The Many Hidden Costs Of Being Single In The UK

Photographed by Erika Long.
Sarah, 28, lives in Newcastle upon Tyne and hasn’t lived with a partner for about seven years. During this period of singlehood she has done everything she can to remain optimistic and avoid a dating rut. But as she tells R29: "Having been single for so long in such a small city it can feel like the options are getting more and more limited as time goes on. As such, I’ve recently started casting the net wider and getting trains out to other cities to meet potential beaus." But to travel further, you have to pay more – in more ways than one.
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"I don’t want to be so crude to think of dates as financial investments," she explains to R29, "but the amount of money I’ve spent on days or nights out with people that have just left me feeling so awful and alone, it kind of breaks my heart even more. The optimist might think of it as investing in your future and building a better knowledge of what you don’t want, but more often than not I just think of the time, money and effort I could or maybe should have saved and not bothered, or just spent it going out with friends instead."
This is just one of the many ways in which being single in the UK incurs a noticeable financial strain compared to people with partners. While no one is immune to the financial impacts of recent years – from wage stagnation and job instability to rising rents and increasing living costs – each of those impacts is felt more acutely by single people.
According to a 2019 analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), people living on their own spend on average 92% of their disposable income, while two-adult households spend only 83% of theirs. On top of that, those who live alone are more likely to be renting and feel less financially secure than couples without children, with fewer reporting that they have money left over at the end of the week or month.
This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Lloyds Bank found at the end of 2020 that "compared to the start of the year, a quarter (25%) of single people are more worried about their financial situation as a result of the pandemic, with concerns about not being able to make ends meet (39%), spending all their savings (36%) and job stability (33%). Nearly one in four (24%) are even worried about covering costs for the weekly shopping." And in February of this year Ocean Finance used ONS data to estimate the average spend difference between singletons and those in relationships. They found that on average, singles are paying £630.38 more per month – on bills, socialising, annual holidays and more – than those who are coupled up.
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These statistics are backed up by the experiences single women shared with R29.
Housing is one of the most significant factors. Renters are caught between living with flatmates, which comes with its own pros and cons, or living on their own. In either case, being unable to split costs with a partner has a knock-on effect. According to Ocean Finance, housing is the biggest contributor to single people paying more. On top of that there are utility bills, internet, council tax and TV licence, all of which accumulate. Per the ONS, those who are living alone are more likely to rent than couples without children, with 40% of single adults in England and Wales aged 25 to 34 owning their home, compared to 55% of couples without children.
For Sarah, who is currently renting and saving to buy, the expenses have increased as time has gone on. "It’s been about seven years since I last lived with a partner and the cost of living and property (both rental and to buy) has gone up considerably. I have recently lost some work and I'm feeling the pinch more than ever, which is fuelling a deep anxiety about how to increase my income and decrease my overheads." She adds: "I often fantasise about how much more affordable my life would be if I were to be in a relationship and live with a partner and be able to cut my costs like that – so hideously unromantic but also really real!"
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These costs bite harder when you face additional marginalisations. Martha is 32 and lives in London. She has to live alone due to her disability, which makes it difficult to live with a housemate. But living alone in London is profoundly expensive. "That is unaffordable for me on a single income in the private rental market. Thankfully I can just about afford it as a property guardian, where rents are greatly reduced in exchange for looking after empty properties. However as a property guardian I can be evicted at any point with only a month's notice, the properties are often in a poor condition and expensive to heat, and I'm currently located in one of the outermost boroughs of London with my nearest friend an hour's travel away." This has a knock-on impact on Martha's health and disability but as "a single, disabled person it is my only option. It's hard to know which is more onerous – the disabled tax or the single tax."
Thanks to the rising costs of living (particularly rising energy costs), this financial impact doesn’t always lessen when you become a homeowner.
Jeb, 37, is a single homeowner who lives in Manchester. She points to the frustration of having to foot the bills on her own. "I've been single for the full duration of being a homeowner so, for me, my single situation has been the same but my bills increase year on year." She adds that the only discount she receives is the 25% reduction in council tax. "Everything else is full price." Jeb acknowledges that her energy and water bills are probably lower as only one person but notes that the amount of energy used to heat or light a home is the same, no matter how many people live there. "Certain bills like internet, TV and maintenance are all set, no matter how many people live in the home," she continues. "The rise of all bills is going to be a huge stress on my life as my wages won't be going up but my energy bill, for example, is going up by £500 for the year."
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Set bills like these are designed to help couples or families, not single people, and they stretch from TV subscriptions and gym memberships to basic groceries. Thirty-year-old Natalie in London says that she feels a financial impact of being single "in most facets of life. From splitting rent and bills to holiday hotel rooms, business support and even food waste – wanting to buy just one zucchini but Sainsbury's forcing me to buy a pack of four, assuming I'm providing for my nonexistent hubby and kiddos."
These costs also begin to bite more as you leave your 20s. Whether it's down to your tastes or those of your friends and dates, socialising inevitably gets more expensive.

