I Want to Live Alone

I want to live alone. Like maybe with a cat (finances willing), but, definitely without a roommate. I am turning 30 this year, and I have probably had about 30 different roommates since I moved out of my mom’s when I was 18. I live in a city that isn’t exactly cheap (Boston), and have lucked into a two bedroom apartment that is $1,100/month total (which is unheard of here). My current roommate is moving out in September and I want to keep the place and live alone.

I’ve had the idea that your rent shouldn’t be more than 1/4 of your monthly take-home pay ingrained into my brain since I first set out on my own. Living alone would be 38% of my monthly income. Between that, student loans, therapy, medication, cell phone, electric, gas, internet/cable, gym—I’ll end up with about $350/month for all of my groceries, hobbies, outings with friends, etc. I thought about getting rid of cable, but since I will presumably be spending way more time at home NOT spending money, it might save me money since I won’t be going “out” (but am obviously downgrading to the most basic non-HD plan out there).

I’m going to go from spending 17 percent of my income on housing to 38 percent, and I’m worried I won’t be able to make it work. What do people do when they’re putting away laundry one day and realize all their underwear is falling apart or their socks all have holes, or they really like that mason jar travel mug on Etsy? Do most people spend about 40 percent of their income on housing? I had been putting some money in a 403(b) and I feel like I’d need to put that on hold for a bit until I get some raises (scheduled for a 2 percent raise in August, and a 3.4 percent raise next summer).

I’m “practicing” now while the roommate is still here, and trying to live this summer as if my rent is what it will be. So far I am totally sucking at this. Maybe because I know it isn’t real and the money is sitting there waiting to be spent? Maybe I just need to be told to calm the F down and make a choice. What would you do? — N.

I can tell you what I did.

I spent most of my twenties living with roommates. At first, it was because it was the only way I could afford to pay my bills on the bit of money I was being paid, but as I progressed in my career and started earning more, living with roommates gave me the ability to shuttle my additional take-home pay into a retirement account, send a bit more home to mom and dad, and save for the rainiest of rain days.

Some people use their promotions and bigger salaries to upgrade their apartments (otherwise known as lifestyle inflation). At the time, I was paying about 19 percent of my take-home pay in rent. My roommate (who was also progressing in her career) and I decided to stay where we were, but we splurged on other things: cable TV, which we had lived without for a few years, trips out of the city, gym memberships and food and wine. Whenever I felt like eating a steak, I would pick up whatever cut of meat I wanted from the grocery store located down the street from our apartment. I’d sear it in a pan at home, and eat it with a plate of risotto sprinkled with good parmesan cheese.

A series of various life events led me to wanting to move into my own apartment and live alone. My friends were all moving to one particular area of the city, and I liked that area and wanted to move there too. I was working longer work hours and wanted to be closer to the office. I wanted to be able to come home at any hour without worrying about disturbing my roommate (or worry about my roommate disturbing me). And so I moved, and started paying more than 36 percent of my take-home pay on rent.

Living alone was everything I expected (and hoped) it would be. But I also gave up a few things: I no longer owned a TV, so I no longer paid for cable—it was replaced with whatever I could watch on Hulu and Netflix streaming. I now lived next to a park which I could run in for free, so I gave up my gym membership. I no longer went to the grocery store and put whatever I wanted into my basket, which resulted in me eating less meat. I stopped shopping at the fancy cheese store.

I was making a tradeoff: The freedom to live alone in my own apartment in the neighborhood I wanted in exchange for double the rent and ditching a bunch of things I could live without (and eventually stopped thinking about).

The reason why you have that “spend no more than a quarter of your take-home pay on rent” idea in your head is because it’s something that personal finance experts like to put out there as a general rule of thumb. But these personal finance experts aren’t living your life—you are. You get to decide whether or not it’s worth it for you to pay more in rent to live alone, and what kind of tradeoffs you’d like to make for it to work.

Yes, you’ll have to figure out what those tradeoffs will be. Make a list of things you pay for now, and prioritize them. The things at the bottom of the list are the things you should probably give up (and that’ll likely include buying mason jar mugs on Etsy). Include your 403(b) on the list. Is contributing to it more or less important than a gym membership? How about a night out with friends? Even if you’re just putting $25 or $50 in it every month, the fact that you’re making a habit of contributing to it regularly is good.

Just because you’re “practicing” now and feeling like you’re failing doesn’t mean it’ll be like that later. Once your roommate moves out, you’ll no longer be playing pretend and will be forced to make some decisions on what to do with the limited amount of money you have. And it’s not all about giving things up. Think about what kind of freedom you’ll be gaining once you start living alone, and what that will mean to you. I’m confident you’ll figure out how to make it work, and am also jealous that you’ll have a two-bedroom apartment to yourself for $1,100 a month.


Email me your WWYD experiences to me with “WWYD” in the subject line. See previous installments. Photo: Kristine Paulus




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