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Why Marrieds Tend to Be Richer: It's Complicated

Jamie Grill | Getty Images

If your Valentine's Day plans include an engagement, congratulations! Besides romance, you also are more likely to experience financial joy – if your marriage works out.

Couples who get and stay married can have as much as four times the wealth of their single or divorced peers. Experts say that's not only because they can combine their salaries and share expenses once they get married.

Spouses are better off because of a combination of factors, starting with who is getting married these days.

"It's more educated, more affluent and also more religious Americans that tend to get married in the first place," said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

That gives them a starting advantage over their peers who aren't married.

Once they are married, the couples also are able to take advantage of economies of scale – anything from buying just one dishwasher to relying on one another's health insurance. That allows them to build wealth more quickly than their peers who are single, divorced or living together romantically.

"You have further advantages," said Pamela Smock, director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Smock said those advantages go beyond just sharing expenses. People who are married also are able to divide up responsibilities in financially beneficial ways.

For example, a married man may be able to work 12 hours a day to please his bosses and get promoted, because he and his wife can divide household duties so he can get ahead. That's not as much of an option for a single parent.

The economic advantages also tend to be greater for those who are married than for those who are living together romantically, said Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at The Ohio State University who has studied wealth trends by marital status.

He said that while some people are in long-term, unmarried relationships, many cohabitating couples may not yet have committed to the idea that they will be together forever. That means they aren't combining resources as significantly as married couples.

"Many people are living together as a sort of trial," he said.

The wealth differences can be significant. Zagorsky's research has shown that people who got and stayed married each had about double the wealth of single people who never married. Together, the couple's wealth was four times that of a single person's.

Other data also shows that married people see stronger financial advantages than just a doubling of wealth. According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 the median net worth for a married couple between the ages of 55 and 64 was $261,405. That compares to $71,428 for a man heading a household, and $39,043 for a woman heading a household.

Of course, those major wealth effects are for marriages that worked out. Zagorsky's research found that those who got divorced tended to see their wealth fall dramatically, leaving them worse off than those who were single and had never married.

That's one reason that Zagorksy said it's important to marry for love, and hope it also will lead to money.

"Getting married and staying happily married is a wonderful way to increase your wealth," he said. "Getting married with the idea it will make you rich is a terrible idea."

The demographics of who gets divorced also play a role. Wilcox, of the National Marriage Project, said less wealthy people are more likely to get divorced, which may have to do with the stress caused by having very little money.

"More affluent and more educated Americans (are) not only more likely to get married, they're also less likely to get divorced," Wilcox said.

In general, government data shows that the divorce rate has stabilized in recent years, but the rate of people getting married also has fallen dramatically.

Smock noted that the idea of living together without getting married has lost its stigma, and having children without being married also is becoming commonplace.

But her research also offers another explanation for why less wealthy people aren't getting married.

Many of the men and women she's studied feel like they need to have some semblance of financial security to get married, such as a stable job or enough savings to hold an expensive wedding and reception. A surprising number of men and women also report wanting the man to have the type of job that makes him the primary breadwinner.

"Those people are more likely to be the privileged people," she said. "And the others, the less well off, are doing family in a different way."

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