Major in Sanity.
April 9, 2012 2:53 PM   Subscribe

I am either starting doctoral studies this fall or downsizing to a graduate student lifestyle in preparation for entering a program next fall (2013). What kind of living arrangement is likeliest to give me the best combination of economy and sanity?

I am preparing myself mentally to live a life of monastic penury: avoiding paid entertainment, making restaurant meals an exception, buying thrift-store clothes, etc. In a vacuum, I can do this easily. It will become substantially more difficult if others see me as a stingy, irritating killjoy. I am looking for a habitat where I can have the best quality of life while living on a limited budget.

While I do have some savings, the money will not sustain me for five years. I'd prefer to take on minimal loans, but would consider it if it was necessary.

I also have a strong psychological need for a place where I can feel safe, welcome, comfortable, and at peace. In a word, home. If I live in a place where I feel put upon, not welcome, or out of place, I have a hard time getting work done. As a student, I will have a lot of work to do.

For the sake of fixing a variable, let's assume I am staying in or near College Park, Maryland. My housing options appear to be the following:
studio apartment ($1100-$1200 a month)
Pro: maximum peace of mind; maximum control over utilities and expenses; can stock up on basic goods; can cook all meals at home without regard for roommates.
Con: rent far exceeds what a stipend will pay for.
shared apartment, 2-3BR ($650-$800 a month)
Pro: peace of mind; some control over utilities and common expenses; can stock up on goods and cook own meals;
Con: rent somewhat exceeds what a stipend will pay for; flatmates may insist on luxury expenses (e.g., cable, maid service); potential conflicts over common areas.
group house, 5-6BR ($500-$700 a month)
Pro: affordable rent.
Con: housemate conflicts; no control over utilities (heat in winter and AC in summer tend to be vastly overused); very limited pantry space; limited kitchen access; housemates may expect me to eat out instead of cooking.
rented room in SFH ($400-$700)
Pro: affordable rent, house maintained well.
Con: at mercy of landlord; no control over utilities; limited access to common areas; unable to receive visitors.
If you have been in a similar situation —
  • What arrangement did you choose? How satisfied were you?
  • Did your choice let you lead an economical lifestyle that was also low on stress?
  • How did your housing affect your ability to be productive or successful?
Many thanks for feedback.
posted by Nomyte to Human Relations (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Renting a basement apartment in a private house (with its own kitchen, bathroom, and separate entrance) can give you the best of both worlds: privacy, you never have to see much of anyone you don't want to, most bills are covered and it tends to be much cheaper than roommates or a studio. Plus, you can enjoy living in a quiet neighborhood-- win-win! Good luck.
posted by doreur at 3:05 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is very subjective. In my experience, having a place to myself vs. sharing an apartment made no difference to me, psychologically, as long as I had a place to store my things and there was cooperative shared use of the kitchen and enough personal space to work alone in my room. The only difference living alone, for me, is that I had less money left over.

The shared apartment or group house is "normal" for graduate students. That's how most graduate students live, and that's what the people you socialize with will expect from you. It might be helpful to live with other graduate students, so that there's a sense that you're all in the same boat.

no control over utilities (heat in winter and AC in summer tend to be vastly overused);

Dividing it 5-6 ways means you will hardly notice it. I don't understand where "housemates may expect me to eat out instead of cooking" comes from.

flatmates may insist on luxury expenses (e.g., cable, maid service);

"may"? Well, will they or won't they? In any case, divided 2-3 ways isn't particularly a problem. Many apartments in Maryland and DC include utilities, as well, so cable is the only thing you'll be paying for outside of rent. Also, your stipend should cover rent in the $650-$800 range. If it can't, your stipend is inadequate.

It's unclear if each of these situations outlines a specific situation or if they're purely hypothetical and you're just imagining a lot of problems that you haven't even encountered, yet.
posted by deanc at 3:05 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing the 2-3BR share is your best option in a pricey area. I'm a grad student and I have a studio, but my rental market is about half the cost with less of a difference between the cost of a share and the cost of living alone. I agree with you that quiet and order at home are critical for productivity; some people are just like that and it's a waste of badly needed energy and brain space to try to make a situation with 4+ roommates work out. The $100/mo you might save by having one or two additional roommates is probably lost in stress and actual money for exactly the reasons you listed- utility use goes up, you have to eat out because the kitchen isn't clean/accessible when you need it, etc. Live with the minimum number of roommates that you can afford.

Also, if your rental market is highly tied to the academic year, try to get a month-to-month or sublet at first and then get a year long lease off the academic cycle, ie. starting in January or February when people, especially students, aren't moving. That's how I found a place with below market rent.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:20 PM on April 9, 2012

When you say rented room in student family housing, what do you mean? Like an illegal renting of a room from a married couple?

Is there a grad student campus housing option? That seemed to be the cheapest option when I was a grad student.

I agree that shared living is hard.

From your choices, I'd go with a shared apartment with 1 other person who you like and can negotiate the luxury stuff and shared cooking.
posted by k8t at 3:22 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a data point, I never watch TV and so I talked it over with my roommate and I don't contribute to the cable bill. I can see that wouldn't work with utilities but perhaps it would with cable.

