PSA: Check Your Relationship Privilege

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For the first year I lived in New York, I worked as a leasing office assistant for a large development company. I was a floater, showing people apartments at different luxury buildings throughout the fancier parts of Manhattan and Queens. Most of the people buying apartments were couples, often searching for a place to move in together for the first time. They were likely relocating from two different, less-expensive parts of the city. Now that they were sharing rent, they would be able to afford a one-bedroom in a pricier area that a single person would only be able to afford if they had substantial income.

I was single for the entire time I worked for the development company — in fact, I was single for my entire life, until I met my current boyfriend — and let me tell you, I would sometimes get so jealous of these couples I’d show apartments to. I was so far from being able to afford a place like that, and even though I didn’t really want to live in a high-rise luxury building at all, I saw the freedom they had, and thought there must be something to this whole “having a partner” thing.

A lot of those people were, no doubt, falling into the trap that people say is true of so many New Yorkers: moving in with someone prematurely because the rent is so much cheaper. While I was envious of the supposed greater financial freedom they had, I also made a promise to myself that I would never make that mistake. If I ever was to find myself as part of a relationship, it would be years before I would even consider moving in with the guy. I’d still have my own separate life for a good long time. At that point, I’d made it 23 years on my own, so I didn’t need to jump into something so quickly the way other people in the city would.

I’ve been dating my boyfriend, Peter, for eight months now; we don’t live together, and we don’t plan to anytime soon. But now that I’m actually experiencing being in a relationship first-hand, I understand that the relationship privilege I saw in the leasing office is real — and it extends far beyond a combined rental capacity.

Maybe this is just because of who I’m specifically dating, but I feel like I simply don’t spend as much money now that I’m no longer single, even though Peter and I don’t split any living costs (rent, utilities, internet, etc.). Take food, for example: he gets one of those box subscriptions that delivers ingredients for three meals for two people every week. He told me early on that a lot of his food would go to waste before we were dating, so I’ve always been welcome to eat the second serving of every meal, and I’ve never been asked to pay for it. I make dinner pretty often, too, but I still pretty much make the same amount of something as I did before, and the leftovers I would end up having to throw away are now generally going to Peter. Even though I’m cooking for another person more often, usually nothing gets wasted. (I realize throwing away food is a dumpster-fire situation, and I would always feel bad, but now I don’t have to worry as much about making too much food…yet another privilege.) I go grocery shopping less often as a result of meal sharing. I haven’t actually compared my spending, but I bet I’ve saved a lot.

Peter and I also have an income disparity; it’s a lot easier for him to be the one who pays for something than it is for me. Earlier this year, I was going through a hard time, financially, and he would regularly pick up my portion of a check so that I wouldn’t have to miss out on getting a bite with friends. Even though I didn’t necessarily like how those moments would make me feel a little helpless, I can’t deny that it’s a privilege to have someone who’s willing and able to pay for something when you can’t.

And I know that’s not everyone’s relationship experience, and that I just happen to be dating someone who earns a significant amount more than me. But there are other privileges that come along with dating someone, too. You’re assumed to be the plus-one at weddings, and automatically invited to family gatherings. You get invited to go with them to visit their friends in other cities, essentially doubling your free places to crash. If they have cable and you don’t, you can mooch on the reg. Whatever streaming service passwords they have from friends and parents — you basically have those now, too. 

And don’t get me started on travel: it is tremendously easier when you have someone you’re splitting costs with and you also happen to be sharing a bed. We went to Hudson, New York for the Fourth of July this year (a town I would recommend pretty much any other weekend of the year because, as we found out, they do not hold any fireworks). I simply wouldn’t have been able to afford such a nice place to stay on my own, or if I’d been going with a friend and we needed two beds. Also, the Airbnb was a refurbished schoolhouse in the middle of a cemetery. If I’d been traveling alone, I would have made sure I was back before sunset each night, because that walk was creepy enough with another person next to me.

I also understand the draw of moving in very early into dating now, because wow would the savings be killer. If you’re already spending most nights with a person, doesn’t it make more sense to get a place together, and cut down on what’s likely your biggest expense as a city dweller? Or, even if you’re not actually cutting down on it, getting way more space or nicer amenities for essentially what you’re paying to have to share a bathroom with two roommates? It’s hard to resist the temptation of living in a better apartment in a better neighborhood for the same price you’re paying now (aside from the fact that moving is ~the worst~ and you like living with your roommates, anyway).