As a single, disabled person [living alone] is my only option. It's hard to know which is more onerous – the disabled tax or the single tax.

Martha
"As I've grown older," Natalie adds, "I’ve begun to live a more 'adult' life and expenses increase further and further – travel accommodation type, living alone instead of in a shared house, more sophisticated outings to nice dinners instead of cheap raves."
Millicent, a 30-year-old in Brighton, points to dating as an area in which she has particularly seen this shift. "Dating in your 20s is a lot more lackadaisical: a few pints between two people isn’t that much money. Now I'm going on a lot more dinner dates and even a first date that started in an escape room. That was so much fun and such a great idea but £30 each then dinner after was a huge amount of money for me to spend on someone I don’t know."
Beyond social life, there are potential ramifications for your career, too. Without the support and potential financial security of a partner, you are either less able to take career risks or can only do so by paying more. As a small business owner, Natalie finds that the risk and struggle around cash flow has been amplified by her singledom. She points to a specific example of exhibiting at a trade show recently: "Other exhibitors had their partners helping them set up, transport, carry things, paint, put up shelves etc. I had to fork out a huge amount for a delivery courier, labourers, and spent three times the amount of time setting up and packing up my stall. It was a wild success in the end but I'm out of pocket more than a taken gal would be and I was exhausted after."
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The rise of all bills is going to be a huge stress on my life as my wages won't be going up but my energy bill, for example, is going up by £500 for the year.

Jeb
Single people are also more likely to have wider social circles, which is fulfilling but also means more expense as those friends couple up and start families. "When I look back through the interweaving social networks I’ve navigated through my adulthood, I’m certain I would have lost some of my closest friends along the way if I had committed to some doofus," says Millicent. "But more friends means more weddings, more important birthdays, more baby showers, more suggested holiday weekends, more Christmas outings."
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According to some estimates, the so-called 'single tax' can add up to an average of £7,564.50 every year. It’s understandable that frustration can build up and even spill over into anger. But while population-wide problems like increasing energy bills or inflation on individual portion sizes of household goods are beyond an individual’s scope to fix, there are things we can all do to improve the experiences of the single people in our lives. It comes down to the basic human need to be heard and understood.
"I wish people would understand that you are a one-man band," says Jeb, "not just in finances but in other areas of life too." You can recognise this by being mindful of everyone's wallets and how relationship status can have a real impact on what someone can spend. If you want to, you can go even further. Millicent says: "If you have any terminally single people in your life and you’re married or in a long-term relationship, maybe save up a bit of money and take your single friend to lunch or dinner. Something ceremonial that they’re more than capable of doing by themselves but just wouldn’t think to do. If you’re in a friendship group where everyone bar one person has got married or had a baby in the last few years, consider making their birthday the one you all make sure you get to.
"Celebrate them. Because they’ve been there celebrating you."

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