Originally published in the Washington Post
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January is a month of disciplined eating for many attempting to drop extra pounds gained during two months of holiday parties and dinners. But for Lauren Peckman, four weeks of dining on lentils and rice were not an attempt to lose weight. The 32-year-old nonprofit worker maintained this strict diet to keep her grocery budget as low as possible. For many years, after celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, she would spend January living as frugally as possible to replenish her bank account.
Peckman, who lives in St. Louis, is single. And she has found herself overwhelmed by the expenses of family obligations and expectations during Thanksgiving and Christmas — expectations that affect her married relatives’ lives in significantly different ways.
Over Thanksgiving, for example, she traveled to Atlanta to visit her brother, sister-in-law and nephew, and for Christmas, she will travel to spend the holiday with her parents, who live about an hour from St. Louis. Her brother and his family will not be traveling.
“Pretty much as soon as he was married, it was understood that he would not be coming to as many holidays,” Peckman said. “Especially in his first year of marriage, he chose to not come and visit. And now that he has a little family of his own, and traveling with children is so difficult, it’s just assumed that he won’t be out traveling to visit for the holidays. If anything, it will happen in the other direction, with the family will go see him and his family.”
Despite the winter holidays often being illustrated as scenes of cozy family togetherness, the end of the year can be much less merry — and much more costly — for single people.
“The assumption that single people have so much free time is truly in error,” Peckman said. “No one is calling the insurance company to advocate for us during business hours. No one is helping mail out the holiday cards; no one is sharing meal preparation; no one is picking up groceries; no one is going to share the car with us for a week while ours is in a shop.”
Peckman is not alone in her frustration. “Single people in some ways have more freedom, but they also have constraints that are rarely recognized. One of the biggest ones is financial,” says Bella DePaulo, a Solo-ish contributor and author of “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.” DePaulo notes that single people who live alone are paying for rent or mortgage, utilities and everything else out of one paycheck — while couples who live together often have two checks to cover one set of expenses.
The December holidays are hardly cheap for anyone. In 2016, the average American shelled out $929 on gifts for friends and loved ones; this year, the American Research Group expects that number to reach $983. But that total can have a very different effect on the budget of a single person compared to someone who’s married. TD Ameritrade’s recent survey of 1,000 married people and 1,000 single people reported that, while 43 percent of married individuals rate themselves as very financially secure, only 29 percent of single Americans think they fit that description.
That disparity might be tied to the pay gap between married and single individuals. TD Ameritrade also found that single people are paid an average of $8,800 less per year than their married colleagues. While earning less money, unmarried people also face some higher expenses when it comes to housing, insurance and cellphone bills. Expenses that can be divided down the middle for couples.
Then there’s the cost of trying to not be single. Pursuing romance is hardly cheap for men or women: According to a study from Match, in 2016 the average American shelled out almost $1,600 on their dating life.
Professional resources are scarce as well. When married parents leave the office, singles are often expected to work extra hours to make up the work under the assumption their schedules are more flexible. Married people are legally protected to take time off from work to care for their spouses and children thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, while single employees’ requests for time off may not be viewed as important in comparison. As this article on workplace culture points out: “Single employees represent 43.8 percent of the civilian labor force — hardly a demographic to be ignored.”
That same assumption is seen in family dynamics. In Peckman’s family, she often witnesses male relatives sending their wives to family functions as a family representative so the men can relax at home or keep working. “While I do not have a spouse or children, I have to create the norm that I am not obligated to attend every family event during the holidays,” Peckman says. “My time is as valuable as a working male cousin who cannot attend. My wishes for a certain religious service, where I like to relax during my precious time off work, must be as important as the married, or male, relatives of my age group.”
If vacation time is granted, then comes the challenge of travel, which already costs 23 percent more during the winter holidays compared to the rest of the year. Thanks to the common misconception that single people have so much freedom, they often find themselves expected to make the trip to the homes of married relatives, so larger families do not have to travel with their children.
But that freedom is actually less than perceived. “Something else other people don’t always realize when they want single people to do the traveling is that single people might be missing out on other things going on in their lives, where they live,” DePaulo said. “When people with children say it is too hard to travel with them, so the single people without children should be doing the traveling, they are acknowledging what’s inconvenient or difficult for them, with little appreciation for what’s inconvenient or difficult for single people.”
Joseph Larimore, a 34-year-old playwright says it’s a myth that single people can do whatever they want. “We have to work. And if no one’s there to help out with anything, we have to work really hard,” he said.
And even if someone is able to throw clothes in a suitcase and jet off to the location of their choice, getting there is more expensive. If a family goes in together on a vacation package or cruise for the holidays, the “single supplement” — a surcharge often applied when solo travelers occupy a room — can raise the price for someone traveling alone. And if a single person manages to avoid hotel surcharges by staying at a family member’s house, married people are often automatically given the private rooms while single people are relegated to sleeping on a couch or air mattress.
“For some single people . . . the expense of traveling to another person’s place for the holidays might mean that they won’t be able to afford vacation travel,” DePaulo said. “In a way, that’s a nice problem to have. For other singles, holiday travel expenses could cut into the budget for more basic expenses.”
Second in holiday stress to traveling is gift-giving, another festive ritual that can be financially inequitable to single people. For every gift jointly given by a couple, a single person bears the entire cost and often only receives one gift in return. Family gift exchanges frequently come with the expectation that people without partners or children have the money to shop and spend freely — an expectation Peckman contradicts, saying: “Our income is not ‘disposable’ and no one is there to back us up if financial strife should come. [There’s] no division or specialization of labor. We do it all.”
Government and economic policies — including taxes, health-care and housing — are established to benefit married people. So much so, that through their adult lives, the cost of being single can equal half a million to a million dollars (according to two Atlantic writers who crunched the numbers). Even insurance on a car used to drive to a married relatives’ house and sleep on an air mattress costs more for a single person than a married one.
These policies are outdated and bear examination, in the government and in families’ homes. Single people comprise almost half of the U.S. population, and they deserve recognition and respect equitable to those who are married. Until then, it’s up to single people to establish their own boundaries to protect their lifestyles and their bank accounts.
“I love my family, but I realize that creating one’s own valuable traditions seems only permissible to the married,” Peckman said. “It causes one to feel in a perpetual state of childhood, if single.”
Her holidays now include attending religious services she finds more spiritually satisfying, as well as ringing in the new year with the folk-dancing community she has been a part of for several years. While her family has said they would like to see her more, Peckman remains confident in her decisions.