The golden age of DINKs
Elizabeth Johnson and her husband hit the vacation circuit hard over the past couple of years.
They went boating in Florida, hiking in the Swiss Alps, snorkeling in Hawaii, waterfall exploring in Oregon, and leaf peeping in Canada. They saw moose and orcas in Alaska, manatees in the Dominican Republic, and sheep in the Irish countryside.
"We also volunteer at a local food bank each month, go to comedy shows at Mall of America, routinely go to concerts," she said.
Neither Johnson nor her husband grew up wealthy, and the couple never expected to have such an indulgent lifestyle. Johnson's husband, in particular, faced "a very bleak outlook" for his career when he graduated from college in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession.
But now, 16 years later, the 30-something couple make a generous joint income of just under $300,000. That income, their hard work, and a dash of savvy investing are largely responsible for the lifestyle they lead — but there's another big factor. The Johnsons are DINKS, a dual-income couple with no kids.
The costs of rearing a child have skyrocketed in recent years, especially as parents get less help from their families and communities. Raising a kid could cost parents upward of $26,000 this year. Being a DINK has always been a way to save money, but as the stigma around the choice to be child-free has faded, more and more Americans see being a DINK as the key to a new American dream of financial stability, freedom of choice, and a comfortable retirement. DINKs are proudly emerging as an aspirational class for young people — and they're ready to live it up.
Lifestyles of the DINKs and the child-free
Johnson's Tinder profile set her on her path to DINKhood. In early adulthood, she never felt the desire to have children but wanted to keep an open mind. As the years went on, even as she saw her peers having kids, she said her "beliefs just never changed and completely solidified." So when she set up her dating profile, Johnson included in her bio that she didn't want to have kids of her own.
"I just wanted to weed out the ones I wouldn't be compatible with," she said. It worked. Johnson recalled that on their second or third date, she and her now-husband discussed the topic to make sure they were on the same page. The pair married in 2022, and Johnson said their decision to live as DINKs had been enriching.
"It makes my life more meaningful," the occupational therapist said of her choice to be child-free. "I feel like I can give more to my patients at work. I have more time to see my loved ones and family."
Beyond the emotional value Johnson ascribes to her DINK status, there are the dollars-and-cents benefits to the lifestyle. Her husband, who works in banking, is "a very big spreadsheet guy," Johnson said, and the couple track their finances "religiously." Part of that maniacal focus is tracking their net worth. The latest tally? About $1.1 million, a combination of the equity they've been able to accumulate in their new-build, suburban Minneapolis townhome and their retirement accounts.
It makes my life more meaningful. I feel like I can give more to my patients at work. I have more time to see my loved ones and family.
As an occupational therapist who works with older people, Johnson said, she sees "one of the biggest downsides to being a DINK is not having your children there to support you and help you age in place as you get older." So in addition to enjoying travel now, it's important for the couple to have "the financial resources in place to support safe living when we're old," she said.
For many adults, having children holds a massive amount of intrinsic value, but there's no denying that those who choose to forgo parenthood gain a serious financial edge. In fact, the net-worth data from the Federal Reserve's most recent Survey of Consumer Finances showed there's never been a better time to be a DINK. Child-free couples' median net worth of $399,000 in 2022 was the highest of all types of family structures studied by the survey and almost $150,000 more than couples with kids. The median net worth of DINKs was also more than $100,000 higher than it was in 2019, and the gap between child-free couples and couples with kids has only widened as prices on items and services parents need most, such as childcare and food, have spiked.
Amy Blackstone, the author of the 2019 book "Childfree by Choice," said that the financial gap between DINKs and couples with kids wasn't solely because of the choice about children. In many cases, it's also a bit of selection bias.
"It's the people who already have higher incomes, higher education, and are generally more privileged who opt out of parenthood," she said.
Still, DINKs like the Johnsons demonstrate that as the American dream of homeownership and putting kids through college gets further out of reach, forgoing children is one way to achieve the upward economic mobility that many parents find more difficult to reach. Child-free couples have more free cash flow that can be invested in real estate or stocks. And while the pandemic's fiscal stimulus left pretty much everyone with more cash, DINKs seemed to emerge victorious in the battle to grow wealth. After a few years of saving, the Johnsons are free of student debt and said they're in a financial position to start planning for an early retirement in their 50s.
"I am from a middle-class family, and my husband from a lower-class upbringing," Johnson said. "He experienced paycheck-to-paycheck living, started his first job at age 11 delivering newspapers. We feel very fortunate for our current economic stability."
