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Tips for Moving Out

March 5, 2009

In a forum I frequent, somebody recently asked for advice in regard to moving out and living on his own for the first time. After I shot off an answer that ended up being longer than I thought it would be, I decided to clean it up and post it here for those who might find themselves in a similar situation. If you’re moving out on your own for the first time, odds are you’re a college student or a recent college graduate. This means you probably don’t have that much money and need to be clever and frugal, especially if the Bank of Mom and Dad has run dry.

First of all, living expenses are always more than you think they’re going to be. The three big drains on the wallet are rent, food, and utilities. These are your priority expenditures, in that order. Find out what your monthly expenses are going to be and budget wisely for them. Keeping your finances in order is supremely important. Paying all of your bills on time will prevent late fees and help establish good credit. If your financial institution has online banking, take advantage of that to keep close tabs on your balances. You want to have a checking account and two savings accounts. The first savings account is where most of your money will sit and collect interest. Use it to keep your checking account just more than full enough at all times. The second savings account will be for putting 10% of your paycheck into. Never, ever dip into this savings account unless it’s a dire emergency. This is putting away for your future. You’ll thank yourself for this once you’re ready to buy an actual house and furnish it properly.

So, how do you stretch your money to its limits? Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind is getting at least one roommate to share expenses with. This is a good idea, but it must be dealt with very carefully. Do you ask your best friend or do you advertise for strangers? Whichever way you go, before you agree to live together you must be absolutely positive that you can trust your prospective roommate. If you’re advertising for strangers, it might be a good idea to interview applicants and ask for references. Of the things that can go wrong, the best-case scenario is simple incompatibility. One of you is quiet, the other blasts the stereo at all hours. Or one of you is a neat freak and the other is a slob. The worst-case scenario can involve destruction or theft of your belongings and the disappearance of your roommate, or finding the police at your doorstep because your roommate used your car to make a drug deal.

Once you’re sure you’ve made the right choice of roommate, draw up a written contract for all parties to sign, and make copies. This contract should explicitly spell out what everyone’s responsibilities are. What’s the deadline for paying the rent and the utilities? Who owes how much? This is essential to have in writing so you can have some kind of recourse if anyone falls into arrears. It would also be a good idea to discuss how household chores are to be divided up. Is it a strict division of labor, a rotating schedule, or something a bit more flexible? Where does the incoming mail get put? How are phone messages to be relayed? What about shower schedules? Other boundaries that need to be respected? What food is communal and what food is hands-off?

Before you can know what to tell your prospective roommate, however, you need to find out just where you’ll be living and how much it’s going to cost. Do a lot of shopping around. Check out as many apartments as you can find and compare their deals. Some have move-in specials if you sign a minimum time frame lease. Ask a lot of questions. Some places will let you keep your monthly rate after the lease is up, other places will revert to the regular, non-discounted rate. Some places will hold you responsible for the difference retroactively if you violate your lease. Some places include various utilities in their rents. Do the math to find out if a higher rent plus included utilities at one place is a better deal than a lower rent without certain included utilities at another place — sometimes it’s not.

Find out what the average monthly costs of the various utilities are so you can budget for them. Learn how to minimize utility costs where possible. For example, you can give your thermostat a break by dressing warmer in the winter and running fans in the summer. The less work your thermostat has to do, the less it will cost. Five degrees makes more difference than you think. Get a place as close as possible to where you go the most (such as school and work). If an extra $20 a month rent can save you $10 a week at the pump, it’s worth it.

Once you have your apartment, protect your security deposit. Find out explicitly and precisely what you may and may not do to the walls. Find out if there are any walls you can’t touch. For example, in my apartment, the living room wall is the backside of the kitchen wall. I was informed that because of all the wiring and pipes and whatnot running through that little wall, I could not drive even the thinnest nail nor the shortest thumbtack. That didn’t stop me from hanging a small tapestry, though, because I had bought some self-adhesive plastic hooks. You may also want to buy a cheap throw rug to put inside the front door to help minimize the dirt you’ll track onto the carpet. Normal wear and tear is expected, but nasty stains you get charged for. Don’t ever be shy about calling maintenance. If anything happens, let them know about it right away. That way, it’ll be on record as something they fixed and it won’t be on your head. Before you move out, even (or especially!) if you haven’t been the best housekeeper, clean. Vacuum, dust, wipe down mirrors. If it looks like you at least tried to maintain the place, they’ll be more forgiving of the little things here and there that add up, like the dent in the drywall from a doorknob or the hair dye stains in the corners of the bathtub.

Another way to save money at the pump is to streamline your errands as efficiently as you can. Google Maps and GasBuddy are great resources. Pay attention to the ads and sale papers that get stuffed in your mailbox every day. Take a day or so at the very beginning to go around to various stores with a notebook and write down the prices of the items you plan to buy on a regular basis (your staples). Then organize your notes into a comparison chart. See if regular stores’ sale prices are competitive with cheap stores’ regular prices (places such as Sav-A-Lot). The point of this exercise is not to then drive all over town just to save a dime on frozen peas or fifty cents on disinfectant spray. You’ll spend more on gas than you’ll save at the register. It’s best to do the bulk of your shopping at one store that has most of what you’re looking for that’s cheaper than other places. Then, if it’s either on the way or not that far out of the way, you can pick up the rest of your items elsewhere. Going to strip malls (and other one-stop shopping places) is an efficient use of a car trip.

Healthy eating is more economical than junk eating. Avoiding restaurants and preparing your own food at home is another good way to stretch your dollars. Never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, and always make out a list before you go. Buy a slow cooker and get slow cooker recipes from your local library and online. In fact, buy two: a small one (about 1.5 quarts, try not to spend more than $15) and a large one (at least 4 quarts, try not to spend more than $30). This will allow for more flexibility and creativity. If you’re lucky enough to find a cheap bread machine (at a garage sale, rummage sale, or thrift store), get it. I’ve said a few things about slow cookers and bread machines in an earlier post, but one thing I will say again: eating your own homemade bread is much cheaper and healthier than eating store-bought bread.

A great way to save money is by going to thrift stores. I like going to the Salvation Army because on Fridays and Saturdays, clothing labeled with the color tag of the week is five for $5 (total, not each). I’ve gotten shoes there for less than $10 and I even got a really great couch there for $45. Deals like this are important for another reason, too: You never, ever want to buy anything joint with your roommates. Even if it’s your best friend, you will eventually be moving out and going your separate ways. The last thing you want to do is ruin a relationship by fighting over who gets the dining table or the microwave.

If you’re moving out for the first time, I hope you find this advice helpful. Good luck!

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