August 26, 2021 • Money

Living Single by the Numbers


Last week there was a CNBC article trending on Twitter that immediately caught my eye: How much money a single person needs to earn to get by in every U.S. state

Oh! I thought, finally, someone is going to give me a number I should be aiming for, or could be angry about, or that would at least provide me with some sense of what might need to happen so that I can “get by.” In other words, something that will allow me to mitigate the anxiety of being a person who operates in the world without the safety net that comes with a secondary income or family support. 

Spoiler alert, reader, it did not. 

The article, which was pulling its data from MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, provided a map that linked to each state. And a number which correlated. Not surprisingly it’s less expensive to live in the middle of the country and more expensive to live on the coasts. I immediately clicked on New York and was informed that the minimum I needed to live on was $38,719, which, in fact, was my income….approximately eighteen years ago when I was sharing an apartment with two other people and did not have health insurance. 

Needless to say, averaging the cost of living in, say, Buffalo with New York City, is not useful. So, I clicked through to MIT and entered New York City in the data field, assuming the resulting number would be at least double if not more. 

It was not

Before we go any further, it’s useful to know what MIT says the numbers represent

The living wage shown is the hourly rate that an individual in a household must earn to support his or herself and their family. The assumption is the sole provider is working full-time (2080 hours per year). The tool provides information for individuals, and households with one or two working adults and zero to three children. In the case of households with two working adults, all values are per working adult, single or in a family unless otherwise noted.

And here are the numbers:

Living Wage Calculation for New York for one adult with no children
(source: MIT Living Wage Calculator)
Living Wage Calculation for New York for one adult with no children (source: MIT Living Wage Calculator)

I have no doubt there are people living in New York on this income. No doubt whatsoever. But I think it bears exploring what “get by” means, and particularly “get by” in the context of being a single person. 

First however, I want to parse some of these numbers. Let’s begin with the “housing” number. For fun, I divided $17, 370 by 12. The result is $1447.50. The last time I paid that little for rent for a studio apartment was fifteen years ago in Brooklyn, and after a year the rent jumped up to $1800. Both those numbers, by the way, would be considered a deal now. The median rent for a New York City studio is currently $2300. That’s $27,600 a year. That’s not including bills, which, as a person alone, you’d be footing by yourself. If you are a single person under the age of thirty living with multiple roommates, or perhaps living more than an hour from Manhattan on the subway, these rent prices might still be possible, but also they present scenarios not ideal for being a grown-up who wants a life.

Now let’s gawk at the medical number: $2935. I suppose if you work a job with good benefits this number is a possibility. If you are a freelancer, which a significant portion of the population is, and you pay, say, close to $800 a month, as I do, the number is close to $10K a year and that’s not including co-pays or, if you are a grown woman over the age of forty, who requires additional check-ups, all the money you shell out to hit your deductible.

Finally, “other”: $3078. It’s not clear what “other” is, but “other” in my life usually means all the things that are involved in seeing friends and creating a social circle and emotional support system. I.E: dinners, lunches, activities, general life. And, in non-pandemic times, massages (I think of this piece on the regular). Or even travel, which can be extra expensive if you are doing it alone, since the travel industry, like so much else, is priced for couples. For fun I divided $3078 by 52, it comes to about $59 a week. A WEEK.

And absolutely none of this covers retirement, which again, as a single person requires you to put more away with less help.

But let’s get back to “get by” because the rational response to this financial reality check is to say, no one is forcing you to live in New York City. Or any big city. All of us have the option to choose to live in smaller, less expensive towns where you really could rent a reasonably nice place for $1400 a month or perhaps even buy a house. And then what?

There are reasons single people, and particularly single women, flock to cities. In her book, All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister writes how, among other things, the city allows women to live on their own because it provides many of the services and support a family would, be it household (cleaning, dry-cleaning, meals) or emotional (see above re dinners and massages). Being alone, as many of us were reminded over the last year, is extremely hard. Being alone outside of urban centers presents its own challenges.

I was often reminded of this after I published a memoir about remaining single after 40. I heard from so many women who did not live in cities, who were eager (and sometimes desperate) for advice on how to set up their lives to ward against loneliness. Their friends who had married were car rides away. It wasn’t possible just to walk out the door and see people. Even eating alone came with its own stigma.

I was always at a loss for what to tell them. I have always chosen the city. But as I look at these numbers I think if they wanted to accurately reflect what a person alone needs to “get by” they need to account for this absence of social structure that a family often (though not always) provides. It is costly. And getting by shouldn’t just be about survival. It must be about living fully.