On Living Cheaply in Los Angeles, Or Trying To
I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t in love with the apartment. The living room space was nice in theory, but difficult to appreciate under its permanent cover of the other girls’ stuff and clutter. My bedroom was at the end of a long, narrow hallway, with one high, small north-facing window that provided dingy light in the mornings, and none at all by noon. There was no built-in storage, and the ancient stove ran cold, with one reliable burner and two that never worked at all. The backyard, which had seemed charmingly ramshackle when I first saw it on a nighttime tour, turned out to be brown and barren, and the front porch was filthy with years’ worth of dust and dog hair.
But the price was dreamy: $625 a month, plus utilities split three ways. And the location was ideal, blocks from my job and down the street from a long strip of Sunset covered in fancy coffee shops and adorable restaurants. Sunset Junction, as the neighborhood is known, is still gentrifying block by block, but rents anywhere else close by were many hundreds of dollars more. I could walk to work and the grocery store and out to drinks, and, more to the point, I could afford to pay rent and for those drinks, even at the pricey local bars.
I was coming off of an unexpectedly long stint of living with my parents, and eager to find a place of my own again. They had been more than generous about letting me stay, but I was done explaining my extended adolescence to everyone, including myself. Never mind that it wasn’t really a choice if I wanted to stay out of debt while I job hunted; the last thing you want while making your way through that particular hell is to then be reminded every day of just how thoroughly you are failing to take care of yourself in a meaningful way. I was done feeling pampered and hopeless. I still wasn’t making very much money at this point– just about $2000 a month between two part-time jobs, plus anything that came in from freelancing– but it was just enough to make leaving seem justified. I started moving my things in the day before I turned 27.
The apartment’s shortcomings had all seemed liveable from a distance. Space is just space, I thought, and my friends in New York suffered worse all the time.
What I didn’t anticipate was how much I would come to hate my roommates. Living with strangers is always rolling the dice, and this particular roll was a losing one. They were messy, and they were thoughtless. Their two small dogs were neurotic and barely trained; they barked incessantly, and pissed on the floors. I refused to invite friends over. I tried to be somewhere else as often as possible.
For a long time, that seemed like an acceptable bargain. I paid a minimal amount of money to live somewhere a minimum amount of time. Every time I spent $4 on tea so I could sit at a coffee shop and write instead of having the dogs worrying at my ankles because no one else had woken up to feed them, I thought, well, I can afford it, because my rent is so cheap. When I cleaned dog shit off my carpet and scraped mold off of dishes left to rot in the sink, I could reward myself with a drink, or a new dress. I started working one job– the one that paid better– full time, and the money helped me paper over daily miseries with plenty of indulgences. I convinced myself that the indulgences were the important part, the part I wouldn’t want to give up.
It felt more rational, somehow, to be miserly. In fact, I had made the mistake of conflating useful fiscal prudence with daily unhappiness. When you’re used to indulging yourself, it’s just so easy to imagine that being responsible will be miserable, and so to make yourself miserable instead of actually facing up to what it would take to be responsible—both with your money, and with your self and your headspace. I sacrificed my sense of home because I wanted to be able to brag about how cheap my rent was, as if having an inexpensive apartment was the same thing as actually making an effort to live within my means.
Because the truth is that I spend money like a rich girl—on coffees and drinks and sweaters I don’t need, the hardcover copies of books I could get from the library—not recklessly, but with the deep-seated belief that there is more of it, always, somewhere, if I need it. That anything not sacrificed to necessities is mine to enjoy at will. And it embarrasses me. So I liked to be able to balance that by saying: yeah well, I can’t be that spoiled. Look at me, putting up with this shithole.
It embarrasses me to say that when I finally started fighting with the roommates, and when it became clear that they hated me as much as I hated them, I thought, well, fuck it, there’s always my parents’ again. I don’t want to be someone who never has to face up to the consequences of her behavior or her shitty choices. Because I did choose that apartment, deliberately, and stayed long past the point when it had stopped making any kind of sense for me to be there. I didn’t know how to find a balance between what I could afford, and what I did, deeply, need: space, peace, quiet.
There’s a delicate line to walk, when you have a lot of privilege, between using what you’ve got, and being grateful for it, and figuring out what you have to do for yourself. I’m not that good at walking it yet, obviously. I’m getting better, though: my new place is a only a little more expensive. I can almost make up the difference by cutting out those morning coffees. The neighborhood is nicer, and quieter, and my roommates do their dishes. I’m writing this at the kitchen table. It’s a space I found and claimed for myself. The light is pale and lovely. I’m happy to be here, and to know that I can afford it. It turns out there is pleasure in responsibility, too.