It’s not easy being a gal on a budget. Not only do women earn less than men, we sometimes have to spend more too.
It’s not just a question of women having different shopping habits from men. There are some things women need to spend money on that men don’t — things like feminine hygiene products and, for most women, makeup. And there are other things that both men and women buy but women get charged more for, just because we have lady parts. So unfair!
It’s time for us ladies to start fighting back. We can learn to recognize the dreaded “pink tax” — extra money charged for a “women’s” product that’s essentially the same as the men’s version — and refuse to pay it. And in cases where we do need different products from men, we can learn about cheaper alternatives and savvy shopping strategies to keep our costs down.
Top Expenses That Are Higher for Women
In 2015, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) did a detailed study of how much it costs to be a female consumer. It looked at prices for nearly 800 consumer goods across 35 different product categories, covering consumers of all age groups — children, adults, and seniors. It found that in 30 of these categories, products for girls and women cost more. They paid an average of 7% more across all categories, including 8% more for adult clothing, 8% more for senior and home health care products, and 13% more for personal care products.
Other studies have found that women often pay more for services too. Dry cleaners, hair salons, and auto body shops have all been caught charging female customers more than male customers. Women also pay more on average for certain financial services, such as home loans and long-term care insurance.
Here’s a summary of the top categories in which women typically pay more than men, plus some ways to fight back.
According to the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Survey done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), single women spend an average of $610 per year on clothing for themselves and another $211 per year on footwear. Single men, by contrast, spend $498 per year on clothing and $191 on footwear.
Why Women Pay More
No doubt, this is partly because women are more interested in fashion than men, so we tend to own more clothes and replace them more often. However, that’s not all that’s going on. Several other factors conspire to make clothing more expensive for women, including:
- More Items. Putting together a professional wardrobe for women means buying some items that men don’t need. Both men and women need basic suits for the office, but we ladies also need bras and stockings to wear underneath, as well as handbags and jewelry to complete the look. It isn’t about vanity; it’s just what the working world expects of women.
- Higher Prices for Similar Items. The DCA study found that in every category except underwear, women’s clothes cost more than similar clothes for men. We pay an average of 3% more for socks, 6% more for dress pants and sweaters, 10% more for jeans, and 13% to 15% more for shirts. These price differences are partly due to higher production costs for women’s clothing, but not always. A 2016 study in The Business of Fashion found that high-end retailers like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Saint Laurent often charged women hundreds of dollars more than men for basically identical pieces. The higher price for the women’s version depends more on basic supply and demand — women’s clothes cost more simply because women are willing to pay more.
- Higher Tariffs. Most of the clothing sold in the United States today comes from other countries. These clothes are subject to import tariffs, which are typically higher for women’s clothing than for men’s. A 2015 study at Texas A&M University found that the average tariff for women’s clothing was 27% higher than the average tariff for men’s clothing. And, according to The Wall Street Journal, new tariffs on Chinese-produced clothing imposed by the Trump administration in 2019 will most likely compound the problem. That’s because 42% of women’s clothing comes from China, as compared to only 26% of men’s.
How to Spend Less
Since women’s clothes often cost more than men’s, you can save money by doing some of your shopping in the men’s or boys’ department. This is a good strategy if you have trouble fitting into typical women’s clothes or shoes. For instance, I have a hard time finding women’s shoes to fit my short but wide feet. However, for sporty styles like sandals or sneakers, a boys’ size 4.5 or 5 fits me just fine, and it’s usually cheaper than a comparable shoe in the women’s section.
You can also save money by shopping secondhand. You’ll find bargains at all kinds of thrift stores, from high-end consignment shops to nonprofits like Goodwill. Other secondhand shopping options include eBay, Craigslist, garage sales, online swap sites, and clothing swap parties. Don’t overlook slightly damaged clothes; it only takes a little bit of work to replace buttons, repair rips, and refresh faded dye.
You can also take the opposite approach and spend more on a high-quality garment you can keep wearing for years to come. This strategy works best with timeless clothing pieces that won’t go out of style. You can also make your clothes last longer by cleaning and storing them properly.
