Updated: Nov 28
Marrying for money is hardly the recipe for a happy life or successful relationship, but marriage is undoubtedly a wealth hack. Before we get to the "why's," let's look at how.
What are the financial benefits to marriage?
The extent of legal and tax benefits to marriage can vary by state, and so can the definition of marriage. Some states recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions, which can provide certain legal benefits similar to marriage.
That said, here are a handful of legal and tax benefits to marriage.
Filing Status: Married couples can file their federal income taxes jointly, often providing certain tax advantages. Joint filing can result in potentially lower tax rates, increased deductions, and eligibility for various tax credits.
Standard Deduction: Married couples filing jointly generally have a higher standard deduction than single individuals, which can help reduce their taxable income and potentially lower their overall tax liability.
Gift and Estate Taxes: Married couples can make unlimited tax-free gifts to each other during their lifetime and can also inherit assets from their spouse without incurring federal estate or gift taxes. This allows for wealth transfer between spouses with potential tax advantages.
Health Insurance Benefits
Health Insurance Benefits: Many employers provide health insurance coverage to employees' spouses. Being married can grant access to spousal health insurance coverage, potentially cheaper than individual plans.
Social Security Benefits
Social Security Benefits: Spouses may be eligible to receive Social Security benefits based on their spouse's earnings record, which includes spousal benefits, survivor benefits, and the option to choose the higher-earning spouse's benefit amount.
Open a secure account with the highest savings interest rates in the nation.
Legal Protections: Marriage provides legal protections and benefits in areas such as inheritance rights, decision-making authority in medical emergencies, access to certain benefits like workers' compensation, and the ability to make medical decisions for an incapacitated spouse.
Income pooling: Although not limited to marriage, increasing levels of commitment were associated with higher odds of complete income pooling, regardless of union status.
By every measure, married couples are financially better off than cohabiting households. For those ages 25-34, it is at 4x the rate.
Specifically, the median net worth of married couples is $68,210 compared to cohabiting couples at $17,372.
Learn the impact money has on the health of your marriage. Try this quick 10 question quiz.
Why is Marriage a Wealth Hack?
This post presents several explanations provided in other publications and by experts. We will let you be the judge and encourage you to share your thoughts.
Some experts shared their opinions in the Wall Street Journal:
Andrew Cherlin is a professor emeritus of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, who studies marriage, shared his thoughts with Julia Carpenter with a useful metaphor.
“If you build an arch, the cornerstone is the first piece you put in and the capstone is the last… What this means is people see an economic bar they need to clear before they get married. Couples wait until they have good jobs, a car that won’t break down, maybe even a house. Then, they get married.”
This lines up with research shared by Pew in 2019. Of all the reasons why cohabiting adults have not yet married, they most commonly shared that either they or their partner is not ready financially.
A senior researcher at the St. Louis Fed, Ana Kent, pointed out that research suggests that “financial security and long-term mindset of those who tie the knot may also be a powerful driver of wealth.”
Furthermore, more married couples than cohabitating couples pool their money into joint bank and investing accounts.
“Simply put, married people may be more likely to be on the same page financially,” Emily Garbinsky, associate professor of marketing at Cornell University.
The comments section in the WSJ article included strong and divided opinions. Below are a handful for you to consider.
"The bank of Mom and Dad may chip in for a down payment on a house if you are MARRIED. Just 'living together' is not a commitment and doesn’t qualify for a gift that substantial." - Karen Huwyler
"First of all, correlation doesn't equal causation - in this case, richer people are more likely to feel ready for marriage. But secondly, in my experience, when you are married you help your partner optimize their earnings in a way you likely wouldn't if only cohabitating. There was a period where we prioritized my husband's career, and then a period where we prioritized mine. It wasn't about taking turns, it was about looking at the picture of our joint wealth and making the best decision with that in mind." - Luca Di Cerbo
"My guess is that there are two powerful factors at work. First, a husband and wife are more likely to have or are planning to have children. This leads to more disciplined financial behavior, consciously and subconsciously, by both people in the relationship. For example, buying a home, saving for college & retirement, planning to provide an inheritance, and many other things that parents have to be concerned about. A married couple will almost immediately make more frugal choices in order to save for the future.
