Exposed: how single people are facing financial meltdown

If you're not in a relationship, many firms expect you to pay more than your fair share, says Emma Lunn
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The Independent Online

Single people have it tough. It doesn't matter whether they're single by choice or not - there's a social stigma attached to not being in a relationship. And society's punishment for those who aren't attached is a financial penalty. On Thursday, a study from the Elizabeth Finn Trust warned that single adults without dependent children are now the UK's biggest group living in poverty.

There is nothing unusual in being single - 48 per cent of Britain's population say that they are not currently in a relationship. The Office of National Statistics says that the number of Britons living alone has almost doubled in the last 30 years to 10 million. And, by 2010, the single population is expected to hit 16 million.

Figures published last week by the market researchers Mintel reveal that even people with children are less likely to be couples these days - single-parent groups represent a fifth of the country's families.

Yet single people are continually expected to pay more than couples - for everything from housing, tax and holidays to gym membership and insurance. Research from the travel operator Solo's Holidays reveals that 83 per cent feel it is more expensive to live alone than as part of a couple or family - and many complain that the Government is not doing enough to help single people.

"The Government's focus on child and pensioner poverty has made significant progress - we now need to give the same level of attention to the group that has not benefited - namely working-age adults without dependent children," says Jonathan Welfare of the Elizabeth Finn Trust. "As they are the least likely to have family to turn to, this group will remain invisible and so slip further into the poverty trap."

In fact, financing a single life costs almost as much as a couple pays together. Someone living alone, earning £35,000 a year with a £140,000 mortgage would expect to spend £1,185 a month according to a survey from the internet bank Cahoot. The figure for a couple is just £1,245 - only £60 more.

Getting on the property ladder is the first challenge for single people. It's a big one for first-time buyers who don't have a partner with whom they can share the cost of housing. The initial problem is saving enough money to put down as a deposit on a property. You also need to be earning enough to justify borrowing what you need from a mortgage lender.

Spiralling house prices have made the average home in most parts of the UK unaffordable on a typical single income. Even if you do manage to get the money together, fixed costs such as stamp duty, removal-firm fees and the price of furnishing your new home are tough to cope with by yourself.

However, there is some hope for the future - mortgage lenders are slowly waking up to the existence of the singles market and developing products to suit those who aren't in a couple.

"Many people are now choosing to club together with friends or siblings - this allows them to pool their incomes and deposits so they can borrow more," says James Cotton of the independent mortgage adviser London and Country. "Most lenders will allow more than two people on a mortgage - Britannia Building Society's s share-to-buy scheme accepts a maximum of four, for example, and it will take all four incomes into account."

However, Philippa Gee, the investment director at the independent financial adviser Torquil Clark, warns would-be sharers to consider some essentials before signing on the dotted line with friends.

"You must try living with the friends before making such a large financial commitment because you will be locked into a legal arrangement with them," she says. "Also, check that your solicitors' document precisely the amount of deposit you have each put down so that this can be taken into account when you split the proceeds of a sale at some point in the future."

For those determined to buy alone, help from family may be an option. Parents are coming to the rescue of many first-time buyers, by acting as guarantors on the mortgage or helping with a deposit. A number of lenders, including mainstream mortgage companies such as Nationwide, Cheltenham and Gloucester and NatWest, will consider guarantors.

Alternatively, most lenders allow people to borrow up to 100 per cent of the property value, doing away with the need for a deposit. Once you have moved in, getting a lodger to help pay the bills can be a good idea. The Government's rent-a-room scheme allows someone to receive up to £4,250 in rent each year without paying tax on the income.

Single people also need to consider potentially crippling council tax bills before committing to a property. The system assumes that two adults live in each household, but it only offers a 25 per cent discount for single occupancy.

"An application form for a single-occupancy reduction can usually be downloaded from your council's website but singles still claim that they are missing out," says Solo's Holidays' managing director Gill Harvey. "The reduction is not 50 per cent, so they are still ending up paying over the odds compared with one half of a couple."

There's not much to be done about council tax, but single people may be able to make savings on other household bills. If you live on your own, it may pay to have a water meter installed so that you pay for what you use rather than a standard rate. And make sure your bills for gas and electricity are based on real readings rather than estimates that are calculated with reference to "typical" households.

Once you win your battles in the property market you will then have to take on insurers. Most large insurance companies deem single people to be a higher risk, with motor insurance premiums falling after you tie the knot.

