For Richer, For Poorer

Being Single? In This Economy?

While a wealth gap can be awkward, it doesn’t have to drag down your social life.

Three months ago, Celine and her best friend, Natalie* were both laid off from the same ad agency. No longer able to afford her $3,200 rent in Brooklyn, Celine was forced to move back into her parents’ house in the suburbs. “I’m still reeling, my whole life was flipped on its head,” the 29-year-old says.

The only thing more humiliating than getting fired and packing up your adult existence into your teenage bedroom? Seeing your best friend survive the same brutal layoff and emerge unscathed. “I love Natalie but she didn’t have to lift a finger because her husband is a wealth manager and makes bank,” Celine says. “While I was struggling to get out of my apartment break clause, she went on a week-long yoga retreat to recover from the bad news.”

After a four-year string of unsuccessful situationships, the former ad exec is happy to be on her own for a while, but nothing hits her harder than the financial disparity between her and her partnered friends. “Even when I was employed, I couldn’t afford to vacay in Cuba or jet off to Malawi on a whim,” she adds. “It’s awkward to explain that to someone who has two incomes funding their vacation.”

“While I was struggling to get out of my apartment break clause, she went on a week-long yoga retreat to recover from the bad news.”

Celine is hardly alone in feeling the financial pressure of being uncoupled; it’s a widely known and yet ignored fact that the cost of living is higher for single people than it is in two-person households. And this wealth difference, dubbed the singles tax, is only widening with inflation.

In 2010, the median net worth of 25- to 34-year-old married couples was four times that of single households, per the Federal Reserve Bank. By 2019, the difference was nearly nine times. The disparity is more timely than ever as the single population grows; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46% of the country’s population over 18 is unmarried, divorced, or widowed.

From Social Security windfalls to potential tax breaks and beyond, it’s often simply more affordable to be one half of a pair. In fact, a 2023 survey of singles and coupled adults by Forbes Advisor found that one-third had stayed in a relationship longer to reap the financial benefits, while 93% of singles feel financially burdened by their relationship status.

The data makes sense, but the wealth difference between single and partnered friends can still creep up on you. For Celine and Natalie, it began as resentment and bubbled into an aggressive confrontation over texts after a series of canceled plans.

“I got tired of the constant jabs about not taking the train down to NYC to have cocktails with them or show up at an impromptu club night,” Celine says. A $48 round-trip train ticket plus a few rounds of drinks add up to about $120 a night, which isn’t feasible for her. “But I hadn’t said anything about the financial pressure before, so when it finally came out, it happened all wrong. She thought I hated her husband or was jealous, when that’s far from it,” she says.

The duo haven’t spoken since the argument. It took courage for the former ad exec to open up to her friend about her financial vulnerability, and the accusation of being jealous of her happy relationship made Celine feel betrayed. In popular culture (take Blair and Serena in Gossip Girl, for example) when a friendship between a single and coupled person suffers, it’s often pinned on envy. Society often tends to look at singles with pity, as if they’ve yet to fulfill an essential goal.

Against this backdrop, it can be easier to assume that a friendship fell apart because the single person was resentful. “It’s never easy to talk about money, so if someone’s expressing their struggles, don’t be dismissive because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable for you. Even if it isn’t your lived reality, approach the conversation with empathy,” says Jenny van Hooff, Ph.D., a sociologist specializing in romantic relationships and female friendships.

“I hadn’t said anything about the financial pressure before, so when it finally came out, it happened all wrong. She thought I hated her husband or was jealous, when that’s far from it.”

Addressing the singles tax effect on a friendship can be difficult. Gaia*, 27, is single and works as an au pair. She pays $3,100 for rent and utilities in Philadelphia every month. If she could split those costs with a partner, she'd save nearly $19,000 a year, a huge chunk of her income.

The au pair often spends her weekends with her best friends, a couple who run a business together. The trio met in college when they could afford the same restaurants and vacations. Recently, however, Gaia finds it hard to keep up with their expensive tastes. “They both know this and insist on picking up the bill, often joking about how they’re the parents and I’m the runaway child,” she says.

In the past two months, they’ve covered two karaoke nights, a formal dinner, and a spontaneous road trip for Gaia, totaling upward of $450. While she knows her friends’ intention is to lessen the distance between them, the constant gestures and jokes only make her feel smaller. “This is a blip in the radar for them because their combined income is much higher than mine, and I’m not ungrateful but I don’t like feeling indebted to my friends,” she says.

Most often, people develop friendships over a shared interest; for Gaia and her pals, it was a love for food and travel. But when their evolving finances threatened these common threads, her friends responded by bridging the gap with money. While superficially, their dynamic looks the same, it hollowed out Gaia’s self-esteem, making her feel like she wasn’t bringing enough to an otherwise healthy relationship.

As friendship coach and the author of Fighting for our Friendships, Danielle Bayard Jackson says, “If brunch dates were once your thing, don’t assume that it has to be for your friendship to work. Check in with your friend to see if their circumstances have changed and [if needed], suggest an alternative plan that’s lighter on the pocket.”

Although a relationship may begin because of a shared experience, for the dynamic to be sustainable, it’s important that both individuals feel equal, and often this equality extends beyond emotional intimacy and effort into monetary contributions.

The singles tax also creates tension for partnered people. Sydney*, 26, moved in with her girlfriend in Chicago eight months ago and has since saved $7,200 in rent alone. Previously, she was paying $2,900 a month to live with roommates and now she splits a $4,000-per-month apartment with her partner. The extra money became discretionary income for Sydney, and she’s since bought a shiny bag from Dior, three limited-edition Stanley cups, a Carhartt jacket for her girlfriend, and a wine club membership.

“If brunch dates were once your thing, don’t assume that it has to be for your friendship to work.”

However, she’s hidden most of these purchases from her childhood friend who has a similar wish list that remains unfulfilled due to the singles tax. “Recently I asked my friend to join me at a sample sale and she half-jokingly said that she can’t afford new shoes every month because she still pays her whole rent,” Sydney says, adding that she feels guilty for her newfound privilege.

To avoid throwing this financial freedom in her friend’s face, Sydney decided it’s best to keep her little luxuries a secret. This kind of secrecy can create tension, says Bayard Jackson. “For so long, people have been ashamed to talk about their financial situations. But for a friendship to work, both the single and partnered friend need to speak about money and how it affects them more openly,” she says.

While there’s no simple fix — the cost of living will still be higher for singles, financial reforms will likely favor couples, and honest conversations can’t magically eliminate jealousy, guilt, or awkwardness — just addressing that the singles tax exists and may impact your friendships can go a long way. It makes both the partnered and unpartnered pal feel more safe in their position, knowing that they can express when they’re feeling financially stretched or restricted. While wealth gaps can be complicated, they don’t have to be a deal-breaker in your friendship — after all, some bonds are priceless.

*Name has been changed.