Welcome to House Rules, Curbed’s advice column; today, our columnist answers questions from readers who live alone. Other house-related dilemmas? Send them to email@example.com.
How do I decide if living alone is worth it? Living alone is more expensive than living with others almost everywhere, so how do I weigh the trade-offs and figure out if it’s the right choice for me?
—Perplexed in the City
After spending my 20s and 30s living in dorms or with roommates, I finally rented my first solo apartment a year and a half ago at age 40, so I’ve been through this decision-making process fairly recently. I’m currently reveling in living alone, but I also think that shared living situations were the best choice for me when I was in them. (For a long time, they were also my only choice, given the state of my student loans!) Some things to consider as you decide:
Your personality. Are you recharged by solitude, or drained by it? If you’re an introvert sharing a home, you’re going to need to find roommates who will respect your need to withdraw and retreat. If you’re an extrovert living alone, you’re going to need to do extra work to get your social needs met.
How you need or want to use your home. Do you work from home? Do you have friends over a lot? How important is it to you to control the decor and tidiness level of your surroundings? Some people are happy to work at their workplace, sleep in their bedrooms, and live the rest of their waking lives in “third spaces” like coffee shops, restaurants, bars, parks, gyms, and clubs. Other people prefer to work and/or socialize at home.
Location, location, location! I used to date a guy who was sharing a one-bedroom apartment that had been turned into a “two-bedroom” by hanging a blanket in an open doorway. It’s one thing to have roommates; it’s another thing to know that every sound of your sex life is reverberating throughout the apartment. But he was happy to sacrifice his privacy in order to live in a neighborhood that was close to coffee shops and the subway. What are your non-negotiables when it comes to walkability, commutability, and/or doors?
It’s important to be honest with yourself about your needs and desires so you can figure out what you’re willing to compromise on in order to live alone. You might be willing to compromise quite a lot, because the upsides of living alone are many. As one of my friends rhapsodizes, “Living alone has given me a sense of independence and freedom that would be impossible to have living with a partner or a roommate. I’d compare my home space to a cocoon; it’s where I retreat and reset by myself without (human) distractions, and I value that.” Or, as a slightly more jaded friend puts it: “I will choose being able to watch what I want on TV without consultation or commentary over partnered ‘intimacy’ any day of the week.”
Living alone can be heaven, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In this column, I’ll tackle a few of the practical problems raised by living alone. (My next column will discuss some of the social and emotional challenges.)
I think my biggest struggle with living alone is figuring out how to prioritize when things go hilariously or horrifically wrong—how to manage the times I desperately wish I had someone else to assist with the tasks necessary to sustain life. I’m thinking of the time I had the flu and just had no idea how to get food and tissues (if I were in a city, I could do some delivery service, but alas...)—or, worse but more comically, the time a bottle of red wine rolled off a cupboard and cracked open on my head. I very strongly wished for someone else I could ask to lock the cat in the bathroom and clean up the glass and wine while I iced my head and went to urgent care for the possible concussion. Instead, I loosely held some peas on my head with one arm, battled the cat with the other, and did a lot of mopping.
—Possibly Concussed in Massachusetts
Everyone who lives alone has at least one ridiculous horror story. One of my friends sliced open her hand while cutting an avocado, and the pit went flying and ended up in the mouth of her giant dog, so she had to try to yank it out while blood spurted everywhere. My less horrifying but still unpleasant experience was getting locked out of my apartment in the dead of winter, barefoot and phoneless, wearing a cotton bathrobe and nothing else.
There is no easy fix to these crises, but disaster preparedness can help with some things. (I keep chicken soup in my freezer in case I get sick, and I bought a lockbox to hold a spare set of keys.) In addition, it’s helpful to have one or two “semi-emergency contacts” for horrifying situations that are not life or death—people who live nearby and can come over and mop wine while you cat-wrangle, or vice versa. Even if you’re not friends with them, it’s useful to be on nodding terms with neighbors so you can help each other just in case. I don’t know my upstairs neighbor at all, but he lent me his phone to call the landlady when I rang his doorbell in my bathrobe, which was all I needed.
How much is too much to ask when it comes to seeking help from friends for home-related tasks (i.e., putting in an air conditioner, or something else I can’t do myself)? I’m never sure if I’m crossing a line, especially with friends who live with roommates or partners and thus never need me to return the favor.
