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Focus on Prices and Spending, Consumer Expenditure, Volume 2, Number 4

Focus on Prices and Spending | Consumer Expenditure | Volume 2, Number 4

Do two live as cheaply as one? Evidence from the Consumer Expenditure Survey

Are there economies of scale for young married couples that allow them to live as cheaply as a single person? The answer is no. However, even though the savings young married couples realize by sharing expenses for housing and food do not cut their spending in half, the savings do help them spend less per person than do singles. Sharing rent or homeowner expenses and buying food in bulk enables married couples to spend less per person on housing and food. Young married couples also spend less per person on alcohol and education. However, they have higher per-person expenditures than singles for transportation, health care, and personal insurance and pensions.

This article examines per-person—also known as per-capita—differences in spending patterns between singles[1] ages 21 to 29 and married couples[2] with at least one person in that age group. It also examines differences between married couples and singles who are in their early twenties (ages 21 to 23) and those in their late twenties (ages 27 to 29). Spending is measured in terms of weighted[3] out-of-pocket outlays[4] by consumer units (CUs).[5] According to the 2008-09 interview component[6] of the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE), total per-person spending levels of married couples and singles who are ages 21 to 29 are quite similar—$26,753 and $26,567, respectively, in 2008–09. (See table 1.) That was also true of the early-twenties groups, with married couples spending $21,138 per person and singles $19,980. However, married couples in the late-twenties group spent about $7,200 less per person ($27,816 versus $35,026) than did singles.

Table 1. Characteristics and per-person outlays of single people and married couples ages 21 to 29 by detailed age group and type of outlay, 2008–09
Item Age 21-29 Age 21-23 Age 24-26 Age 27-29
Single Married Single Married Single Married Single Married

Number of consumer units (in thousands)

5,041 1,518 2,014 217 1,698 549 1,328 752

Percent distribution:



59 50 57 50 58 50 63 50


41 50 43 50 42 50 37 50

Housing tenure


15 53 4 19 15 53 31 62


85 47 96 81 85 47 69 38

Educational status

Highest level attained by any member

High school diploma or less

63 32 85 73 53 31 44 22

Bachelor's degree or more

37 68 15 27 47 69 56 78

Either member currently enrolled in college


44 34 68 63 34 34 21 27

Not enrolled

56 66 32 37 66 66 79 73

Per-person income (in dollars)

$27,486 36,684 15,328 20,561 31,101 37,152 41,300 40,986

Per-person outlays (in dollars)

$26,567 26,753 19,980 21,138 27,763 27,512 35,026 27,816


4,223 3,406 3,508 2,976 4,386 3,333 5,099 3,583

Food at home

2,368 2,002 2,002 1,875 2,375 2,000 2,914 2,039

Food away from home

1,855 1,404 1,506 1,101 2,011 1,333 2,185 1,544

Alcoholic beverages

600 263 622 210 546 288 635 260


9,925 9,432 7,063 6,352 10,219 9,744 13,887 10,091


840 698 664 685 772 775 1,194 645


4,088 4,916 3,211 4,212 4,146 4,962 5,344 5,085

Health care

583 886 329 897 721 908 792 867


1,242 1,356 980 1,044 1,217 1,420 1,673 1,400


1,620 984 1,849 2,143 1,909 1,060 902 595

Personal insurance and pensions

2,420 3,508 1,122 1,664 2,766 3,303 3,946 4,189

Other outlays

1,025 1,304 632 956 1,079 1,718 1,552 1,103

Per-person outlays (percent distribution)


