Strategies for households with more than one adult

By Philip Brewer on 2 February 2008 (Updated 13 July 2008) 9 comments
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The strategy for households with a single adult can be disposed of in the first paragraph: Earn enough money to buy everything your household consumes, plus provide through direct labor all the other needs of your household. Add one or more additional adults to the mix, though, and your options expand considerably.

Actually, even with a single adult there's some flexibility in that "direct labor" category. A single adult has the option to hire people to do the things that they lack the time, skill, equipment, or inclination to do. You can hire people to do almost anything: Fix your car, mow your lawn, plow your driveway, raise your kids, etc. Plus, even a busy single adult has some time that could be devoted to producing things that they'd otherwise have to buy--knitting sweaters, brewing beer, growing a garden.

The structure of the labor market (in the US, at least), is such that there's very little flexibility for a single adult in the job market. You can't just say, "I'd rather work X hours a week, so that I'd have an extra 40-minus-X hours to directly satisfy my household's needs for services." Or, rather, you can say that, but most employers will just laugh at your funny, funny joke. (Even the idea that 40 hours covers your obligation to your employer amounts to black humor for many people.) There are part-time jobs, but they tend to pay disproportionately less and to lack benefits.

There is the option to opt out of the money economy--to live as subsistence farmer or a freegan--but there are limits even to that (subsistence farmers have to pay taxes too). In any case, it means living at a lower standard of living than most people would choose.

A second adult vastly increases a household's flexibility and stability, and raises its standard of living. That's true with almost any division of labor.

Zero adults working in the money economy

From the dawn of mankind until the invention of money, this was the only structure available for households. In only slightly diluted form, it remained common until about the beginning of the 20th century. Even after a large fraction of the population had moved to cities and taken jobs, many people still lived on farms and directly provided a large fraction of their daily needs--food from their fields and gardens, milk from their cow, clothes made at home, etc.

Even with more than one adult to share the work, this strategy provides a standard of living that's low enough that most people don't choose it. Plus, even if you think you might like it, it's a hard way of life to experiment with--it requires a good bit of capital (in the form of land and a house) and a vast array of skills that we could have learned from our great-grandparents, but that aren't so common any more. That makes it hard to "try out" for a few weeks to see how you like it.

One adult working in the money economy

Until the 1960s or so, this was the most common arrangement. In a lot of ways, it provides the best of both worlds. One person working full time can earn enough money to buy everything a household needs to buy in the money economy. One person with a good job can provide that, plus health insurance for a second adult and any number of children. (Insuring additional adults is not so easy.)

Additional adults in the household can perform a wide range of tasks, reducing or eliminating the need to hire them done. Child care is a key one, but the whole range of work that needs to be done is on the plate: cooking, cleaning, laundry, gardening, lawn care, car repair, home maintenance, etc.

There's also a good bit of additional flexibility for a second adult to work part-time in the money economy. With one person working at a job that provides benefits, some of the negative aspects of part-time work become non-issues.

In additional to the flexibility that a second adult provides, there's also some extra stability. If the person who has been working loses his or her job, all the adults in the household can begin separate job searches. That will minimize the time that the household goes without income. If the adult who's been working can't do so any longer (because of a health problem or some other issue), another adult in the household can enter the money economy.

Two adults working in the money economy

Household with two adults in the money economy have become common in the last 25 years or so. The extra income lets the household buy more stuff. Whether that amounts to an increase in standard of living is a more complex question.

Each additional adult entering the money economy after the first provides diminishing returns. A second worker earns additional money, but at the cost of whatever household work that person could have done. A second worker may also receive benefits, but two sets of benefits are not twice as good as one set of benefits. The tax situation of a two-income household is better than it was, but a second income is still taxed more heavily than a first income.

Still, there are many good reasons for a second adult to stay employed. Keeping his or her skills up-to-date is valuable, as is having a resume with current work experience. Staying active in one's field is useful for maintaining contacts which might be crucial in finding another job. Some people choose to work in the money economy simply as a way to be in daily contact with like-minded people. Still others do so because they don't feel they can rely on their spouse to provide a steady income.