There’s not always a clear line between “no big deal” and “way too much,” but here are some things to consider as you decide whether to text a friend or hire a handyperson:
- How hard (messy, heavy, tricky, smelly) is the task?
- How much time will it take?
- Is it something you can easily afford to outsource to a professional?
- Is it something that can only be done by a friend? (For example, after my friend’s father died, I went with her to his house in Alabama as she sorted through some of his things and started to assess what she needed to do to get the house ready to sell. I was glad I was able to provide moral support.)
- How close is the friend?
- Are you able to help your friend in other ways, even if you can’t repay in kind?
I tend to ask friends for help with most things I can’t do myself, and I try to turn these moments into fun social occasions. After a strong friend came by to put in my air conditioners, I took them to a nice bar and bought them a cocktail, and we took the opportunity to catch up. When I crowdsourced furniture-assembling help on Facebook, another friend volunteered and I ordered us tacos and we chatted happily while assembling a china cabinet. (Crowdsourcing for volunteers via group text or social media is a good way to make sure that the person who is helping you actually wants to help you, and it means you’re not always hitting up the same person.)
That said, there are some jobs so huge and thankless I don’t feel like I can casually ask a friend to do them. When I needed five tall bookshelves assembled, I hired a handyman. It took him all day. (It’s obviously easy to find gig-economy workers via apps and websites, but if you think you might need regular help, it’s worth asking around to find a reliable handyperson you can contact directly as needed.)
I used to be much more uncomfortable asking for help. My perspective on this radically changed the summer I had major surgeries in June and August, right before and after I moved to New York City from out of state in July. I couldn’t lift anything heavier than five pounds all summer and was in a lot of pain; packing, moving, unpacking, and most housework were equally impossible. I did hire packers and movers, but I couldn’t outsource everything. I threw myself on the mercy of my friends, and they showed up for me. In the process I realized that 1) people often genuinely enjoy feeling helpful, 2) independence is impossible, and 3) sometimes asking for and accepting help is a way to deepen friendships. I need much less help these days, but I’m better at asking for it—and I’m glad to have opportunities to help friends who need it.
I have questions about cooking for one. I know how to do it, but I lack the motivation to do it. If I plan meals for the week, I run out of steam and food goes bad. This did not happen back when I lived with my boyfriend, because I felt obligated to cook, and if I ran out of steam, he cooked. I have lived alone for a long time, so I have some workarounds for this. But mostly, I just throw away food.
—Steamless in Colorado
One of the biggest joys of living alone is also one of its biggest challenges: You don’t have to rise to the occasion for anyone. It’s both a blessing and a curse. “Hurray, I don’t have to cook dinner! I can eat a pint of Haagen-Dazs in front of the TV instead!” can easily turn into “Oh shit, now I’m living on Haagen-Dazs and I don’t remember the last time I cooked dinner.”
There are two responses to this problem, and I alternate between them. One is to embrace mealtimes as rituals of joy and self-care. The best self-help book ever written on living alone, Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis, has a lot of great suggestions in this vein, including the highly aspirational one to make yourself breakfast in bed, served on a tray, ideally after you’ve donned a satin and marabou bed-jacket. (Read Joanna Scutts’s scintillating biography of Hillis for even more inspiration.) The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones and Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh are also good places to start rekindling culinary hedonism. You can even enlist social media to help. One friend created a cooking group where people can post pictures of their dinner for the others to admire, since, as she says, “Sometimes it’s hard to think of oneself as the audience for a big effort.”
The other approach is to accept the fact that most of the time you won’t bother to cook, and try to make that flawed reality as healthy and pleasant as possible by laying in lots of nutritious groceries that don’t require cooking and that you know you will eat before they go bad. For me, that means cheese, nuts, carrot sticks, hummus, various kinds of canned fish, and actually tasty frozen meals. I also make lazy minimalist salads that are literally just pre-washed greens and store-bought dressing. For what it’s worth, spinach lasts a lot longer than lettuce.
But don’t rule out a pint of ice cream for dinner every now and then. Sometimes it really is as good as it sounds.
Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions and the co-editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York magazine/the Cut, the Paris Review Daily, the Seattle Star, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Elmhurst, Queens.