The marriage tax penalty is real and it is painful if you live and work in a region of the country that tops the “highest cost of living” lists. While you can make the argument that this is a “choice” and that incomes tend to be higher in that region versus the rest of the country (if you work in a high-paying field), it still doesn’t balance out. I’m glad that I knew going into marriage it was the worst financial decision of my life (my husband says the wedding was, but actually the cost of the wedding was pennies versus what I’ll personally lose over my lifetime, financially speaking.)
There are numerous benefits to marriage, and above all else I’m a sap who believes in love and cares more about stability and security than wealth. I’m happy to be married. Happier than I thought I’d be (at least a month in) as it shockingly feels very different from being single. I didn’t expect it to feel different at all, especially after dating over a decade and co-habiting for the last two years. The only difference, I thought, would be that I can’t just walk out the door without repercussions, and neither could he.
Well, after the festivities of our wedding ended and the haze of wedding-night hangover faded, I realized that I was a married women – and I had this huge weight lifted off my chest. It was strange and unexpected to say the least. I’m a modern working woman with – at least from appearances – a strong, stable career and good savings for my age. I don’t need a man. But there’s also a huge part of my psyche that has been engrained to lock in a guy for the rest of my life. When I wasn’t married, I always looked around at other men and thought how horrible it would be to have to date again, but that I better continue to keep myself in the mindset that someday I might need to be back on the market again. Given that I hated dating and was horrible at it, one of the biggest stressors of my life – even though I didn’t realize it – was that I might end up back at square one (and be a lot older to boot after such a long relationship.)
Some people do fine being alone all their lives, but I’m not one of those people. My social anxiety keeps me away from most social interactions, yet I crave social connection. I think I’ve always had this full-blown ongoing panic attack about being alone. Granted, getting married does not preclude loneliness – either caused by two partners growing apart, getting divorced, or god forbid, one passing away (which eventually happens no matter what.) But, to me, knowing that every day I get to come home to the same smiling face and curl up in his arms is the only thing that matters to me. I could live in the middle of nowhere and earn 10% of my current salary and I think I’d be ok. That statement alone is why marriage has been so life-altering for me.
As far as the financial “benefits” to marriage, I won’t see any. I’m fortunate that my husband has no debt – which, despite his lower income job and lack of dedication to investing – is something that made it much easier to say yes to marriage. While I know many people have large debts from school or other smart purchases, it just would have been harder to basically say – I’ve saved up $350k over my entire 20s and now I’m going to marry you and wash out all of my savings. Many men feel like this in relationships with more traditional gender roles, and I think there’s a more accepted level of silent bitterness that goes into marriages when this is the case – or an expectation that the woman will play her part around the house and in the bedroom, which puts an unrealistic pressure on a marriage that splits many couples up. I’m glad that we have no debt and a decent amount of savings. I realize we’re very lucky and well ahead of most people our age.
Yet, if I were to stay single, my income tax would be lower (*if he ends up staying at home and earning nothing then I could see a “tax benefit” but really that benefit is just my husband not having to work, and me having to work harder over my lifetime.) Men who become stay-at-home dads are great, and we may end up in that scenario at some point, but the reality is that most women end up doing a lot of the housework regardless because men just don’t care about certain parts of homemaking (i.e. ironing clothes, signing kids up for classes, and general planning which tends to be more of a woman’s mindset.) For example, in my marriage, I know it’s best to encourage Mr. HECC to continue earning income because if I stay in my high-stress career I’d prefer to hire help than have extra “work” on top of my full-time job. It would be much worse to get into fights about what I expect a stay-at-home dad to do around the house, which is pretty much a standard marriage ending issue except usually it’s the man making the big income and the wife staying home but not living up to the husband’s expectations.
Financially speaking, the financial pros of marriage really only apply to the side of the couple who earns less money. Yes, the social security benefit is great as the husband or wife who earns less can take the higher social security benefit amount – BUT – and this is a huge but – that means the person earning more (to get the best benefit) must work longer (until age 70 at this point) to get the full benefit for both partners. This is a pro for the person in the marriage who has earned less all their life, but I see it as a major con for the partner who now has to work longer. It makes sense for the woman to play this role anyway because women usually live longer, but there are no guarantees.
Other financial benefits of marriage largely benefit the partner who earns less income. The biggest financial benefit of marriage is being able to pass all property and savings to your partner tax free in the event that you die. This is a significant benefit to either partner, but it’s really a much better benefit for the partner who would have, as a single person, saved much less. This is a morbid thought, indeed, and of course if you love your partner you aren’t thinking about how this really isn’t a financial benefit when you’re mourning your horrific loss, but really the amount of tax you would pay on an estate to someone who isn’t your married partner may not make up for the extra taxes you end up paying each year due to the tax penalty. In reality, the smartest way to handle marriage is to cohabit throughout life but only to marry right before social security is about to kick in, when your savings are substantial and one of you is more likely to kick the bucket. You can even wait until one of you gets sick – which is a risk – but would save you hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra taxes throughout your life. If I was smart and not sentimental, I would have done that. But, instead, I’m married.
If both of us end up making $200k a year each and have two children, we will pay over $15,000 a year more in taxes than we would if we were single. Simple math here – say we earn this amount over 25 years. This is a $375,000 penalty. But this amount would also earn interest if we could invest it, say, in a house or stock fund. If that were the case, and you earned 5% interest over 25 years on an additional $15k savings per year – the harsh reality is marriage ends up costing you $802,497(!) in taxes. So in a more moderate situation – let’s say one partner makes $200k and another makes $80k – and you have two kids. Your tax penalty is $7000 a year, costing you, with 5% interest potential, $375,000 over 25 years of being married.
It really WAS a horrible financial decision to get married. I still don’t understand how the government legally can penalize dual-income households so much, and why there isn’t more outrage over this.
Still, is marriage worth it? So far, I say yes, for piece of mind alone. I think it’s important to talk honestly and rationally about the true cost of marriage and how unfair it is that our government penalizes married couples with two working partners (and how this is very sexist.) We’re not talking a few hundred dollars here, the true cost to dual-income households over time can easily amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.