More than two adults

Many households have more than two adults. They're often related--households with adult children at home, households with a in-laws or grandparents (or aunts, uncles, and cousins) come to stay--but they don't need to be. Some are religious groups with a spiritual reason to come together. Some do so entirely for economic reasons. Still others just like one another and want to live together.

Just like married couples, they can integrate their finances completely, partially, or not at all:

  • A married couple renting out a room wouldn't need to mingle their finances with their border beyond just cashing the rent check.
  • A group of students sharing a house might all keep separate bank accounts, but put money into a common fund to buy groceries and then take turns cooking.
  • Three or more adults can live together, pool their income, and share the tasks of housekeeping.

The IRS code has a provision for members of "income sharing" groups to file their tax returns on equal shares of the income of the group enterprise. It was created for communal groups like the Shakers, and requires that the group state a religious or spiritual purpose for their coming together, but thanks to the first amendment, the IRS can't really police what's a valid religious reason and what isn't. The group does have to have some sort of group business activity--the IRS doesn't generally allow it if three adults who live together all go to separate jobs--but if there's any kind of business that some of them work at, the option should be available.

Adding a second adult to a household brings with it a huge jump up in standard of living and stability. Additional adults continue to do so, although with diminishing returns.

With extra adults working in the money economy comes both extra income and extra income stability. (Just having a border paying rent means that losing a job doesn't result in income dropping to zero. More integrated households with multiple adults can be more stable yet.) It also provides extra flexibility--some fraction of the group can work in the money economy, the rest can do work that they would otherwise need to pay someone to do or else let go undone. And there's no need that the fraction remain constant; members can enter and leave the paid workforce in whatever ways give them the life they want.

Predictions

I think we'll see the average number of adults per household go up. The idea that a single person can make enough money to set up housekeeping as a one-person household off his or her first job is really quite recent. In many cultures (and in our own until just the past hundred years or so), young adults live at home until they get married, and often even after they get married.

I might be wrong, though. I'm frankly quite surprised that we haven't already seen a surge in larger households because of the mortgage crisis. Vast numbers of households seem to have fallen behind on their mortgage, and then gone into foreclosure and lost their house, without even considering renting a room to a border.

I can imaging a family scrimping and saving to enjoy the luxury of a household with only family members. But preferring to lose your house rather than let a stranger live there with you seems very odd to me.

So, I may not have my finger on the pulse of modern households. Still, the advantages of multi-adult households are significant. The extra stability and extra flexibility mean both a higher standard of living and extra security.

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Guest's picture

Where I live there are many, many homes that rent out one, two, or three rooms to boarders. The high cost of housing here made that necessary years ago. I expect it varies a lot from place-to-place in the country.

Guest's picture
Daphne B.

Do you think at least part of the reluctance might come from families with children? It would take a more extensive background check to feel safe with a stranger in the house under those conditions.

Also, in a way, more people are living in multiple-adult situations, since some of the people losing their homes are moving back to live with their parents.

Guest's picture
rahime

I've always thought it strange that people in the US are so adverse to renting extra space in their homes. My husband and I have had a number of borders throughout the years and it has always been a positive experience. We've rented to a variety of people, college students, singles, couples, a professor visiting from another country etc. Of course, you have to be a little discriminating when choosing a person to live in your home. We've oftentimes had a friendship with the person before they came to live with us, but in one house we had 3 rooms rented to single people and didn't know any of them prior to that. It took us a month or two to find people who would be a good fit for our household, but it was worth it.

I am fortunate to have married into a family (Chinese, incidentally) who believes strongly in helping the younger generations become established with a home. When my husband and I were discussing buying a rental property and were planning to rent part of our house to supplement the expenses, his parents offered to rent out a room in their house also to help us.

Guest's picture

I currently live in a two family home (a house with a built on in-law suite) with a total of 8 people. We have 1 retired senior citizen, 2 semi-retired 60 something adults, me, my wife and our 3 children. We're the modern day Waltons with 4 generations under one roof.

Where does the live-in phsycologist reside; you might ask? Well I tell you it's not as bad as it might seem. We haven't really done this out of necessity either.