If you’re shopping online, add the Capital One Shopping browser extension. When you’re shopping Amazon, it will alert you of better prices elsewhere. It will also automatically add any available coupon codes to your order at checkout. Alternatively, you can use a shopping portal like Rakuten. You will receive a percentage of your purchase back as a rebate.
2. Dry Cleaning
As if it weren’t bad enough that women often pay more than men for the same garments, we also pay more for cleaning them. A 2011 study in the journal Gender Issues found that the average cost to dry clean a women’s dress shirt was nearly twice as high as for a similar men’s shirt. A 2012 article in Marie Claire found even more extreme price differences at a dry cleaner in New York City, which charged more than three times as much for a women’s button-down shirt as for a men’s.
Why Women Pay More
Dry cleaners give a variety of reasons for charging women more than men. An expert interviewed by Marketplace notes that women’s shirts often require hand-ironing, either because of “ornamentation” or because they’re too small to fit in an automated press.
However, this isn’t always the real reason. In 1991, The Christian Science Monitor reported on an experiment run by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office in which a woman and a man both brought the same pink cotton blouse to several different dry cleaners. Cleaners charged the man an average of $1.50 to clean it, but their price for the woman was twice as high.
One possible explanation is that when the man brought in the shirt, the cleaner assumed he wanted wash-and-fold service, which costs less than dry cleaning. According to Marketplace, many cleaners routinely launder men’s shirts and dry clean women’s. In fact, according to Marie Claire, many cleaners don’t even offer the less expensive wash-and-fold service to women.
Yet even when men and women ask for the same service, they often pay different prices. In 2016, male and female producers from CBS News went undercover, taking nearly identical, similarly sized button-down shirts to several cleaners and requesting the same service. The woman paid at least twice as much as the man at more than half the businesses she visited.
How to Spend Less
One way to save on dry cleaning is to negotiate with the cleaner. In an interview with Acorns, negotiation expert Linda Swindling says cleaners are often willing to lower their prices for loyal customers. You can also try specifically asking for wash-and-fold service, rather than dry cleaning, for shirts and other washable garments. In addition to saving you money, this will protect you from the toxic chemicals used in dry cleaning.
However, you’ll save even more by skipping the cleaner altogether and opting for machine-washable garments you launder yourself. If you hate ironing, try steaming the wrinkles out of your clothes instead. Just put them on hangers and hang them up in the bathroom while you take a hot shower. You can also lightly mist garments with water and hang them up to air dry.
3. Hair Care
A 2016 study by Square found that salons across the country consistently charged more for women’s haircuts than for men’s. A woman’s haircut cost $45 on average, while a man’s cost $34. In some states, the difference was even higher. For instance, women in Hawaii paid an average of $49 for a haircut, while men paid less than $17.
And a woman’s higher hair care costs don’t end when she leaves the salon. The DCA study found that shampoos and conditioners for women cost an average of $8.39, while men’s products cost an average of $5.68. That’s a difference of nearly 48%.
Why Women Pay More
Hairdressers generally claim that they charge more for women’s haircuts because they’re more complicated than men’s. One stylist interviewed by Byrdie in 2019 says she spends between 30 and 60 minutes cutting a woman’s hair, while a men’s cut takes only 20 to 30 minutes. So, if the stylist simply charged by the hour, you would expect women to pay up to twice as much for a haircut as men.
However, just as with dry cleaning, this claim doesn’t always hold water. In a 2000 study in the Journal of Consumer Policy, economists Catherine Liston-Heyes and Elena Neokleous called several different salons and said they wanted the same haircut as a man. According to MarketWatch, in nearly every case, the price was higher than for the men’s haircut, simply because a woman was asking for it.
Likewise, there isn’t always an obvious difference between women’s shampoos and conditioners and men’s. According to MarketWatch, in most cases, the main ingredients are the same in both products. A dermatologist interviewed by the Huffington Post backs up this claim, saying the main difference between men’s and women’s products is fragrance.