15.9 12.7 17.6 14.1 15.8 12.1 14.6 12.9

Food at home

8.9 7.5 10.0 8.9 8.6 7.3 8.3 7.3

Food away from home

7.0 5.2 7.5 5.2 7.2 4.8 6.2 5.6

Alcoholic beverages

2.3 1.0 3.1 1.0 2.0 1.0 1.8 0.9


37.4 35.3 35.4 30.1 36.8 35.4 39.6 36.3


3.2 2.6 3.3 3.2 2.8 2.8 3.4 2.3


15.4 18.4 16.1 19.9 14.9 18.0 15.3 18.3

Health care

2.2 3.3 1.6 4.2 2.6 3.3 2.3 3.1


4.7 5.1 4.9 4.9 4.4 5.2 4.8 5.0


6.1 3.7 9.3 10.1 6.9 3.9 2.6 2.1

Personal insurance and pensions

9.1 13.1 5.6 7.9 10.0 12.0 11.3 15.1

Other outlays

3.9 4.9 3.2 4.5 3.9 6.2 4.4 4.0

Spending by married couples compared with singles (ages 21 to 29 years)

Per-capita total spending by married couples and singles in the 21-to-29 age group was very similar; less than $200 separated them in 2008–09 even though the earnings of a married person in this age group were about a third higher, on average, than that of a single person.

However, the similarity between per-capita spending by married couples and singles starts to fade when viewed by specific age group. Older singles (ages 27 to 29) spent $15,046 more than the younger singles (ages 21 to 23), while the older married couples spent $6,678 more than the younger married couples.

Even when looking at the overall 21-to-29 age group, there are differences in what single people and married couples purchase. Examining the differences by spending category gives an idea of how the spending of married couples compares with that of their single counterparts.

In 2008–09, singles spent more per person on food, alcohol, and education, while married couples spent more per person on transportation, health care, and personal insurance and pensions. (See chart 1.) Singles spent $817 more than married couples on food, reinforcing the idea that couples are able to achieve savings by sharing food costs. Married couples spent $366 less per year per person on groceries and $451 per person less at restaurants, fast-food establishments, and carry-outs. These lower spending levels could be the result of savings from buying in bulk, or from behavioral differences between married couples and single persons; singles may go out to dinner more frequently or to more expensive restaurants, or may purchase costlier food items at the grocery store.

Chart 1. Per-person spending of single people and married couples ages 21 to 29 by type of outlay, 2008–09
[Chart data]

Spending on transportation, however, is higher for married couples. Married couples spent more than $800 per person more than singles on transportation. Much of the difference can be explained by automobile ownership rates of the two groups. Overall, 76 percent of married couples reported owning a vehicle, compared with 54 percent of single people; that helps account for why married couples spent in excess of $500 more per person than singles on purchasing and maintaining vehicles.

Higher spending by singles on alcohol and education, and by married couples on health care and personal insurance and pensions, is most likely due to demographic and behavioral differences. Singles, who typically are younger than married couples, are more likely to still be in college and thus paying for education expenses. Married couples are more likely to own their home, more likely to have a college degree, and less likely to be enrolled in college.[7] As a result of having higher income, married couples paid over $700 more per capita in Social Security than singles, accounting for most of the difference between each group’s expenditures on personal insurance and pensions.

Not only are the levels of spending different between the groups, so are the shares of outlays—that is, the proportion of a CU’s total spending that is used for a particular type of outlay. The distribution of CU spending per person for singles and married couples reflects the differences in spending already mentioned. Married couples spend a smaller share of their budget than do singles on food, housing, and education, and a larger share on transportation and on personal insurance and pensions. See table 1 for the details on per-person outlays and outlay shares.

Early twenties compared with late twenties

Married couples and singles both go through major lifestyle changes in their twenties. Graduating from college, entering the workforce, and purchasing a home are just some of the changes they experience at that time in their lives. Lending credence to the view that this is a transitional period, both late-twenties groups earn more, spend more, are more likely to be homeowners, and are more likely to have a college degree than their younger counterparts. These changes have a significant effect on the way both groups spend their money.