Also, can you find a roommate situation with utilities included? That is one good thing about my current place (in NY, don't know what it's like in College Park).
posted by mlle valentine at 3:27 PM on April 9, 2012

Are there perhaps graduate student residences on campus? This is something to consider, at least for your first year while you adjust.

Many grad students live in shared housing with other students, which tends to work well because people are on the same page re: expenses, quietness, etc. It is not difficult to find people who are tight with money as roommates; I don't know where your expectations are coming from but a lot of people these days are pretty broke.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:28 PM on April 9, 2012

I personally would look for a 2BR (possibly 3BR) setup with another grad student who is likely to be in the same boat as you are re:no money. I spent a few years of my grad student existence living in a group home situation--it wasn't a problem for me, but I am pretty easy-going and it really is true that your chances of roommate conflict and tension increases geometrically with the number of roommates. Then choose a roommate whose values about shared expenses are in line with yours re:cable, AC, etc. (are there grad students who get maid service? huh.)

Given your parameters, might think about compromising a bit on location to get a cheaper rent rather than adding on too many extra roommates.

(I am assuming that SFH stands for single family home rather than student family housing)
posted by drlith at 3:35 PM on April 9, 2012

You don't say if you have a car. If you do, your options are a little better.

I'd say rent out a room in a couple's house in a suburban area. Will most likley be more quiet. Also, a full house with probably all the things you might need and a yard. I dunno, I see this as a better arrangment than living with 5 other people. Also, you might be able to get month to month so it's a lot more flexible.
posted by eq21 at 3:38 PM on April 9, 2012

I rented a room from a retired couple that had been renting their upstairs rooms to grad students for 25 years. It was a great situation. The rent was insanely cheap for the area- 2/3 rds the cost of what most people were paying for much smaller rooms in apartments. I had a huge garden space, and helped my landlords out by taking care of their dogs and garden when they traveled, they gave me free rent and access to a car those days. I lived there until I moved in with my girlfriend (now wife). The thing was that it was a very specific situation- I meshed super-well with my landlords- others that lived there did not and moved out fairly fast. I think that being very sure that you wil get along and have a similar vision for what is expected is the most important part of living in single family home. I think the other thing that made it work was that my landlords were very experienced with renting rooms. There can be real problems with people that rent rooms to try to help pay their mortgage, but don't really want another person in their house.
posted by rockindata at 4:09 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

I lived in university accommodation (single bedrooms, aired kitchen and bathrooms) for the first year, then moved to sharing a house with another PhD student. The first option was a bit cheaper; the second added a bit in cost, but was a hugely, hugely better situation overall. Honestly, living with someone who was going through the same academic meat-grinder was probably the sole biggest factor in keeping me sane through those years.
posted by Catseye at 4:30 PM on April 9, 2012

I'm just like you in terms of needing a comfortable home in order to feel stable and productive. I've chosen to sink a large portion (1/2) of my monthly stipend into renting my own apartment. Is $1100 the absolute bottom of the market for studios? It sounds pretty pricey to me, although I don't know the College Park market (but I am in a major East Coast urban area near a major university, and this is several hundred dollars more than what basic studios cost here). You have an opportunity to make a big difference in your standard of living for the next few years if you put all of your efforts into apartment hunting -- there have got to be some inexpensive places out there. But you can't just expect them to pop up the first time you waltz on to Craigslist. Have you tried Also, if there's a way to email all the current grad students, one of them might be vacating a perfect living situation and willing to pass it down.

I live much more paycheck-to-paycheck than some of my fellow students do, but I've never for a moment regretted it. Grad school is all kinds of taxing and at the end of the day I really, really need to come home to silence and a clean kitchen. The biggest problem I've had with renting rooms in shared houses has been the kitchen. I inevitably ended up eating out way too much because the kitchen was left filthy and I refused to clean up after my filthy housemates. This becomes a huge expense fast and can really wear on you emotionally if you're the kind of person who's bothered by filth.

That said, when I first moved in to my own place, I'd never lived alone before, and found it incredibly lonely and isolating while I was first adjusting to grad school. So if you aren't already used to living alone, it might be easier to live in a houseshare.

Oh, and as a counterpoint to what k8t said, at my university the on-campus grad student housing is more expensive than renting a one-bedroom in a luxury high-rise. So don't assume that on-campus housing is a good deal.

Finally, as far as your worry about being a "stingy, irritating killjoy" goes -- I think the biggest social problem grad students create for themselves in the name of thriftiness is living too far away from everyone else. It becomes really difficult for them to stay in the department's social loop because they're always scrambling to catch the last train home or whatever. Don't discount how important the impromptu-late-night-drinks stuff is for tossing around new ideas with your peers and getting interesting collaborations learn a lot from your fellow students in a Ph.D. program and (assuming you're on the academic track) they'll be your colleagues for the rest of your life.
posted by ootandaboot at 4:33 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can't really help you anecdotally because my financial situation was different from yours. But I think, based on what you've said about needing a place that feels like home and the scenarios you perceive as a result of shared housing, the only option that guarantees whatever your peace of mind consists of is living in a studio. There was ways to be thrifty and economical without being a stingy killjoy.
posted by sm1tten at 4:43 PM on April 9, 2012

In a vacuum, I can do this easily. It will become substantially more difficult if others see me as a stingy, irritating killjoy....