My father-in-law is old-school Pennsylvania Dutch through and through. They believe in family taking care of their elders until they die, and on ensuring the family "home-stead" stays within the family. My wife's two sisters had no desire to maintain the home and both of my wife's parents were getting to the age where they didn't want the burdern of maintaining the 30 year old house and 3.5 acres.

What do we get out of all of this? An interest free, seller financed loan for the $300,000.00 home. In this part of the country, this situation isn't all that rare.

Guest's picture
Jess

What you seem to be talking about is the roommate solution. For a number of years, I lived in a house that varied between 4-6 adults living there. Prior to that I lived in a room rented from a friend of the family, a single woman with four kids, two of whom, as 16-18 years old, were practically adults. Before that I lived with my mother and step-father and carried a good portion of the rent. A one point I lived with my long-time boyfriend and his mother. In fact, many, many people know have live in some combination of all these situations throughout their adult lives. Gone are the days when we can live alone.
The problem with living with more than one adult is more complicated than simply chalking it up to a fear of strangers.
There are matters of respect, other people's issues and dysfunctions, cultural clashes (meaning that even people from statistically similar cultures are often raised to behave toward, react to, look at life in strikingly different ways that others often cannot handle because of drastically different lifestyles or, experiences). I have never seen an instances of pooling resources and sharing food work out. Some people do not even know how to share a TV. Everybody's version of good housekeeping varies in sometimes volatile ways. And stories of slackers, con-artists and horrifying accounts of general disrepect abound.
Quite simply, I 've never seen it work for any decent length of time.
This is why people avoid, as much as possible, having to ever resort or, go back to that kind of living arrangment

Guest's picture
Kathryn

I think the only time I lived truly "alone" was for a 2-month stretch after I split up with a boyfriend and he moved out of our 2-br apt, and before I found another roommate. (Although I did have a long period as a single parent when I was the only adult in the household). With kids in the house now, I am less worried about tenants disrupting family life as I am about kids disrupting tenants' life!

I guess one caution I would add is that shared housing can be a boon, but it can also open you up to financial risks. If you sign a 1-year lease on a 2 or 3 br apartment and are dependent on more than one income to pay the rent, what happens when one roommate loses a job? Or if you buy a house and need rental income to meet the mortgage, and your tenant decides to move to Kansas for some girl he met on the Internet?

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks for all the good comments!

I was trying to cover the whole spectrum from roommates to people who are part of your family, including everything in between.

I think having a whole house that includes nothing but a nuclear family is great--but I also think it's a great luxury that was unavailable to anyone but the wealthy for most of human history. The many problems of sharing your living space (whether with strangers, friends, lovers, distant family, or close family) are nothing new--people everywhere have been dealing with them for as long as there have been houses. There are social conventions for dealing with them, but people in wealthy countries (and especially in the US) have begun to forget them.

I think the fear that strangers would be a threat to kids is way over-blown (after all, a boarder would certainly have less unsupervised access to the children than a babysitter), but that doesn't make it any less sincere.

Guest's picture
Guest

I read your article and thought 'boarders don't really count as being part of the household' but then I realized they did. I am a one-person household in that I am totally responsible for all my expenses and living costs, and I do have a completely self-contained apartment with my own living space etc. But I do benefit from having this apartment as a portion of someone's home (i.e. I am a boarder) in numerous ways. For example, we have a barter arrangement where she shares the laundry, cable and internet with me in exchange for my tutoring her son once a week. And there have been times where I bring her some cake from a part I had, or she brings me fruit from going fruit-picking with her son. Also, she has a car and I do not and there have been times she will offer to take me shopping for something in her car. Meanwhile, my rent helps her afford the house, she is happy with the tutoring arrangement, and she cuts me a break on the rent because I give her the peace of mind of being a tidy, reliable tenant. So we do benefit from each other's presence in the same house even if my life and household is very separate from hers.

Guest's picture
Rita

I too think we'll be seeing more and more home sharing in the US. I think the reason some folks didn't get on the bandwagon and do this before losing their homes is that the "bust" happened fairly quickly and in some cases, wouldn't have helped much-some people got ridiculously over their heads in housing costs.