The real cost of being single


For unpartnered people, everything from housing to grocery shopping comes with a higher price tag. Here’s what you should know about your finances if you’re riding solo.

The real cost of being single

Photo by George Milton from Pexels

If you’re a single person living in Canada, you’re not alone—even if you technically are. According to the most recent census data available, the percentage of the population flying solo in Canada has more than doubled since the 1980s, with the number of people living alone spiking from 1.7 million in 1981 to 4 million in 2016. Solo dwellers over the age of 15 went from 9% of the population to 14% during the same time period. That same data also revealed that, contrary to popular belief, the biggest age group of people living alone isn’t young adults, but people between the ages of 35 and 64. Within that group, there are more single men than women.

Life as a single usually means covering for a wide range of expenses—such as rent and car payments—on your own. In fact, that 2016 census showed that close to half of young adults living alone had monthly housing costs considered to be unaffordable. When you factor in the rising cost of living in Canada—inflation is at a 30-year high of 4.8%—your bottom line as a single person may be at risk. 

Here’s what’s more expensive when you’re single

Paying for basic needs like housing and food can be difficult without the help of a financial partner. Not to mention all the little things, like shouldering the cost of holiday gifts or vacations, for instance. We talked to real-life singles to hear about the expenses they consistently find to be a struggle to afford alone.

Housing costs

Partners with dual incomes will likely “go Dutch” on their mortgage or monthly rent. But singles pay for that on their own, along with everything from utilities to home insurance and repair costs, too.

For single Canadians, home ownership is becoming increasingly out of reach—a salary of $75,000 a year isn’t sufficient to buy a house, or even a condo, in an expensive city like Toronto. It isn’t any easier in Vancouver, where the income needed to buy any property starts at $130,000.

Even for renters, carrying the price solo is difficult. Jo Pavlov, an education worker from Hamilton, Ont., points out that the cost of housing is one of the biggest expenses of being single. “I started [renting my current house] with a friend, and we split the bills down the middle,” says Pavlov. “When she left, all responsibilities fell to me, and it’s more than I can afford.” Pavlov estimates that paying for all housing costs alone, including bills, eats up over 60% of their net income.

Food costs

While it may seem like it should be cheaper to feed only one person, food often isn’t packaged or sold that way. “I pay too much for food,” says Susan Langdon, the chief executive of the Toronto Fashion Incubator. “Not because I buy a lot, but because small packages of anything are disproportionately priced.” And single people aren’t able to take advantage of the cost savings of buying larger quantities—on perishable items at least—because they may expire before they can use them.

Not only that, but food prices are expected to rise between 5% and 7% over the course of 2022, making food more costly in general, too.

Lack of a safety net

People with a partner may have an added sense of security knowing someone has their back should they experience a job loss, an illness or a disability that prevents them from earning income (or as much income), but singles don’t have that built-in support. (This is why having an emergency fund is so integral as a single person.)

In addition, people with disabilities face employment challenges. Among Canadians aged 25 to 64, those with disabilities were less likely to be employed (59%) than those without (80%). If you’re single and live with or experience a disability, the costs can be high. Helen Smith*, an administrative assistant from Hamilton, Ont., estimates her next purchase of hearing aids could cost nearly $10,000, plus $125 per year for batteries and additional expenses for repairs.

“The disability affects my employability, as there are certain tasks I cannot do,” says Smith. Not only that, but Smith requires a good benefits package—last year she ended up paying $2,300 out of pocket.

“Looking for better-paying positions with better benefits is a slow slog, especially during a pandemic. Unlike able-bodied [people], I cannot take the risk of temporary or contract work because it takes time to learn to compensate for a disability in a new environment,” she says.  

Breaking down the costs

While it’s not possible to conclusively predict if the number of single Canadians will continue increasing, the 2016 census did acknowledge that single people have to carry significant costs when compared to a couple, saying: “Individuals who live by themselves must manage expenses such as housing, utilities, food and entertainment on a single income in most cases, while those living in a household with others can take advantage of economies of scale in managing these expenses.” Let’s take a look at some examples of how cost of living may vary based on relationship status.