How to Spend Less
Since men’s and women’s hair care products are basically the same, you can probably save money by choosing a product marketed to men or gender-neutral. For haircuts, however, it’s a little trickier.
One possibility is to look for a salon that prices its services based on the type of cut, not on gender. For instance, Harper’s Bazaar reported in 2018 on a London salon that charges the same price for every cut it offers. A 2017 story in Allure covers an elite New York City salon that charges a flat $80 fee to all clients, male or female, and Modern Salon describes a pair of Chicago hairdressers who charge for a cut based on hair length. A 2020 story in the Huffington Post features one salon in Denver that offers gender-neutral pricing for all cuts and another that charges by the hour.
If you favor a short or gender-neutral hairstyle, have your hair cut at a barbershop. According to Stylecaster, this is an increasingly popular option, particularly for women of color. However, not all barbers take female clients, so be sure to ask.
A final way to save on hair care is to trim your own hair, or at least your bangs. Marie Claire UK offers instructions on how to do this for a variety of different hairstyles. You can also find video tutorials on YouTube. Doing your own trims can help you stretch out the time between professional haircuts and maybe even give them up altogether. I started cutting my own curls 16 years ago after an expensive salon gave me a cut I didn’t like at all, and I’ve never looked back.
4. Personal Care
Women don’t just spend more taking care of our hair; we spend more caring for every part of our bodies. The BLS reports that single women spend an average of $663 per year on “personal care products and services,” while single men spend $270 — less than half as much.
Why Women Pay More
Women pay more than men for personal care partly because we use products and services that most men don’t, such as makeup and body wax. But even for comparable products that both men and women use, women often pay more because of the pink tax, or gendered pricing.
The DCA study found that women typically pay 11% more than men for razors, razor cartridges, and lotion, 3% more for deodorant, and 6% more for body wash. (The exception to the rule was shaving cream, which cost about 4% more for men.) A 2010 study by Consumer Reports found even more extreme results: products on drugstore shelves marketed to women cost up to 50% more than similar products for men.
When Consumer Reports asked manufacturers to justify these price differences, many argued that the women’s products cost more to make. For instance, the makers of Barbasol shaving cream said the higher price for the women’s product was due to the can, which is a different shape and has a no-rust aluminum bottom.
However, these claims don’t always make sense. The makers of Degree antiperspirant said its women’s and men’s products were “completely different formulations,” even though both products contained the same amount of the same active ingredient. A study from the University of Central Florida found similar result: women’s deodorants cost around $0.30 more than men’s, even though the only obvious difference between the two was the scent.
How to Spend Less
The best way to avoid the pink tax for personal care products is to ignore the labels and buy the cheaper product, even if it claims to be “for men.” For products like deodorant, you can avoid masculine, musky scents by choosing an unscented version.
Don’t be afraid to shave with a men’s razor, either. Writers at the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Vocal all say they’ve found razors marketed to men provide a much smoother, longer-lasting shave than so-called women’s razors. If you’re willing to take a little more time shaving, you can save even more by switching to an old-fashioned safety razor. And if you’re willing to challenge social norms — or if it’s winter and you’re wearing pants all the time — you can simply give up shaving altogether.
The same goes for makeup. If you really enjoy getting dolled up with a dozen different cosmetics, go ahead and have fun. You can find other ways to save on makeup and toiletries, such as using coupons (or savings apps like Fetch Rewards and Ibotta), stockpiling samples, or trying homemade products. However, if you’re only wearing makeup because you think social norms require it, consider taking a stand and going natural, or at least cutting down on the number of products you use. The fewer products you put on your face every morning, the more money — and time — you’ll save.
5. Feminine Hygiene Products
One type of personal care product men don’t have to pay for at all is feminine hygiene. As if the hassle and discomfort of a period weren’t bad enough, we women have to shell out money every month for tampons and sanitary napkins. And this isn’t a trivial cost; according to The Washington Post, a California assemblywoman calculated the cost of feminine hygiene products for women in her state at $7 per month, or $84 per year.