Then there's the element of trust. A married couple makes a vow to God and a contract with the state to be bound, one to the other. That trust is crucial to making all of those long term financial decisions and to develop the discipline to execute on those plans. It's that trust that allows a married couple to weather life's storms and stick to the rudder." - Richard Bue
Lee Habeeb shared some strong opinions in his essay in Newsweek, The Best Way to Close the Wealth Gap in America? Try Marriage.
“One short sentence most married couples end their wedding vows with explains everything: ‘Till death do us part.’ Those words change everything. Married people quickly go from two separate lives to one, with an eye toward building a future together. Marriage, when it works best, moves us from self to selflessness.”
Habeeb’s view makes sense to me. Practically speaking, marriage is a financial commitment to each other, and working as a team to build wealth is more effective than going at it alone.
Undoubtedly, marriage and the financial contract that comes with it are best judged on a case-by-case basis. There is cause for pause if one or both partners come into the relationship with significant debt or reckless spending behaviors. And others would argue that saving for a big wedding is a necessity.
However, on average, is it smart to wait until your or your partner’s financial situation is in order?
“Married respondents who had never cohabited had, on average, $16,340 more wealth than married respondents who had cohabitated once before, and $18,265 more wealth than married respondents who had cohabitated two times or more.”
Furthermore, they found that by delaying or opting out of marriage in the early years, couples may be less financially prepared for retirement in later years.
Why do you think marriage is a wealth hack?
Couples who learn more, save more, and spend more on what is important to them.
For engaged and recently married couples who want to manage money and the home as a team.
Self paced online courses for couples designed by national financial therapy and financial planning experts
Winning ideas from experts to manage money and the home as a team. 2023 Plutus Award Finalist: Best Couples or Family Content
A course for students ages 13-22 to learn research-backed homework hacks and independent learning strategies.
Modern Husbands Bimonthly Newsletter (married couples)
Winning ideas to manage money and the home as a team delivered to your inbox every two weeks. You'll even receive a few free gifts!
Modern Husbands Monthly Newsletter (engaged and newlyweds)
Everything you need to know about transitioning to marriage. The first gift you will receive is a guide to tackle the seven most asked questions about budgeting as a couple.
Eickmeyer, Kasey J., et al. Exploring the Married-Cohabiting Income Pooling Gap Among Young Adults. Jan. 2023, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10834-023-09885-0.
Addo, Fenaba R., and Lowell R. Ricketts. “Married Couples Surpass Other Young Adults in Wealth: St. Louis Fed.” Saint Louis Fed, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 9 Dec. 2021, https://www.stlouisfed.org/publications/in-the-balance/2018/as-fewer-young-adults-wed.
Carpenter, Julie. “Moving in Together Doesn't Match the Financial Benefits of Marriage, but Why?” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 8 Nov. 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/moving-in-together-doesnt-match-the-financial-benefits-of-marriage-but-why-11667761626?mod=WSJ_ACQ_NA_TW_US_CONTENT_NA_PAID.
Mitchell, Travis. “Why People Get Married or Move in with a Partner.” Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center, 26 May 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/11/06/why-people-get-married-or-move-in-with-a-partner/#many-non-engaged-cohabiters-who-want-to-get-married-someday-cite-finances-as-a-reason-why-theyre-not-engaged-or-married.
Habeeb, Lee. “The Best Way to Close the Wealth Gap in America? Try Marriage.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 29 Nov. 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/best-way-close-wealth-gap-america-try-marriage-1762808.
Herzberg, Philip, et al. “The Financial Implications of Cohabitation among Young Adults.” Financial Planning Association, FPA, 1 Apr. 2018, https://www.financialplanningassociation.org/article/journal/APR18-financial-implications-cohabitation-among-young-adults.