Not splurging on shoes, cars, or video games
In a brief post to the New York Times Economix blog, Catherine Rampell threw some data at the Sex & the City stereotype of single women spending bundles of money on shoes. A recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, she noted, found that single women spend less than 5% of their income on apparel and associated costs (such as dry cleaning, alterations, and repairs). Instead, a plurality of single women’s money is spent on housing.
When I teach research methods, on the first day of class I encourage students to ask the question, “Compared to what?” It is useful to compare money spent on clothes to money spent on housing, but it is also informative to see how single women’s spending compares to single men’s and to couples’. I thought I’d find a nice, neat summary table at the Bureau of Labor Statistics but that was not to be. So I rifled through stacks of tables to put together answers to my questions.
I’ll show you what I found for three types of “consumer units”: single women, single men, and husband+wife. Not included are single parents or married couples with children. (The tables and glossary I found did not specify whether the single men and women included divorced and widowed people or only those who had always been single.)
Data are from 2009. For each category of spending, I computed the percentage of income spent on it. The average 2009 income (before taxes) was $75,876 for heterosexual married couples (I didn’t find any data on same-sex couples), $37,058 for single men, and $29,286 for single women.
The biggest difference among the three groups, by far, was the percentage of their income they spent on housing.
- 23.9% married couples
- 30.3% single men
- 39.8% single women
That singles spend a greater chunk of their income on housing should be no surprise, since couples often have two incomes to cover one mortgage (or rent) and one set of utility bills, whereas singles more often have one income to cover their mortgage/rent and utilities.
Clothes and Related Services (dry cleaning, alterations, repairs, etc.)
Single women did spend more (percentage-wise) than single men or married couples on clothes and such, but as the Times noted, they didn’t spend all that much. Here are the percentages spent by each group on all categories of apparel combined:
- 2.1% married couples
- 2.4% single men
- 3.4% single women
Now let’s look specifically at shoes:
- .4% married couples
- .5% single men
- .6% single women
So single women spend a shade more. But now consider this. In my never-ending quest for specifics, I looked up what was included under footwear. What was interesting was what was not included: Any shoes used for sports, such as golf shoes, bowling shoes, baseball cleats, and so forth. Makes me wonder what those differences would look like if people didn’t get to say that their sports shoes don’t count.
Eating, Drinking, and Smoking
Couples sharing meals can benefit from the economies of scale – they can buy the bigger supermarket portions at the lower prices. Singles living solo (which is not all of them) are likely to have higher food costs. They do, but not by much. Here are the percentages of income spent on all kinds of food, purchased and consumed at home and elsewhere:
- 9.1% married couples
- 10.2% single men
- 11.4% single women
Do singles spend more on food consumed in restaurants and other venues outside of the home? They do, but not by much.
- 3.9% married couples
- 5.2% single men
- 4.4% single women
The Marriage Mafia would have us believe that married people eat more healthfully than single people because wives make sure of that. So who really does spend a greater percentage of their income on fruits and vegetables? Single women do – though again, the differences are modest.
- 1.0% married couples
- .8% single men
- 1.3% single women
Are singles spending huge amounts of money on drinks? Percentage of income spent on alcohol comes in at well under 2% for all groups:
- .8% married couples
- 1.4% single men
- .8% single women
Money spent on tobacco shows a similar pattern:
- .4% married couples
- .9% single men
- .5% single women
Health Care and Personal Care
There are differences among the groups in money spent on health care(health insurance, doctors’ visits, etc.) but the interpretation is not straightforward. For example, do single men spend the least because they don’t need to visit doctors or because they don’t want to? Are their health care costs lower because they are more likely to take a chance on not buying insurance? Are single women more likely to buy health insurance but also more likely to be charged more from it? The report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not specifically address those questions. Here are the percentages spent on all health care costs for the three groups:
- 6.4% married couples
- 3.9% single men
- 7.9% single women
The pattern is the same for money spent on personal care, including toothpaste, shampoo, shaving items and so forth.
- .9% married couples
- .5% single men
- 1.7% single women
Are single men pouring their money into pricey sports cars? Are married couples saving money by driving inexpensive cars or maybe sharing a car or sharing rides? Again, the stereotypes do not get much buttressing from the data. Here are the percentages of income spent on all transportation expenses for the three groups:
- 12.1% married couples
- 13.1% single men
- 13.1% single women
If the stereotypes are to be believed, single people squander huge amounts of money on entertainment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collected data on all sorts of entertainment expenses, such as movie and concert tickets, admissions to sporting events, big-screen TVs (or any other kind), sound equipment, movie rentals, exercise equipment, hunting and fishing expenses, and camping equipment. Video games count as entertainment, but home computers do not. (They are under housing expenses. Go figure.) Also included under entertainment costs: expenses associated with pets. Hmmm.
Remember all that single-men bashing we have been hearing so often (for example, here and here and here)? You know how they are supposed to be obsessed with their video games and other frivolous pursuits? The data demur.
- 4.3% married couples
- 4.4% single men
- 5.3% single women
Reading and Education
Money spent on reading includes purchases of books, magazines, newspapers, and other reading materials. Single women spend a tiny bit more, but maybe the married couples are sharing some of the same reading material.
- .2% married couples
- .2% single men
- .3% single women
Finally, let’s consider education. Education includes expenses such as tuition, fees, supplies, and textbooks. This is an interesting category because married couples cannot split the cost of tuition in the same way that they can split, say, utility bills. So the comparisons may be more straightforward. Here, singles spend a little more of their income on education than married couples do.
- 1.1% married couples
- 1.8% single men
- 1.6% single women
A Word of Caution
There are other factors worth considering, such as people’s ages and their incomes. I wanted to show you some comparisons of the three groups that were specific to particular ages or income levels. However, the available tables did not include relevant data from all three groups.
I studied many tables in preparing this post but the ones I drew most of the data from were Tables 5, 41, 42, 43, and 44.