Rows between partners over directions and parking can't possibly cause as many accidents as insurers seem to think. According to the price comparison service Insuresupermarket.com, a single man living in London and driving an Audi TT will pay £40 to £200 more than a married man driving the same car. The web-based insurer Swiftcover quoted £830.95 for a bachelor but only £634.53 for a married man, for example, while Norwich Union Direct would charge £909.99 for a single man and £746.99 if he was married.

"It seems your marital status can affect your insurance by almost £200 in some cases, but there is neither rhyme nor reason to this," says Insuresupermarket.com's Richard Mason. "We wouldn't suggest getting married to save money on insurance, but shop around to get the best deal and if your marital status does change, let your insurer know, as it could reduce your monthly premiums."

Single people can often lower their premiums by including another person - a flatmate or parent, say - on their policy, as insurers reckon two people driving presents less of a risk than one person. Adding an older person to a policy can cut a young driver's premiums by 12 to 15 per cent, for example.

Next, think about travel insurance. Couples typically get a discount on travel insurance as "couple" policies tend to cost less than two single policies. A single person buying an annual multi-trip worldwide policy from the Halifax would pay £64.46, while a couple could get a joint policy for £93.70 - more than £35 less than two single travellers would pay.

Single parents often get a particularly raw deal when travelling, according to the AA, because family travel-insurance policies are priced on the basis that there are two parents.

The AA reckons single-parent families can save up to 40 per cent if they find insurers that offer specialist policies, rather than conventional family cover.

"Single parent families are more likely to find it a struggle to meet the cost of a holiday so why should they be penalised further by having to pay for family travel-insurance that typically covers two adults and up to four children?" asks Kevin Sinclair, the managing director of AA Insurance.

Finally, if you're not in a relationship, try to make sure you don't lose out over the long term too. Single women, in particular, can have trouble saving for a decent pension. The basic state pension is just over £80 a week for a single person but to get that you need to be up to date with your National Insurance contributions. Many women are behind because they have spent time bringing up children or caring for their relatives.

Just 14 per cent of women currently have a full basic state pension in their own right and it is estimated that 38 per cent of 60-year-old women will be single by 2021. That makes it important to save as much as possible throughout your life.

If you take more than five years out of paid employment, your pension will be reduced, though you may qualify for Home Responsibilities Protection. Check with your local Benefit Office to find out how this scheme works.

Power of one

* Most holiday companies penalise people for travelling on their own by charging a single supplement. Even if you book a single room, it is rarely half the price of a double, and many holiday firms do not offer their cheapest deals to people travelling alone.

* However, some firms are scrapping single supplements. Others recognise the need for specialist singles holidays. Lastminute.com, for example, offers holidays for single travellers with low or zero single supplements. Destinations include Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Spain and more specialist options such as lakes and mountains breaks and walking holidays in Tuscany. Matt Cheevers, its head of holidays, says that this is a fast growing part of the market. "A few years ago, if you mentioned singles holidays most people thought of hedonistic youngsters jumping into bed with one another or little old ladies pottering about on cruise ships. However the modern reality of solo travel is very different, with more people choosing to take trips on their own at various stages in their lives."

* Gyms are another area where single people can lose out. The Amida Club in Beckenham, for example, costs £936 annually for a single person, but only £1608 for a couple. However, some fitness facilities are catching on to the increased number of single people. Fitness First says it charges everyone the same while LA Fitness lets friends at different addresses join together for a reduced fee.

'Couples get an unfair headstart'

Helen Richardson, 29, works as a direct marketing manager at Yorkshire Building Society, and is living with her parents while she saves up to buy a home of her own.

"I want to buy somewhere in Bingley where my family and friends are but it's one of the more expensive areas of Bradford," Helen says.

"Living somewhere I feel safe is important to me and I wouldn't want to come home to a place I didn't feel comfortable in because I didn't know anyone. But on my own, it's proving really hard to afford somewhere, as the area is very popular with families and young professionals working in Leeds and Bradford - the have an advantage because they're generally buying together."

Property in Bingley that is suitable for first-time buyers starts at £120,000 for a one-bedroom flat.

Helen has saved about £12,000 so far for a deposit and furniture, but needs more to cope with the costs of moving house, such as Stamp Duty.

"It would be much easier to pay all the costs if I was buying with someone else," she complains. "It's not just how much you can borrow, but the fact you have to cope with monthly bills as well. If you've got fixed monthly bills for a house and two salaries coming in, it's a lot easier to cope."

Helen says she feels trapped in a vicious circle - the more she saves, the further away home ownership seems to get as house prices keep rising faster than her earnings.

"With council tax there's probably more that could be done to recognise the fact that a lot of people are staying single for longer and living on their own," she says. "We need to change the way council tax is set up so that its fairer."

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