On top of that, there’s the cost of products to deal with premenstrual syndrome, or PMS. According to American Family Physician, about 80% of all women who menstruate have at least one symptom of PMS, and between 1.3% and 5.3% suffer from a more severe form called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Midol, one common remedy, costs about $5.80 for 24 caplets at Walgreens. Assuming you take eight caplets per day, three days per month, that adds up to another $69.60 per year.
Why Women Pay More
Women have no one except Mother Nature to blame for the fact that we have to pay for menstrual needs and men don’t. However, we can blame society for the fact that pads and tampons, which are clearly necessities, are subject to sales tax in most states. According to Marie Claire, of the 45 states that have sales taxes, only 14, plus the District of Columbia, currently have an exemption for these products. Bills to eliminate the “tampon tax” have been proposed in eight other states, but they haven’t passed yet.
How to Spend Less
The easiest way to reduce the cost of your monthly period is to ditch disposable pads and tampons in favor of a reusable alternative. A menstrual cup, such as the DivaCup, costs more upfront than a box of tampons — typically between $20 and $40. However, depending on the type you choose, it will last between one and 10 years, so it can replace anywhere from $84 to $840 worth of tampons or pads.
Another alternative is washable, reusable cloth pads. These typically cost between $2 and $9 apiece, and they’ll last for decades. I’ve been using the same set of flannel pads for the last 20 years, and they’re still in good shape.
As for products to relieve PMS, it’s not clear whether they’re helpful at all. According to Berkeley Wellness, most of them contain the painkiller acetaminophen to relieve cramps and headaches, together with a mild diuretic for bloating and an antihistamine for irritability. However, most women find ibuprofen more effective for cramps than acetaminophen, the diuretics are so mild they don’t have much effect, and the antihistamines just make you sleepy.
In fact, some products, such as Midol Complete, can actually make PMS symptoms worse. This product contains caffeine, which the Mayo Clinic says you should avoid during your period. Instead, the site recommends generic ibuprofen, together with natural remedies such as heat, massage, and regular exercise. Also, an OB-GYN interviewed by Women’s Health magazine says that for many women, having an orgasm can relieve cramps — and it doesn’t cost a thing.
6. Birth Control
As expensive as getting your period can be, for many women, not getting it — that is, becoming pregnant — is a lot worse. That’s why, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 60% of all women of childbearing age use some form of birth control.
About one-quarter of these women rely on birth control pills, the single most popular method and one of the most expensive. Although nearly all health plans cover the cost of contraception in full, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there are still narly 33 million Americans without health insurance. According to CostHelper, women in this group can expect to pay between $20 and $50 per month for birth control pills, or $240 to $600 per year.
Why Women Pay More
In theory, birth control is a necessity for both men and women, since you can’t have a pregnancy without one of each. However, in practice, it’s usually women who bear the cost, because we’re the ones who are at risk of getting pregnant. And even when men care as much about preventing pregnancy as women do, they just don’t have as many options. Women have over a dozen birth control methods to choose from, while men’s only choices at this time are condoms, vasectomy, or withdrawal, which doesn’t work very well.
How to Spend Less
If you’re at risk for an unplanned pregnancy, you probably can’t avoid shouldering the cost of birth control yourself. However, you can reduce that cost by choosing a more cost-effective method of birth control.
For instance, if you’re not planning to start a family in the near future, you can save money in the long term by choosing a longer-lasting birth control method, such as an IUD. These cost more upfront but, because they last for several years, they cost less per year than the Pill. If you need shorter-term, reversible birth control, a diaphragm plus spermicide is a safe and inexpensive method.
7. Long-Term Care
A decade ago, women typically paid more than men for health insurance — anywhere from 10% to 85% more, according to research by the National Women’s Law Center. The Affordable Care Act put an end to that practice, but women still pay more for a different type of health coverage: long-term care insurance. This insurance covers the cost of the day-to-day help people with chronic diseases or disabilities need with their daily activities, such as bathing, dressing, and eating. It can pay for the cost of a nursing home or in-home care from a home health aide.
