This year at Not Back To School Camp, I led a workshop for teenagers with advice about how to move out of their parents’ houses. Only one camper showed up, but I had a great conversation with her and the two other staffers in attendance about tips, tricks, and things we wish we had known when we first moved out of our parents’ houses, or out of the many subsequent living situations that we transitioned through during our early twenties.
What follows is a collection of the best of those tidbits: things we wish we had known when we moved out that we had to learn the hard way.
Unless someone else is going to cover the cost of your living expenses in your new place, the most important part of moving out is consistently making more money than you spend. In order to ensure that you’re successful in that endeavor, I recommend that you do two things:
First, if you can, spend time before you move out saving as much money as possible. Three months of living expenses is a good start. Six is better. A friend refers to this as a “fuck off fund,” because it enables you to say “fuck off” to any bad situations you find yourself in: a job with an unpleasant boss or poor working conditions, a living situation with obnoxious roommates or a bad landlord, or a live-in relationship that doesn’t work out. Even if you don’t find yourself in one of these catastrophically bad situations, that extra money will help you cover the costs of unexpected expenses that inevitably crop up, like a dead car battery or a surprise cavity.
Second, create a detailed budget of expenses so you have an accurate picture of how much money you’ll need to be bringing in every month. If you’re unsure about what exactly your expenses will look like, ask a couple of local friends who live independently about their monthly personal expenses. If you don’t know yet what kind of place you’ll be moving into, spend some time poking around on craigslist to get a sense of the cost of apartments, houses, and houseshares in your area.
If you’ll need to find a job before moving out, avoid minimum wage jobs (like jobs in the fast food industry) if at all possible. Instead, try finding a job where you can earn tips, like bartending, waiting tables, or working as a barista or in an ice cream shop. If the place is popular the odds are good that you’ll end up making more money per hour.
Alternatively, consider finding a job or a freelance gig that utilizes a skill you already have, like graphic design, web design, photography, bike repair, baking, or social media management. By coming into a job with some skills, you’re also increasing your odds of making better money per hour.
Regardless of the type of job you end up pursuing, do anything you can to avoid the “craigslist resume hole”. Most job postings on craigslist will receive dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of replies. Even if you have a great resume, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. Instead, try to find jobs by networking with your friends and acquaintances (or better yet, your parents’ friends and acquaintances). Does your mom know someone who runs a bakery? Are you friends with all of the people at the local coffee shop? Those are the people you want to talk to first. If that doesn’t pan out and you end up on craigslist (or some other job posting site) after all, make sure that everything you submit (e-mails, cover letters, resumes, etc.) looks clean and professional.
Credit Cards and Debt
Credit cards are a double edged sword. If you use them carefully and responsibly by charging everyday purchases on them and then paying off your entire bill every month, you’ll quickly build good credit. This can help you if you ever need to apply for a loan or rent an apartment. You can also earn travel rewards like free flights or other perks with certain credit cards. On the other hand, it’s very easy to get into trouble with a credit card if you’re not careful. If you spend more than you’re able to pay off, you’ll be stuck paying a high interest rate on all of the money you borrowed until it’s paid back in full. If you decide to apply for a credit card, keep careful track of all of the money you spend and the date your bill is due and make sure to pay it off entirely every month. If you aren’t sure if you can consistently keep track, it’s probably better to avoid credit cards altogether, at least for now.
Sometimes, taking on debt is necessary. Most people can’t afford to buy a house outright, for example, and without parental support most young people can’t afford to pay for college without taking on student loans, even if they work while they’re going to school. The key is to carefully consider whether you believe the debt you’re taking on is a good investment that you’ll eventually be able to pay back.
To me, one of the riskiest investments you can make is an expensive undergraduate education. Unless you feel certain that you’re interested in and capable of succeeding in a lucrative field after graduation, I would advise you to think carefully before taking on significant student loans to attend an expensive college. I’ve seen so many of my friends struggle to pay off crippling student loan debt, often for more than a decade, because they didn’t have a good understanding of student loan policies and the staggering differences in cost between public and private colleges and in state vs. out of state tuition when they were teenagers. (Typically, the most affordable college option is an in-state, public university. Earning an associate’s degree at a local community college before transitioning to a four year school can lower your costs even more.) In the aftermath of the financial collapse, many of them also discovered that their freshly minted liberal arts degrees couldn’t get them a job, or couldn’t get them a job that would pay them the salary they needed in order to pay off their debt.
Student loan debt is the only kind of debt that can’t be absolved through bankruptcy, and it can seriously limit your options after graduation by significantly increasing your monthly cost of living. If you have a $500 student loan payment due on the first of every month, it’s difficult to do anything except take a safe job that you know is going to cover your bills. Starting a small business that might not be immediately profitable, taking a job that doesn’t pay well but feeds your soul, or taking some time off to travel or work on a big project suddenly becomes much more difficult.
The short version: spend less money.
The long version: The easiest way to afford to live independently, at least at first, is to reduce your monthly living expenses as much as possible. How much you can lower your expenses is going to depend on a couple of factors, like where you live, whether you drive a car, what options you have for health insurance, and whether you have any debt.
The two largest monthly budget categories that you can easily control are rent and food costs. (Other bills, like car insurance or a cell phone bill, are often fixed.) For most people, the biggest chunk of money they shell out every month is in rent. Because rent is usually the biggest piece of the pie, where you choose to live, and with whom, can change your monthly expenses a lot. The most economical option is probably to utilize economies of scale by living with roommates. For more information about how to do that, check out this previous post titled “Save The World (And Your Wallet) By Living With Other People.”
Another place that it’s easy to spend a lot of money is the grocery store. To keep costs down, avoid eating out whenever possible and learn to prepare a few simple meals for yourself using inexpensive ingredients that you can buy in bulk. Oatmeal, chili, soups, pizza, salads, curry, and tacos are all good options. Check out this previous post if you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion of eating well on the cheap.
It’s likely that you’ll move a lot in the next 10 years- it seems to come with the territory of being in your early twenties. I’ve moved four times in the last five years, and I’ve repeatedly learned that it’s better to bring less stuff with you. At one point I owned an entire apartment full of furniture, until I moved into a group house that was already furnished. Luckily, most of the furniture I owned had been purchased through craigslist or Habitat for Humanity; when I moved, I simply called Habitat and told them I wanted to donate it and they sent a truck to pick it up. I’ve discovered that all I really need are clothes, toiletries, a lamp, my laptop, a few books, a bed, a backpack, and a smartphone. You might find that what you need differs slightly from the above, but when you boil it down to the bare essentials, I think you’ll find that you don’t actually need that much. And that’s a good attitude to have when moving out: in order to make it work, you’ll probably have to live with less than you’re used to for a while. You might find that that’s what makes it feel like an adventure.