Much of the reason that late-twenties married couples spend less per capita than singles relates to outlays for housing. Married couples ages 27 to 29 spent about $3,800 per person less on housing than singles ($10,091 versus $13,887) in 2008–09. Charts 2 and 3 show average spending levels by type of outlay. The homeownership rate for married couples ages 27 to 29, 62 percent, was double that of singles for that age group. Married couples spend smaller shares of their outlays than singles for food and housing, and larger shares for transportation, health care, and personal insurance and pensions in both the early- and late-twenties groups. However, the differences in the shares between married couples and singles are smaller for the older group than for the younger group for all types of outlays except personal insurance and pensions. Whereas differences in per-person spending levels are greater between married couples and singles in their late twenties than those in their early twenties, the spending patterns of the two groups, as measured by the outlay shares, become more alike once married couples and singles reach their late twenties.

Chart 2. Per-person spending of single people and married couples ages 21 to 23 by type of outlay, 2008–09
[Chart data]

Chart 3. Per-person spending of single people and married couples ages 27 to 29 by type of outlay, 2008–09
[Chart data]


CE data establish that young married couples ages 21 to 29 do not live as cheaply as young single people but, on a per-person basis, they do experience cost savings. The data give insight into how the spending patterns of young married couples and singles differ and where the cost savings occur. Married couples spend less per person than singles on housing, food, and alcohol and more on transportation and health care.

Questions? Please contact William Hawk with the Consumer Expenditure Survey at or (202) 691-5131.


[1] Singles. To be categorized as a “single” consumer unit (CU), a person must identify him- or herself as single and never married and must be in a CU of size 1. This categorization implies that the person is not living with other blood relatives, is not widowed or divorced, and, if there are other people living in the housing unit, is financially independent of them (that is, is not making joint financial decisions with his or her housemates).

[2]Married couples. For the married group, each CU must, of course, be married, have no children, and be living in a two-member CU. In order to allow closer comparisons between singles and couples in the same age group, couples with age differences greater than 4 years between their members are omitted from their respective groups.

[3]Weights. Estimates shown in this article are calculated with the use of weights. The Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) uses a representative sample to estimate the spending habits of the U.S. civilian noninstitutional population. For the 2008–09 Interview Survey, approximately 600 married CUs and 2,200 single CUs provided data for this analysis. These sampled CUs represent nearly 7 million CUs in the population.

[4]Outlays. Outlays are similar to expenditures in that both (1) define spending as the transaction cost, including taxes, to obtain goods and services; (2) include spending on gifts for people outside of the CU; and (3) exclude business expenses. The key difference is in the treatment of purchases of real property and vehicles. In the CE, expenditures on purchases of property include only mortgage interest, and expenditures on vehicles include the full value of the purchased vehicle, regardless of whether it was or was not financed. By contrast, outlays include both the principal and interest portions of property on mortgages and vehicle loans. The purchase price of vehicles bought outright and not financed also is included in outlays.

[5]Consumer unit. A consumer unit (CU) comprises either: (1) all members of a particular household who are related by blood, marriage, adoption, or other legal arrangements; (2) a person living alone or sharing a household with others or living as a roomer in a private home or lodging house or in permanent living quarters in a hotel or motel, but who is financially independent; or (3) two or more persons living together who use their income to make joint expenditure decisions. Financial independence is determined by the three major expense categories: housing, food, and other living expenses. To be considered financially independent, at least two of the three major expense categories must be provided entirely, or in part, by the respondent.

[6]Interview Survey. The CE includes two components: the quarterly Interview Survey and the weekly Diary Survey. Published CE tables are created by integrating information from the two surveys.

The Interview Survey, which is designed to collect data on major types of expenditures, household characteristics, and income, is used in this study because it provides the most complete picture of spending. Respondents are usually asked to report values for expenditures or outlays that occurred during the 3 months prior to the interview.

The data in this analysis are by collection year, not calendar year, from surveys which were administered in 2008 and 2009.

[7]College degree status and college enrollment are by CU. If one or both members of a married couple has a college degree or is enrolled in college, the household is categorized by this characteristic.

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