Is marriage cost effective?
A recent study suggests it is, but the data might not reflect reality.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Ebenezer Scrooge should have reserved his scorn for St. Valentine's Day.
The typical American is going to spend about $100.89, according to the National Retail Federation. That's up from $97.27 last year. A pricey holiday getting pricier thanks to the notion -- inspired by gobs of advertising -- that you will spend your life alone and unloved if you don't pony up lavish gifts and cheap sentiment on Feb. 14.
And the end prize for a lot of people? Marriage. No doubt on a philosophical and emotional level, that's a great payoff. But how about economically?
A study by Ohio State University researcher Jay Zagorsky suggests marriage is good return. According to his review of 9,055 baby boomers, married folks accumulated net worths that were 93 percent higher than single or divorced individuals. And married individuals tended to experience average wealth increases of 16 percent annually.
"Some of that effect is due to economies of scale ... that is, two people can live more cheaply than one," said Zagorsky.
Of course, Zagorsky admits married folks have some different expenses than non-married folks. Transportation is higher while housing is cheaper, on a per person basis, he noted. And, to his credit, he notes there may be other forces at work in the data as well.
For instance, maybe the performance is merely a case of winners, who tend to make attractive mates, and losers, who don't.
And maybe we should throw some other cost elements into the equation. Start-up costs, for instance. That $100.89 is usually just a minor pebble in the vast avalanche of costs associated with courtship -- no matter who's buying the dinner or who's dressing up for the date.
And don't forget maintenance costs. That $100.89 easily gets transferred from investment column to the cost-of-doing-business column, along with a horde of other expenses ... anniversaries, birthdays, and general spousal groveling for some infraction. And some household expenditures tend to get higher when you have a partner to please: "Okay honey, we'll get the double-deluxe gold inlaid curtains, if you insist" or "stop pouting dear ... go ahead and get the triple action zircon encrusted diamond-bit drill press."
And then if your enterprise has subsidiaries (kids), the costs get even higher.
So the cost basis for determining the rate of return on marriage may be higher than suspected. That might put that 16 percent growth closer to the 8 percent growth rate Zagorsky estimates for single people.
However, heaven forbid, what if the enterprise goes into emotional bankruptcy ... divorce? According to Zagorsky, divorced folks wealth levels go down 77 percent. Figures. All those lawyers to pay, right?
And lost property too. As my (divorced) brother puts it: "Next time I want to get married, I'm going to find a woman who hates me and buy her a house."
Maybe $100.89 isn't such a bad investment after all.
Allen Wastler is Managing Editor of CNNMoney.com and appears on CNN's "In the Money." He can be emailed at email@example.com.