Although the American Association of Long-Term Care Insurers claims that rates are identical for women and men, a comparison by Forbes shows that this simply isn’t true. It found that one of the nation’s top insurers, Mutual of Omaha, consistently charged women across three states 71% more than men for long-term care coverage. In some extreme cases, Forbes found, women seeking long-term care can see price quotes nearly three times as high as their husbands’, even if they’re roughly the same age and in comparable health.
Why Women Pay More
Insurers charge women more than men for long-term care insurance for two reasons, one good and one bad. The good reason is that women typically live longer than men, so we’re likely to need long-term care for more years of our lives.
The bad reason is that women have higher rates of chronic illnesses that require long-term care, such as depression. For instance, nearly two out of three patients with Alzheimer’s disease are female, according to Forbes. That makes long-term care insurance even more critical for women than it is for men, so going without it to save money isn’t a good idea.
How to Spend Less
Fortunately, there are other strategies women can use to manage the cost of long-term care insurance. Some options include:
- Getting Multiple Quotes. Prices for long-term care coverage can vary greatly from one insurer to the next. To get the best rate, get quotes from several insurers.
- Sharing a Policy. If you’re married to a man, look into a shared-care policy. This is a single policy you can share with your husband so that his lower premiums balance out your higher ones.
- Opting for Higher Co-Insurance. You can reduce your premium by agreeing to pay for a larger percentage of your costs if you need long-term care. This can be a good option for single women since they only have to worry about their own costs and not a partner’s as well.
- Using an HSA. With a health savings account, or HSA, through a company like Lively, you can pay for your long-term care premiums with pre-tax dollars.
- Getting a Hybrid Plan. A hybrid plan is a life insurance policy with a rider that covers the cost of long-term care. That way, even if you end up not needing the long-term care policy, your heirs will still get to collect on the life insurance. Another perk is that these policies often come with a guarantee that your premiums will never go up. If you don’t have a life insurance plan, you can get set up in less than five minutes with Ladder.
8. Auto Repair
A 2013 working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that mechanics sometimes quote women higher prices for the same repair than men. Researchers had both women and men call repair shops to ask for a quote for replacing a car radiator, a job that should cost around $365. When the customers said they had “no idea” what the repair should cost, the mechanics quoted an average price of $406 to the women and only $383 to the men.
More troubling still is a segment on “Nightline Prime’s” special series The Lookout, which you can view at the Huffington Post. The show’s hidden cameras revealed that mechanics sometimes lie to customers, charging them extra for repairs they don’t need, and they’re more likely to do this when the customers are women. In most cases, the mechanics didn’t even perform the additional repairs, since they weren’t necessary in the first place.
Why Women Pay More
It seems the main reason mechanics are more likely to overcharge women is that they expect women to be less informed about cars and car repair. In an interview with Forbes, one of the authors of the NBER paper speculates that auto repair shops “interpret lack of price knowledge differently for men and for women.” When women say they don’t know what the price should be, shops take them at their word and try to take advantage of their ignorance. However, when men say the same thing, shops think they’re being “strategic,” faking ignorance to test the mechanic’s honesty, so they quote them a lower price.
Moreover, the study found that gender-based price discrimination disappeared when customers stated how much they expected the repair to cost. Mechanics offered a lower price when the customers knew the fair market price for the repair and a higher one when the customers expected an inflated price, but in both cases, the quote was roughly the same for both men and women. In other words, once a customer revealed their level of knowledge, the mechanics judged them by that, rather than by gender.
How to Spend Less
The moral of the story is that it pays to do your homework when dealing with a repair shop. If you’re calling to request a specific repair, use a site like AutoMD or RepairPal to figure out what that repair should cost and make it clear to the shop that you’ve checked the price.
If you don’t know what’s wrong with your car, spend a little time testing it to figure out exactly what its symptoms are. Then do a bit of online research to determine what some possible causes could be. Giving all of this information to the mechanic on the phone makes you seem like a knowledgeable customer and makes the shop more likely to offer you a fair price.
