The real price people pay for being single

Sometimes, usually when I’m looking aghast at my gas, electricity and council tax bills for the month, my mind turns inevitably towards the 2015 film The Lobster.

In this quirky and darkly comic tale from director Yorgos Lanthimos (he of more recent Poor Things fame), everyone must be coupled up by law. When a relationship ends, the parties are packed off to a kind of singles retreat where they must swiftly find a new “match” based on some arbitrary factor – like the fact they both wear glasses or get regular nosebleeds. Fail to snag a new mate within the allotted timeframe? You’re either turned into an animal or must live as an outcast in the wilderness, mercilessly hunted down and killed by the couples.

For all that the film presents a strange and dystopian version of life, on occasion – when I pay all those bills and watch my bank balance dwindle to zero in horror – I can’t help but think of it in somewhat wistful terms. Imagine spending a few weeks in a nice hotel and coming out of it with a person who’d enable me to halve my monthly outgoings at a stroke… Mmm. Sounds heavenly.

It’s why I perked up when I saw the news that a local council in Belgium has made the bold step of taking into account how its policies might affect single people. The result of a tireless campaign from Belgian councillor Carla Dejonghe, who has spent much of the last decade lobbying to raise awareness of how singles are penalised, her municipality of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre on the outskirts of Brussels has become the first in Europe to officially factor in those who live alone. “It’s a milestone,” Dejonghe told The Guardian. “For the first time, a municipality is committing to examining its policies through the lens of a singleton.”

She highlighted that this has previously been a total blind spot – “nobody’s ever thought about it” – despite this demographic being “huge”, comprising 36 per cent of Belgian households. The UK isn’t far behind; nearly one in three (30 per cent) of all British households were one-person in 2022, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It’s the second most common form of household, accounting for 8.3 million people in total. And yet, as Dejonghe puts it, “Our society has evolved but our policies haven’t kept up.”

Measures from the new charter, which was voted in unanimously by the council, include pushing new housing plans to feature communal spaces where residents can socialise; encouraging local workplaces to stop relying on single people to take on overtime; advising hospitality venues to sell more wines by the glass and install communal tables; and even changing invitations to municipality events to say that guests may bring a “plus one”, rather than a “partner”.

“These are just simple things,” said Dejonghe. “They don’t cost much money but they’re very logical.”

Coupling up would have saved Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz thousands in ‘The Lobster’

(Picturehouse Entertainment)

It is simple – but even the notion that singles should be properly considered in decision making feels revolutionary. Council tax in the UK is a prime example. Yes, you get a discount as a single household – but it’s 25 rather than 50 per cent. I’ve always found this irrational as much as it is galling; if you’ve got half the income of a two-person household, surely you should be paying half the price? I think about it, too, whenever I get my internet bill. I’ll be paying exactly the same amount as the family next door, despite the fact they’ll have five devices simultaneously rinsing the web, while I sit there with my meagre laptop and smartphone combo.

It’s a milestone. For the first time, a municipality is committing to examining its policies through the lens of a singleton

Carla Dejonghe, Belgian councillor

Then there’s the weekly food shop: so many of our groceries are designed for families or multi-person households. Every time I buy a loaf of bread, most of it inevitably goes off. Purchasing a block of cheese for a recipe is a recipe for half of it to wind up covered in mould. And my local Asda only sells sweet potatoes in bags of five, guaranteeing that at least two of them are destined for the bin. The only products really aimed at solos are the microwave meals – because God forbid we should bother to cook for ourselves instead of sadly joining the “prick and ping” brigade, as my old flatmate used to call it.

Want to go on holiday by yourself? Prepare to be penalised for your single status. In my previous role as travel editor, the most frequent question I ever got asked was how to avoid paying the inevitable single supplements on hotel rooms and cruises.

Everywhere you look, in fact, life seems designed to effectively tax those of us without a partner. In 2023, a financial services provider even put a number on all the extras that stack up for singles: a hair-raising £860 a month, totalling more than £10,000 a year. Hargreaves Lansdown calculated that a single person in the UK shells out £1,851 on average on monthly bills (including food, internet and a Netflix subscription), while individuals who are part of a couple spend more like £991. Add to that the discounts that are available for couples buying services like gym and National Trust memberships, plus specific tax breaks for people who are married or in civil partnerships, and it quickly becomes apparent that, while love hurts, staying alone hurts your wallet.

At the end of the day, better policies for singles would mean a better society for us all. As Dejonghe, single herself, summed it up: “It’s about equality. Everyone has to be aware of two things: if it’s good for a person living alone, it will be good for everybody. And second, whether you want to or not, at some point in your life you will be all alone.”

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