...flatmates may insist on luxury expenses (e.g., cable, maid service)....

...housemates may expect me to eat out instead of cooking....

Live with other students in your program. They will absolutely understand what it's like to be on a tight budget — they'll be on one too, and odds are they won't be as good as managing it as you are, so they'll feel even more intensely broke than you are. And you'll also save a shitton of money by drinking / studying / arguing at home instead of going out to bars or coffee shops with them.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:30 PM on April 9, 2012

I agree that a basement apartment is your best option. I actually wouldn't assume living with other grad students will help you save money. In my experience, grad students vary *widely* in how thrifty they are (and how much student loan money they're willing to take out). Make sure you check that out before you pick roommates.
posted by synchronia at 6:42 PM on April 9, 2012

I actually advise against living with other students in your program. In my experience, that is a recipe for drama that will spill over into your professional life.

I lived in a group house in DC at first, and then moved to a studio. I lived for a year with a drop out from my program (awkward...) and then got a 1br. I loved my building,

Here's my advice:

1. Look at apt prices on the UMD shuttle route. Directly in CP apartment prices are a little high. If you look at the middle of the 111 bus route or the middle of the New Carrollton route, apartment prices are more reasonable.

2. Reach out to faculty and staff in your program. They'll know what neighborhoods (like IDK Silver Spring, Langley Park, Hyattsville, etc) their grad students live in.
posted by spunweb at 9:25 PM on April 9, 2012

Oh and to answer your questions:

What arrangement did you choose? How satisfied were you?
The only living arrangement I didn't like was the group home in DC. CP is actually really close to DC, so if you live close to the Green Line, you can take the train right in, and then use the shuttle bus. Also there are WMATA buses (the J4, the C2, the F6/F4) that run through campus. So it wasn't the commute that bothered me, lol. What bugged me was not being able to feel safe in my space (my roomies were assholes) and also that they mooched my food (I bought in bulk to save on money).

Did your choice let you lead an economical lifestyle that was also low on stress?
Moving did, yes. I did end up eating out a little more because the downtown part of SS was so convenient. The only thing that was stressful was during January, when the UMD shuttle line got weird, and the summer, when the WMATA bus line went wonky because there wasn't the university traffic to slow it down -- the route got super fast then.

How did your housing affect your ability to be productive or successful?
Having a good study environment in my home was, I would say, a determining factor in my comprehensive exams. I'm now 4 months into my dissertation writing process and I HATE my office. It really slows me down because it's inconvenient to get to, and is loud. It'd be nice to have a dedicated study area, but I share a home office with my partner who loves to watch movies at his desk. Loudly. :sigh.:
posted by spunweb at 9:44 PM on April 9, 2012

Finally, whatever plan you make, busdget for the summer as well; you'll probably want to live near campus then as well.
posted by spunweb at 9:45 PM on April 9, 2012

I lived in a number of situations as a grad student, and the group house was the best. It was by far the cheapest option, and when you're sharing utilities those become really affordable as well. You younglings will never have to pore over a monthly long-distance bill trying to figure out who called whom with your new-phangled cell telephony units.

But as mentioned, yeah, drama sucks. Everything came crashing down when one roommate started sleeping with another (who had moved in less than a week previously).

What can I say? I could never imagine living in that situation currently. But for my mid- late-20's it was kind of awesome for a while.
posted by bardic at 10:39 PM on April 9, 2012

Current grad student - I lived for years in a giant house with many (5-7) housemates, including couples at times. It was fine while I was doing it - I had never lived alone so I didn't miss anything about that. Housemates have ranged from awesome (best friends for 5+ years now) to terrible (petty drama, leaving with rent unpaid and disasters in room). Having so many roommates made it pretty balanced overall though, and it wasn't too loud since everyone mostly stayed in their rooms, and parties were held on weekends only.

I still live there now actually, but I have a separate apartment on the top floor, which I love and would have a hard time going back to roommates, since the constant bickering over cleaning was starting to get to me. I also LOVE having a clean kitchen and bathroom now. It was totally manageable for the years I was doing it, though.

Another point: my sister moved to a new city to a single apartment and felt very isolated - I think there are huge advantages to living with other people, especially in a grad program where you may not have much time to go out socializing, and definitely if you're in a new city where you don't have friends yet.

Also you can always switch to a single apt later if you get sick of roommates - I find it's far harder to make the switch in the other direction.

tl;dr - group house is probably the best option, followed by 2-3 bedroom shared apt. Make sure you meet with as many roommates as possible first to see if you have compatible personalities and lifestyles and they aren't crazy - super important!
posted by randomnity at 12:27 PM on April 10, 2012

I chose to live alone in a studio, very near campus. To me the peace and quiet was worth it.
posted by Pax at 2:33 PM on April 10, 2012

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