But the most noticeable part, I’ve found, is that people assume you are automatically better off and happier once you are in a relationship. The positives of dating Peter are innumerable, but I want to be clear to people that I’m happy because of the person I’m with, not just the simple fact that I’m with a person. I wish my relationship status didn’t have any effect on my perceived happiness or success to others. It’s not really a secret that society favors people who are partnered up; I don’t feel I need to explain this when the enormous wedding industry is A Thing, and #relationshipgoals is something people comment on famous strangers’ Instagram photos. Being on this side of things makes me a little sad for (and feel some solidarity with) my former single self and others like her. Because I don’t think anyone is necessarily better off with a partner, and it’s unfortunately factual that some things are just made easier for you when you’re in a relationship. When I talk to my single friends about dating or money, that’s just something I have to remind myself. 

Holly is the Managing Editor of The Financial Diet. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at holly@thefinancialdiet.com!

Image via Unsplash

  • Jac E

    I would just like to gently add that many of these privileges (plus one at weddings, family gatherings, being culturally accepted) are not just privileges of being coupled, but of being heterosexually coupled. Many gay or lesbian couples struggle with many of the same things that singles do because of the lack of visibility, fear or outright rejection. Having said that, I appreciated the look at assumptions I make about other coupled persons and our privilege within society. Thank you!

    • Cecily

      great point! thanks for sharing your perspective!

    • Holly Trantham

      Absolutely! That’s definitely an aspect that’s worth exploring, and something I should recognize is my own privilege as part of not only a couple, but a heterosexual/cis/white couple – thank you for pointing that out!

    • lunanoire

      Also, due to earning disparities due to gender, the financial benefits of coupling up for gay men is usually than it is for lesbian couples.

  • Andrea

    I envy couples more for the financial perks they have than anything. It feels awful to want a boyfriend just for the financial freedom it would give me….makes me feel like an awful feminist or something. But being able to go out to eat and know that I won’t be picking up the check for every single meal? That sounds heavenly. Having a not-shitty NYC apartment in a neighborhood that is actually convenient because I’m splitting 1BR rent? The dream. Though I feel super awesome knowing I can control my financial future and make it good. Not so much with my romantic future.

    • Holly Trantham

      I am hardly the right person to dole out romantic advice, but taking care of yourself first really should be the move for anyone, I think – it’s so great you feel awesome about your financial future 🙂

    • lunanoire

      Historically, people coupled up to share resources.

  • Violaine

    I get invited to all the family weddings and that’s a privilege I’d love not to have, haha! 😉 I am not a big fan of big reunions, and I also don’t like spending so much on travelling to a country (from England to Ireland, usually) and paying for a hotel, a gift, everything…

    I do feel I spend more since I live with my boyfriend, because I tend to want to buy “nicer” things – like nicer food, nicer kitchen equipment, etc, while when I was alone I had a more simple life. And I lived somewhere cheaper!! We split the rent and bills but I could spend less if I lived closer to work (instead of somewhere between his and mine) and somewhere smaller. So yes, it’s not always cheaper, I agree!

  • karaelizabeth9

    Thank you for this article, Holly! I’ve spent years both single and in relationships and have always had similar thoughts, but you summarized them perfectly. I pay $1,300 rent in downtown Boston for a studio by myself. My brother and sister-in-law live a few floors above me in the same apartment building. Their unit is literally 3x the size of mine and their rent is $1,850. What you save on rent alone is HUGE when you’re coupled up. The jaded-single-person side of me wants to whine “WAH not fair!” but the other part of me will be thankful once cohabitation with a partner becomes a part of my life.

    • Holly Trantham

      Oh I FEEL you. That’s why I still haven’t made the move from roommates to my own studio!

    • Violaine

      Yes but as I said above, think about having to compromise on the place though – that might not always be cheaper. (If that makes you feel better haha!)

      In London here, my boyfriend works north, I work south-west. So we live somewhere half-way, but if I was alone, I probably would live closer to work where the rent is cheaper AND I wouldn’t have to spend £140 a month on a travelcard. Overall I’m pretty sure I’m not saving.

      I mean, sure you save money on some stuff, but not always – sometimes you need to compromise and spend a bit more than you would just so that it’s fair for everyone.

      • Holly Trantham

        I think the main thing is that some people have a lot more options, financially, as part of a couple! At least in New York, there is a large price range of one bedrooms available, but I can afford basically none of them as a single person. If my boyfriend and I were ever to move in together, we’d be able to afford a wide range of options. Maybe we’d settle on one that would mean we’d each be paying more than we were previously, but the choices present in what we’d be able to afford would be greater, and that’s definitely a privilege 🙂

        That being said, there are *totally* places where I spend more because of my relationship, too! Like that trip we went on, I didn’t spend all that much, but I never would have gone at the same time the year before.

  • Katie

    I really identify with your portion on dating someone who makes a bit more, and he kindly offers to treat you when you’re going through financial hardship. That is my exact situation. It was a really good privilege check, so thank you!!

  • This was a really interesting read. I think in general people have this idea that there are certain things they can’t do themselves (let alone necessarily afford to do themselves) like go on a trip or even go to a restaurant or movie by oneself. In a lot of ways, a relationship seems to sometimes give people permission they didn’t realize they already had..

