Last week, TFD posted an article about essentials for your first apartment. While the article contained some good ideas for someone with a decent-paying job moving into an apartment for six months or longer, many of the ideas were unaffordable for those of us trying to balance a so-called adult lifestyle with huge loan payments, making a cross-country move via airplane to take a dream job, or living off approximately zero income while subletting an apartment during a short-term internship.
In the past, I’ve taken on summer internships in two different cities, each far away from my hometown. While I was able to make these opportunities work financially through a combination of grants, paid internship work, and manageable college payments (a tale of good fortune that many students certainly don’t have), my budget had almost no room for expenses like going out or shopping for office clothes, much less apartment decor.
Aside from finances, if your first apartment is a sublet during an internship, short-term job, or college semester, you have limited control over your space. You may have little leeway to redecorate with paint or new furniture; if you’re moving from a different city, you may be limited to what’s in your single checked bag. Finally, as anyone who has scrambled to find a sublet in D.C., New York, or another city during the intern-heavy summer months can affirm, you will not be living on the top floor of a lovely little brownstone. If you’re like me, you’ll live in a basement far away from any metro line in an echoey, bare room with zero natural light and obnoxious neighbors next door.
It can be hard not to let a desolate apartment kill your soul. That might sound flippant, but seriously: if your apartment feels miserable, it’s easy to wake up every day feeling miserable, show up at work miserable (and with icky hair because of the bad lighting in the gross bathroom), and not get enough sleep at night, all of which can affect your ability to impress your boss and muster the energy to network or side hustle. But if you’re barely making money, you can’t afford the organic-candle-and-glamourous-office-supplies aesthetic of an ideal, sanctuary-like Home Away From Home.
Instead, here are five ways — some free, others low-cost — to prevent your desolate apartment from killing your soul so that you can spend the minimum amount possible to gain the maximum benefit from your hopefully-worthwhile living sacrifices for that damn internship credit on your resume.
Aside from my own aesthetic preferences, good light is important for a number of reasons. Natural light in the morning helps you wake up; warm light (instead of bright white bulbs) in the evening makes falling asleep easier. Plus, the angle of your lighting can mean the difference between noticing underwear lines or hair or makeup problems at home first, instead of the office bathroom when it’s too late.
Free: Go stand outside for two minutes in the morning to help yourself wake up (and get a read on the weather). Then, go back inside and arrange your furniture based on natural light. Prop up your mirror where your face is well-illuminated and figure out how to shine a bright light on yourself from behind to check for bra and underwear lines. If you have a desk or chair, putting it by the window will allow some natural light when you take work home. Rearranging furniture has the added bonus of making a borrowed space feel more like it belongs to you.
Low-cost: Buy warm lightbulbs. For me, these are the difference between winding down at night and feeling like I’m trapped in a WalMart. As far as I know, all types of bulbs (LEDs, CFLs, and incandescents) now come in softer colors, often marked as “warm white” or “soft white.” Be sure to check the wattage or other indicators on your lamp to avoid unnecessary returns, though. Cost: $1-$10 per bulb, depending on whether you go LED or conventional.
Minor investment: For around $15, you can buy a cheap desk lamp. While this isn’t necessary, it provides some comfort and aesthetic benefits. Floor and table lighting look a lot better than ceiling lights and make one of the biggest differences in transforming a place from temporary to home-y. A lamp near your bed allows for unwinding with a book or journal without getting up to turn off the lights. Finally, that lamp can be moved around if you need lighting in multiple places.
Loud neighbors and noisy heating or AC (if you’re lucky enough to have the latter) do not mix well with normal working hours. Nor do streetlights. Or stress. The worst of all my sleeping situations was the summer my sublet didn’t come with a bed, so I spent two months on a vicious futon. Ow.
Free: If you’re stuck with a futon, putting flattened cardboard boxes between the mattress and springs can deflect the worst pain. You may be able to get these free from housemates, neighbors, or stores.
Low-cost: A box of chamomile tea ($3), soft eye mask to block out light ($5), and pack of earplugs ($3 for 20), used alone or in cooperation, can save you from spending on things like multiple cups of coffee per day and I-was-too-tired-to-make-my-own lunches out by ensuring you’re well-rested in the morning.
Semi-major investment: This one depends on finances and furniture, but if you’re stuck on a crappy futon, spending $100-$130 on a memory foam mattress (or topper) from Amazon is an excellent way to make said futon functional as a bed. It’s a bit more money, but easier than finding a clean mattress and bed with delivery on Craigslist.
Oh, the joys of strangers’ bathrooms that seem perpetually mildewed and drain-clogged, not to mention the mineral-heavy water that makes your hair look greasy. Even the smallest attempt to clean up here will help.
Free: Do you own plastic flip-flops or shower shoes? Good. Bring them, wear them. You can now shower without grossing yourself out.
Low-cost: A huge jug of apple cider vinegar will run you maybe $10 tops. Although you should always Google “how to clear a drain” first to make sure you don’t destroy anything, pure or diluted apple cider vinegar can be used to clean just about any bathroom surface. You can also find recipes online to unclog shower drains using a mixture of vinegar and baking soda. I also have found that a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar diluted in 8 ounces (a peanut butter jar’s worth) or more of water is an excellent cure for that gunky feeling hair gets due to hard water: I poured it over my hair between shampoo and conditioner and then rinsed it out. (Disclaimer: this works for my fine, curly hair, but hair can be temperamental. Please know that what works for me might not work for you.)
The hardest part of moving to a new place, especially temporarily or without a lot of start-up funds, is feeling anonymous. While solutions like paint or houseplants are impractical for short-term housing, taking two hours to cut out some photos from a newspaper or magazine and tape them up will add some color. Maps from free museums are also a useful, zero-cost solution to feeling invisible.
My personal spin on this fairly-generic “happy environment” advice is to write some sticky notes with my financial or professional goals for the next few months as a reminder of why I’m living in this desolate apartment. Depending on whether you brought photos and tape from home and asked your office whether it would be okay to take home the office newspaper, this note-making, goal-defining exercise can easily cost you nothing.
When I sublet that echoey room, I had a futon bed, nightstand, and dresser at my disposal, and the kitchen was way too cramped for four housemates to eat in. Almost every night, I would eat my dinner on the front stoop or in a nearby park; after spending the day in an office, watching the sunset for an hour while neighbors walked by was a great way to unwind. Although your ability to do this will depend on where you live, I think that (so long as it’s safe), you don’t need a picnic table or charming porch to eat outside (cut to: me, plate balanced on my knees as I sit on concrete steps and all my twenty-something neighbors look at me kinda funny).
Other solutions include: registering for a library card in your new city (send yourself a piece of mail at your new address before you arrive, then bring this in to show proof of residence), going to free museums or galleries, and taking after-dinner walks. Again, the cost of doing things you’d do anyway in outdoor or public spaces is very minor at best.
Everyone’s first apartment story is different: some of us are unpaid interns, while others have secured a great-paying job. Regardless, especially if you think your living situation may be temporary, I’m a firm believer that minor fixes to your daily environment will have major effects on your mood and well-being, and feeling comfortable in your own home is the true essential of a first apartment.
Caro is figuring out how to live a life between academia and the so-called professional world. She spends her extra time working as a freelance translator and hunting for cool buildings as an architecture enthusiast. You can find her on Instagram.
Image via Unsplash