: the loss of cost-saving measures like splitting a mortgage bill; legal fees; and payments like alimony or child support.
To offset the damage: During the divorce, find out how the assets you receive will be taxed, says Courtney M. Weber, a financial planner in Cincinnati. If you own a home, consider whether it could become an albatross: Expenses including insurance and maintenance can become too much for one person to bear. “And don’t make any sudden decisions,” says Weber—especially if they involve a major purchase. Set a new budget for yourself, and keep things lean for the first year to gauge your new normal. Adds wealth manager Sharon Blood- worth: “The real difference [in wealth] happens 10 years down the line, when alimony and child support end. Downsize quickly so you can put yourself in the best position to thrive.”
Kerri Anne Renzulli is a family finance reporter at Money.
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