    • Holly Trantham

      Yesssss I totally agree with you. When I was single, it took me years to build up the courage (a lol-worthy idea) to go to the movies by myself. Once I went to one, I couldn’t stop 🙂

      • A big part of it for me was being in a long distance relationship! There were certain things you could do with friends, but some times you just went to places and did things that normally they’d have accompanied you to.

  • Samantha D

    I just bought a house by myself (I live in the suburbs though, so i have many more options, and I’m 30 so older than many of the readers here) and it can be very scary to be the sole breadwinner in a household (even if it’s just a household of me and cats!). I can’t imagine how single parents do it when they also have children to support. I am very jealous of couples who can have a nicer standard of living than me, but there’s nothing like choosing and decorating a house to suit me alone!

  • Amelia

    I think one of the most basic things you are missing in your discussion is the fact that Peter likely makes more money than you because he’s male. I don’t think being in a relationship necessarily is the privileged part of this situation but the gender gap. The gender gap is the unfair part and is something I, my grandma, my mom, and probably all my other female relatives have all lived with. Probably most other women too. I also don’t think these other things that come with being in a relationship are necessarily privilege… I think it’s just different logistics when two people are involved instead of just one. I mean, everyone needs to eat, and people who care for each other share and help the other out when they need it. Regular friends can do it too. That’s great that you’re happy not just because of the person you’re with. Many of us are. I guess I just don’t see that has to do with financial savvy/the Financial Diet. The problem is that we, as women, are worth less to most companies and employers.

    • H

      You’re certainly correct about the wage gap being a very real and very shitty thing…but the wage gap involves many factors, the most important of which is the fact that women don’t get paid equally for doing the same job or a similar job as men. These two people do not have the same job.

      • Amelia

        Okay. But she still states that her bf makes a good chuck of money more than she does. I still just don’t see how “relationship privlidge” is a thing.

        • JD

          Hey speaking to your wage gap, I can share my story. I make – significantly – than my male SO. But being in a relationship and sharing expenses is still helping my bottom line. The biggest for me was rent savings. He moved in and paid 1/3 the costs. Only 1/3 because of his lower wage, and for three years this means signification savings hitting my bank accounts. I do considering a nice bonus/privilege if you will. I can and did fully afford it on my own, but it sure is nice to have someone contributing now.

        • C_29

          I’m a lesbian and my standard of living went up significantly when I moved in with my girlfriend. Not only we were able to afford a bigger and nicer house, and share a car and other household items, but we also started sharing clothes and beauty products. I don’t feel we’re any worse off than the gay male couples we know, though it might help that we both work in traditionally male fields that pay more.

  • This article is great. I think about this often since I’m single and my roommate now has a boyfriend. The financial impact of him in her life is one of the main things I feel envy about – the savings are immense, even though they don’t live together (yet). The other thing that this article doesn’t mention but that I think is something to note as well is the sharing of responsibilities and “chores” of adulthood (i.e. cooking, cleaning, care for pets, paying bills, getting things repaired, etc.). I bought a house while single and while I don’t regret it, anytime someone asks me about it, I tell them I probably should have waited until I found a partner to make that kind of an investment with, simply due to the stress and responsibility that comes along with everything related to buying a house. Luckily, I have a roommate to share in some of the day-to-day chores, but it still can be overwhelming when things break, etc. Overall, very well-written article and something that people tend to forget about once they are no longer single.

  • Emma

    I really do think it’s a good idea not to decide to move in together because of the financial advantages. It’s far too easy to “slide” into a long term relationship or even a marriage because you moved in together because it was cheaper, and now you’re living together, and you get to a point in your life where you want to get married, and I guess this person is good enough?

    Studies show that people who live together before they get married are less committed and less happy than those who don’t. Now, you’d think this is because people who don’t move in until they’re married are more conservative or perhaps religious, and so see marriage as more irreversible than those who do move in together. But apparently this trend still holds when you’re controlling for that, and people have said it’s because people “slide” into these relationships rather than being decisive and intentional about what they want. Meg Jay talks about this in her book “The Defining Decade” in case anyone is interested.

  • Toni

    Interesting read, I’ve never thought of being in a relationship with someone as a ‘privilege’. I always thought of it as a partnership that 2 people voluntarily take part in. They choose to do the daily work on themselves and in their relationships. It’s not something they were born with or handed to them based on society standards. Lets say your spouse/partner finds themselves unemployed for over a year. Is it still a privilege to the employed spouse to provide for the both of them? Even if the employed spouse is financially able to do so there’s still a heavy burden in the relationship. I get that this blog is about money and different perspectives on money issues but a relationship privilege? It’s not a thing. Being coupled up does automatically mean a lightened financial burden

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