9 Money Lessons I Learned From Living In An Apartment I Can’t Afford

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In August of 2015, I moved into my first solo apartment. I left my roommate of four years, headed to Arkansas’ “big city” (it’s Little Rock), and signed a lease agreeing to pay $1,000 in rent every single month. At the time, I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Now, I think that financially flippant version of me is an idiot. Paying rent cuts me deep every month. I spend the days leading up to it in agony as I penny pinch in every way possible. This apartment was a terrible decision and I am leaving it as soon as my lease ends (which is coming up), but it has taught me some valuable lessons about myself, budgeting, and life in general.

1. Money management is an everyday thing.
Before I took on this rent and had no other option than diligent budgeting, I didn’t think about managing my money on a daily basis. I created a budget every month, allotted certain amounts to various things, and then promptly let it all slip my mind. Sometimes I stayed within budget and sometimes I didn’t, but I certainly didn’t keep track of how many cups of coffee I bought each week. Thankfully, I’ve now learned to think through a purchase before swiping my card. These days I budget money for the expenses I can’t avoid and the items I truly want in my life. I’ve also put a stop to Target and $5-coffee runs, because they’re budget busters for me in the long run.

2. Necessary purchases include food, deodorant, and toothpaste. Pretty much everything else is unnecessary.
Once I had to choose between the truly required purchases and the not-so-vital ones, I learned I can survive off very little. It’s amazing how much my approach to the beauty aisles has changed. I don’t buy lotion weekly anymore. I don’t choose the pricey body wash in the pretty bottle. I don’t snag a chic nail polish on a whim. Turns out those things don’t improve my life or appearance at all.
The real shocker to most people is the fact I chose not to sign up for cable when I moved into my apartment. I already had Netflix, and honestly, I’m not much of a TV person. I went seven months without any cable, and it was amazing. I spent the evenings being productive or reading, which made me much happier than a cable box would have.

3. I am naturally wasteful.
I decided before moving to take stock of what I owned. This was just to see which items I didn’t want or need to pack, but it actually opened my eyes to how much stuff I could have been using all along. For example, I found three bags full of toothpaste, floss, and toothbrushes from the dentist under my sink and a ton of small lotions, soaps, and deodorants I didn’t even know I had. It’s been nine months, and I’m still working my way through most of it. This saves me a small amount of money each month. It might not even be $10, but it adds up over time.

Within a few weeks of living in my new apartment, I also noticed I was wasteful with food. I was throwing out food simply because I didn’t have a chance to eat it before it spoiled. I was buying too many groceries, but also eating out more than I should have been. Now I consider it a challenge to eat everything in my kitchen before it goes bad. I’ve started turning down lunch and dinner invites by explaining my mission to beat the mold clock. Successfully eating all of the food I paid for and being creative with what I cook has become both entertaining and personally satisfying.

4. If I don’t police myself, I’m like an errant child in a toy store.
I really should have a financial babysitter to follow me around all day long. I’m one of those people who aches for shopping therapy on a bad day and small treats when I need to celebrate. If I drop my guard for even a second, there’s a good chance I’ll end up walking out of my favorite clothing store $100 poorer.
I have to remain vigilant all day long. I have to pack lunch and snacks for work to keep hangry me from running to the food court down the block. I have to remove the small bills from my wallet, so it’s impossible to buy fancy coffee. I have to cut myself off before it’s too late.

5. I’m not above free services and events.
Maybe I wasn’t aware of them before, but I certainly pay attention to free services these days. The public library is the most important one for me. I love to read, so I have a constant desire for more books. A weekly trip to the bookstore isn’t feasible, though. A weekly trip to the public library, however, is perfectly within budget. A library card costs nothing (usually). In addition to the library, there are also a ton of free fitness opportunities out there. It might seem shameful, but you can bet I’ve tried every fitness studio around town for a free week. It allowed me to shake up my exercise routine without costing me anything, and once I ditch this rent for a more affordable place, I’ll know exactly which studio I want to join in the long term.

6. Even the smallest savings count.
They say a penny saved is a penny earned. Yes, I literally save dollars. I know I’m more likely to spend on small, pointless purchases if I have small bills in my wallet, so I’ve started to stash them away in a jar in my kitchen. It’s kind of like the 10-gallon jar of change my dad keeps in the corner by his bed. The change he tosses in there at the end of the day might not seem like a big deal on a daily basis, but the jar is almost full and easily holds a few hundred dollars, if not more. I can’t afford to put $200 in my savings every two weeks like I used to (even though I plan to start doing so again when I move), but I can still save a little bit every now and then. Even a measly five bucks is worth adding to my savings account.

7. I do have clothes to wear.
I’m not going to pretend I don’t walk into my closet some mornings and lament about the clothes I don’t have. I absolutely do. However, I’ve come to acknowledge there are actually clothes I can wear in my closet, and I don’t need to go shopping for new ones all the time. Since moving into this money-suck of an apartment, I’ve actually built a wardrobe I want to wear. I didn’t even have to buy a ton of new stuff, either. In a desperate attempt at some cash, one weekend I decided to sell some clothes to a consignment shop. As I combed through the hangers, I realized there were a lot of pieces I didn’t mind parting with. I was hardly wearing half of the clothes in there. I sold what I could, donated the rest, and suddenly realized I had clothing I wanted to wear. It was just all hidden behind the pieces I didn’t like.

8. Staying in is even more enjoyable than going out to the bar.
A Friday night at home might not sound like a lot of fun, but for me it truly is. When I don’t have to do my hair and makeup in time to beat the cover charge, I can spend those evening hours doing the things I want to do. I much prefer a Friday evening workout, cooking myself dinner, watching a movie, or reading a book with my dog in my lap compared to tottering around in heels in a dark bar.

This saves me so much money throughout the month, but it’s also been good for my friendships. I might not be at the bar with a bunch of “friends,” but I do invite over my really close friends to join me every now and then. Instead of yelling at each other over a DJ, we can actually talk to each other about our lives. It’s a nice change of pace that I recommend for everyone.

9. Successfully staying under budget and handling my expenses on my own is beyond satisfying.
Unfortunately, I was one of those 20-somethings who never paid much attention to my money before this. If I went over budget, oh well. I didn’t worry much about saving or my 401k. I worried about doing “cool” things and having new stuff. In these last nine months, I’ve realized I feel much more personal pride and peace when I stay under budget all month and still have a little extra money to save. This might mean I’m an actual adult now, but I’m not complaining about it.

Terra is an Arkansas-based writer who spends her free time obsessing over her planner, debating between working out or eating, and singing to her dog, Gatsby, even though he hates it. She also blogs here.

Image via Unsplash

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