Being informed about how your car works can save you money in other ways too. For one, it will allow you to do some basic car maintenance tasks yourself, rather than going to a mechanic. It will also help you figure out when a sneaky mechanic is trying to charge you for unnecessary repairs. Then you’ll know to walk away from that shop and find a trustworthy mechanic for the work you can’t do on your own.
A 2011 study in the Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics found that women, on average, pay 40 basis points, or 0.4%, more for mortgages than men do. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but for a 30-year, $150,000 loan, it could add up to more than $13,000. To make matters worse, a 2016 study by the Urban Institute found that single women are more likely than single men to be turned down for a mortgage altogether, despite the fact that men are actually more likely to default on the loan.
Why Women Pay More
These studies point to two major reasons why women tend to pay more for their mortgages than men. First, the authors of the 2011 study say that women “are more likely to choose lenders by recommendation while men tend to search for the lowest rate.” When the authors specifically compared women who shopped around for mortgage lenders to men who did the same, the difference in the rates they paid dropped to almost nothing.
By contrast, the authors of the 2016 study found that women paid more mainly because they had “weaker credit profiles.” Compared to male borrowers, both their overall incomes and their credit scores were lower. As a result, they were more likely to be stuck with a high-interest subprime loan.
Ironically, anti-discrimination laws could also be partly to blame for the higher rates women pay. The 2016 study found that women are more likely to keep up with their mortgage payments than men who have similar credit profiles. However, because banks aren’t allowed to consider sex as a factor when making loans, they can’t adjust their rates to reflect this. As a result, the authors say, “women actually pay more relative to their actual risk than do men.”
How to Spend Less
You can’t change the way banks do business, but there are a few things you can do to get a better rate on a mortgage:
- Shop Around. Treat a mortgage like any other purchase and shop around for the best price. A rate comparison site, such as LendingTree, makes it easier to check out rates from different lenders.
- Boost Your Credit. To qualify for the best loan rates, you need a good credit score. You can improve your credit score by paying bills on time, paying down debt, and keeping your credit card balances low. You can also sign up for Experian Boost. It’s free and it can immediately raise your credit score.
- Save Up a Bigger Down Payment. Putting more cash toward your down payment reduces the amount you have to borrow. Also, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says many lenders will give you a better interest rate if you make a down payment of at least 20%. This shows you’re committed to the home, which makes you less of a risk.
- Choose a Shorter Term. You’ll usually get a lower rate by choosing a 15-year rather than a 30-year mortgage. However, doing this means a higher monthly payment, which not everyone can afford. Crunch the numbers on your monthly budget to see if this option can work for you.
Some of the things that cost women more money than men are things we can’t change. It’s just a fact of nature that we live longer than men, we get periods every month, and we’re the ones at risk of pregnancy. Paying extra to deal with these issues is pretty much unavoidable.
However, some of the costs of being a woman come not from biology, but from social norms. For instance, nature doesn’t force us to wear makeup or use most of the other grooming products we pay more for than men. There’s also no law of nature that says women shouldn’t know how a car works or how to compare mortgage lenders.
So, if you want to stop paying more for being a woman, the first step is to think about what being a woman really means — and what you want it to mean. Next time you find yourself paying more for something than a man, or buying a product men wouldn’t use at all, ask yourself whether it’s something you really want and need in your life. If the answer is no, rejecting it is one way to strike a blow for gender equality — and keep some extra cash in your wallet at the same time.
You can also join the fight to end gender-based price discrimination. The Pink Tax Repeal Act, introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier, would ban the practice of charging men and women different prices for the same products and services. California already has a similar law — also drafted by Speier when she was a California Assemblywoman — eliminating the pink tax for services only. Urging your legislators to support Speier’s bill, or to introduce a similar bill in your state, could help make gender discrimination in pricing — at least in its most overt forms — a thing of the past.
Can you think of anything else women pay more for than men? Are there any products women are expected to use that you’ve given up?