Penny For Your Thoughts

Don't live alone until you've done this first

My Micro NY, a tiny apartment residential building in Manhattan’s Kips Bay.
Source: Narchitects

Dear Penny,

I'm 28 years old, feeling like I'm decently paid, and living in New York. I feel like I'm ready to live on my own, but when I calculate what I should be spending on rent based on the usual "1/3 of your take-home pay" rule, it's a good amount lower than even the cheapest studios in Brooklyn and Queens.

What I'm wondering is, would it be worth it to live alone even if it means tightening my budget/possibly contributing less to paying off credit card debt, or should I suck it up and spend a few more years fighting for shared fridge space with roommates?

Rent Burdened


Dear RB,

A room of your own in New York City within commuting distance of your work is, for most workers, an unaffordable luxury. Unjust? Unjustifiable? Unfortunately, true.

You say you're making what feels like good money and you're almost 30 years old. Don't you deserve to live by yourself by now? Absolutely! And if you lived in Minneapolis or Memphis, you could.

But you're choosing to live in New York, and that means you're opting into the inanities and illogic of Big Apple life. There are pluses: The excitement! The diversity! The culture! And there are minuses, like the $12 sandwiches that don't even come with a side, and kids with clipboards landmining the sidewalks, and having to pay yet more each year for the privilege of riding a packed, deafening and often stalled subway train in which you are pressed into a stranger's armpit while staring at ads for tooth whiteners and boob jobs.

Another minus is the inescapable fact that you will overpay for a cramped, shared living space in order to hew to that "1/3 of your take-home pay" rule, or end up one of the majority of New York renters who qualify as "rent-burdened." (You can read some cool history of that guideline here and a good analysis of why it's still relevant here.)

The Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Getty Images

So, yes, you can overpay even more for a cramped space of your own, but I'm going to plead with you not to. Here's why.

1. Renting alone is harder than it seems

You may be overestimating how easily you can secure a studio in a coveted location. Landlords often require that you make 40 times the monthly rent which, for a $2,500 apartment, would mean you'd have to make, before taxes, more than $100,000 a year.

2. Moving is expensive

Between thousands for broker's fees and hundreds or more to transfer your stuff, the start-up costs of a new place are so high that relocating isn't something you easily can try for a year to see if you like it.

3. Comfort is addictive

Once you try solo living, you'll find it even harder to go back to living with roommates, even if you find yourself horrified by the amount of money you have to sign away each month and what that does to your budget.

A customer looks at listings on display outside a Brown Harris Stevens offices in New York.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

My advice to you is to keep your eyes on the prize — a near-future in which you are solvent and free, in which you can live wherever, and do whatever, you want — and hunker down. Fight over fridge space. Clean other people's hair out of the drain. Resort to earplugs when your roommates and their visiting friends shriek with laughter over an endless "Real Housewives" marathon in the living room.

Do it even though it's hard and annoying and, by rights, you shouldn't have to. Do it for just a couple more years, at least until you can pay off your credit card debt. Do it while you save and maybe work on upping your income too.

Do it because nothing is worth it if you can't afford it.

The most important things to do with your money before 30

Do it because your alternative is to start sinking into what could be characterized as an entitlement mentality. And that's been responsible for some craziness in recent years, including, arguably, the financial crisis. On the anniversary of the 2008 crash, New York Times columnist Ron Lieber wrote, "the roots of the mortgage contagion lie with all of us and our desire to own just a bit more house." Granted, he's talking about buying rather than renting, but the impulse, and the end result, is the same: Spending more than you should because you feel like you deserve it.

Recognize that impulse in yourself and fight it. Tell yourself that you deserve a break today, or an exercise class, or a new shade of lipstick, but you don't deserve to live alone, not in a city as expensive as New York, not while you've still got credit card debt to pay off. Not yet.

Or, if you must, check out the more affordable studios in the Bronx.


Do you have a question for Penny about your money and/or your life? Email Letters may be lightly edited for clarity and length.

Previously in Ask Penny: Do married couples need a joint account?

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