The cost of being single in Canada by the numbers

Let’s take a look at a sampling of numbers. Note: These are based on yearly averages, and the data available covers the period between 2019 and 2021. Individual expenses will vary.

Per year Single Single parent Couple
After-tax income  $32,200 $56,100 $103,900
Rent  $21,468 $21,468 $21,468
Food costs  $3,391 to $3,780 $8,742 $14,767 (with children)

Financial advantages of being single

While there are ticks in the “cons” column of being single when it comes to money, there are also distinct financial advantages—like not having to split any tax deductions with a partner. One of the biggest advantages are the independence that stems from having full control over your finances. Shay Steacy, an advice-only Certified Financial Planner and owner of InBalance Financial Planning, is single herself and works with single clients. She says single people have greater flexibility with their money, including how they invest it, how they plan for retirement and how they consider housing. “I get to be more flexible in what I do, because only I need to approve it,” she explains. “I had a client move out east, and when that didn’t really work out, she moved back. There’s a lot more flexibility in what you can do when there is only one person and one job to figure out.” 

Shannon Lee Simmons, a Certified Financial Planner and owner of the New School of Finance, agrees wholeheartedly. “If you’re single, you get 100% say on how the money works,” says Simmons. “You don’t have to navigate someone else’s bad habits—emotionally or financially.” 

Money tips for single people

Develop alternative income streams

Both Simmons and Steacy recommend having alternative revenue streams, if you have the time and ability. Steacy has clients who utilized short-term rentals to earn additional income, by listing their living space on AirBnb before they travelled. She herself rents out part of her home and lives in the basement. 

Challenge traditional financial ideals

There’s the belief that home ownership helps build wealth, but as Simmons points out, that wealth is locked in until you sell your home. “Your house could be worth a million bucks on paper, but if you don’t sell it, then it’s not really worth that at all.” Plus there are the costs that come with owning a home: repairs, property taxes, replacing a broken toilet, not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars to replace the roof. Those are costs you don’t have to account for when you rent. The money you would have to put into upkeep can be invested. Simmons also likes the idea of co-owning, sharing both the benefits and the expenses with the other owner(s). She has a client who is a single mom and who bought a house with two friends. 

Hack your food costs

Spending less on food can be done by strategic shopping. Using coupons (or a couponing app), buying groceries on sale and avoiding spoilage are all ways to cut costs. Andrew Dobson, a recipe developer from Toronto, recommends paying attention to when grocery stores restock and items go on sale to maximize your budget when shopping. In terms of spoilage, he recommends carrying a running list of what you have in your pantry so that you won’t accidentally buy duplicates. You can also utilize your freezer to keep leftovers and sale items from spoiling. “I have meat in my freezer right now, and I’ve never paid full price [for it],” says Dobson. 

Tap the second-hand and resale markets

People are really into the second-hand and resale markets—and they score great finds. This kind of shopping has been around for years, but it recently got fashionable, with even celebrities getting in on it. You can furnish your home and fill your closets with stylish pieces thanks to websites like Facebook Marketplace, Poshmark and Depop. 

Utilize tax advantages and subsidies

You may qualify for more government subsidies because you have one income, especially if you have children. “If you have kids and you have one income, you’re probably going to qualify for subsidies, rightfully so,” says Simmons. One example is the GST/HST credit, which helps low- and modest-income families and individuals offset the GST/HST they pay. Another is childcare subsidies. Several cities and provinces have childcare subsidies that help parents offset the cost of raising children under the age of 18. 

Push for policy changes

While singles are able to get creative with housing, furnishings and income streams, managing affordability comes down not just to individuals, but to government policies. Studies like Insights on Canadian Society acknowledge that single people do pay more for certain expenses, but this finding hasn’t led to tangible actions that benefit solo earners. This could be something to consider next time you hit the polls.

*Name changed for privacy.