Of course, not all DINKs are raking in six-figure incomes and investing in real estate. Alex Killingsworth is a 25-year-old entrepreneur building a content-writing business, and his wife is a full-time graduate student. She makes $14,000 a year as a teaching assistant, while his business earned them $84,000 in 2023. Not having kids has allowed them to invest in his startup and her higher education, both of which they believe will pay off.
"I'm 'investing' in the work I'm doing," Killingsworth said. "Likewise for my wife, almost all of her income is going into research, so our actual take-home pay is quite a bit lower."
If they had kids, paying the bills could be tougher for them. Instead, they're buying wine and whiskey, maxing out a retirement account, and taking advantage of the freedom to spend Thanksgiving in Alaska, visit family in Texas, or go to Broadway shows in New York.
"I don't know if we have any hacks or tricks here, but I have been told all of the extra income has a tendency to dry up when you have kids," Killingsworth said. "I don't know if that's true, but it's better to overprepare than under, right?"
The financial upsides of being a DINK used to come with a cost: In 1974, a substitute teacher named Marcia Drut-Davis was fired from her job and received death threats after discussing her choice to be child-free on "60 Minutes." When another school asked her to give a speech on her decision, angry parents carrying signs calling her "the devil's sister" crowded the entrance, and the teacher who provided closing remarks after the speech denounced her in front of the auditorium.
In her 2013 book, "Confessions of a Childfree Woman," Drut-Davis recalls the teacher saying: "How will you feel when you're old and alone with no one to take care of you? How will you feel without a grandchild to give you chocolate kisses? You're a sad excuse for a woman."
For decades, the social stigma around choosing not to have children has been substantial, but Blackstone said that she'd noticed a major shift in acceptance since she began research for her book in 2008.
"I would say that it's millennials and Gen Z who have really done the heavy lifting in terms of bringing this conversation out into the open," she said.
That's not to say Gen X didn't contribute to the conversation — Blackstone is a child-free Xer — but she said the younger generations' experiences with the 2008 financial crisis, accelerated climate crisis, and increasingly divisive politics made the choice to forgo kids more acceptable to a wider group.
One 2022 Nature paper from the researchers Zachary P. Neal and Jennifer Watling Neal found that nearly half the adults they studied were parents and 22% were child-free by choice. The rest were ambivalent, undecided, unable to have kids, or planning to have them. In the 2020 US census, 87 million Americans were between the ages of 20 and 46. If you apply the findings from the Neals' study, that means roughly 19 million millennial and Gen Z adults of childbearing age were child-free by choice. That same research, which polled 1,500 Michigan adults, found that while parents felt warmer toward fellow parents, "both parents and child-free people feel about the same toward child-free people." The report concluded: "Although parents really like other parents, they don't dislike child-free people."
Sentiment actually seems to be shifting in the opposite direction: In a summer 2022 Harris Poll of 1,054 American adults, 20% of all adults — and 27% of millennials — agreed "that people should stop having children because of the harm it causes," specifically the harm to the environment, animals, and even other people. Similarly, about one-third of all adults — and over 40% of millennials — said that they agreed "people should stop having children because their children's quality of life will be poor."
And then there's social media and our identity-obsessed culture. Child-free people now have more and more platforms to connect with each other and flaunt their no-kids lifestyles of extensive travel, impeccable homes, and spoiled pets. The communities devoted to a child-free lifestyle are booming: The subreddit r/childfree, focused on "topics and links of interest to childfree individuals," boasts 1.5 million members. TikTok videos about DINKs rack up millions of views and hundreds of thousands of likes. DINKs, GINKs, "rich aunties," and DINKWADs — DINKs with a dog — have become aspirational identities for younger generations.
We hang out with other people's kids every once in a while, but then we happily just give them back to their parents.
Stigma against DINKS certainly remains — just look at the comments of "selfish" and "missing out" on child-free TikTok videos. But they're overshadowed by comments of support. As Blackstone, who wrote the 2021 book on the topic, said, what happened to Drut-Davis wouldn't happen today.
"I've gotten the random email telling me that I'm miserable and going to die alone or that I'm right, I shouldn't have kids anyway," she said. "But nothing like what Marcia got in the 1970s."
With the rise in childcare costs, education, and other parenting expenses that have outpaced inflation, it's hard to deny that a two-track economy has emerged. There are the DINKs who can seize the American dream and the parents who are struggling to stay afloat in a country without guaranteed paid leave or affordable childcare. It's no wonder that so many people are suddenly interested in becoming a DINK.
Johnson said that her DINK lifestyle kept her plenty busy. She invests time in her hobby of landscape photography, and though she's questioned whether it's a selfish choice, she overall feels more "well rounded and healthier" than she would if she had kids, she said.
"We hang out with other people's kids every once in a while," she said, "but then we happily just give them back to their parents."
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