I’m glad that co-blogger Bryan Caplan raised the issue of the marriage premium.

When I was writing a review of Dwight Lee’s and Richard McKenzie’s excellent book, Getting Rich in America: 8 Simple Rules for Building a Fortune and a Satisfying Life, I called Dwight to ask a question and we got talking about Rule #5: Get Married and Stay Married. Dwight pointed out that if you follow the other 7 rules but don’t get married or stay married, you have a substantial probability of building a fortune and a satisfying life. But, he said, if you don’t get married and stay married, you tend not to follow at least some of the other 7 rules.

My own life is an example. When I left the University of Rochester in 1979 to go the Cato Institute in San Francisco, I had a liquid net worth of about $23,000. That was a substantial amount in 1979 for a 28-year-old who was unmarried. So that seems already to contradict Lee and McKenzie’s rule #5. But when I left San Francisco 2.3 years later for Washington, D.C., my net worth was about $1,000.

I think that my saving $23K was an aberration. I had grown up with a strong ability and willingness to save, stronger than that of almost every guy in my cohort. I also had an artificial incentive to save. I went to the U. of R. in August 1975 without my dissertation done and I was on an F-1 student practical training visa. At the time my net worth was approximately -$2,000. I had to get my Ph.D. by December 1976 in order to move to the next step of the immigration process–getting a green card. But I had noticed one little loophole in the law: I could get a green card if I invested $10,000 of my own money in a business. (That has now been raised to $1 million.) So I had a plan B. If I didn’t finish my dissertation in time, I would invest $10,000 in a book store, have it open for 4 or 5 hours a day, and spend the rest of my time finishing my dissertation. In my first year at the U. of R., my salary, including summer money, was $20K. So I lived like a graduate student for a year–had a cheap apartment, bought used furniture, took on a roommate for 4 months of that year–and had a liquid net worth of $9,300 at the end of the year. A $700 loan from my father would have been a no-brainer for both of us. Of course, I ended up meeting the deadline for the dissertation and Ph.D. and immigrated. (Although not without a hitch, something I’ll talk about sometime in the future.)

Then I wanted to buy a house and in those days, interest rates were so high that there was a strong incentive to assume an existing loan and get a lower rate, but you had to come up with the cash. So my father gave me 2 or 3 grand and I assumed a mortgage on a house of a colleague who was moving. He gave me a deal on the house for a quick sale and my net worth jumped to about $17K. Then the next year I sold and the price of houses had risen, and thus the net worth of $23K.

But once I got to San Francisco, I didn’t see any good reason to keep saving. So I spent it. It was only when I decided that I wanted to propose to my wife-to-be that I immediately committed to saving again and did save.

The more I’ve observed about people in the 14 years since that conversation, the more I’ve come to agree with Rule #5. I have a friend, Harry, whose father first married when he was in his 50s. He had a high income as CEO of a major Canadian company. Funny thing, though, said Harry. With all those years of high income, he didn’t have much saved when he entered his first and only marriage. I pointed out Lee and McKenzie’s point and that helped resolve a puzzle for Harry.

HT to Michael Davis.