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Monday, February 10, 2014

Alternative housing

Living in residence is not cheap – the average residence room is a similar price as a room in a shared apartment, where you’d have access to a kitchen, living room, and would share a bathroom with a handful of people, not an entire floor.  As well, in many universities, if you live in residence the meal plan is mandatory.  Why is it this expensive? because it includes many services such as cleaning of the common areas, resource people that are very useful when you live on your own for the first time, people who run seminars about sex, alcohol, managing academic life and the like, and repairs and up keeping of your residence.  As well, the residence is fully furnished, which an apartment would most likely not be.  And why is a meal plan mandatory in most residences? two reasons: the most important one is that if there is a meal plan, the students are less likely to run out of food money before the end of the school year; as well, the residences are not equipped for a large number of people to cook for themselves each day – they have very limited kitchen space.  Living in residence may make sense in first year because of the support that is offered; however, it’s very expensive.

For second year and up, and for some first year student (if you are very independent, for example), NOT living in residence is recommended.  However, there are many options for living arrangements and their prices vary.  Before you decide where you want to live (and this can change from year to year – not all four years need to be spent in the same place), read further.

Option 1: living with a relative

Ok, we have already established that you will not live at home during university (see my posts of August 3 2013: The Value of the Family Home about living at home and August 11 2013: Choosing to Live at Home or Not about how to choose a city to live in); however, living with a relative may be the cheaper options of all available in your university town.  Living with a relative will most likely be cheaper than living on our own because the relative may or may not change you for the room (+ access to the house and food) but most likely the price will be cheaper than sharing an apartment.  Check if there is a relative your parents can approach about this.

Option 2: renting a room in a house

In many university towns and cities, people with large houses are happy to rent out a room.  These people are typically people for whom keeping the house is a bit expensive so they welcome the extra money; people whose children are gone to university (they then have the extra room and would like to offset the tuition and rent of their own children away); retired people who would like the company and the extra income (since they do not work anymore); recently divorced people in search of extra income; etc..  Because you are not sharing a house, but rather have a room and some access privileges to the common areas, this will be cheaper than sharing an apartment.  If you are in an academic program that sends you out to work (either a co-op program or a program with practicums such as teacher’s college or physiotherapy) sometimes in a different city, some home owner will allow you to pay only for the months you are at university, not the entire year – again, a great saving if you will spend some of your 12 month year back at home.

Option 3: residence as supervisor

Yes, residence CAN be frugal, if you are willing to work for the residence.  Very often, a university will hire upper-year students or graduate students to be the resource person for a residence.  In exchange, instead of financial payment, you will get free room and sometimes free room and board.  The quality of the living quarters then varies enormously from place to place: sometimes a small apartment, sometimes a single room only.  However, having free housing for the school year is a HUGE saving!  The work typically consists of seminars and help sessions with the students, lots of help the first few weeks of school, and availability (even during the night, or maybe especially at night and evenings) when a student needs to talk, vent, and get counselling for different problems.  You also need to attend some meetings and some training sessions. 

Option 4: sharing an apartment

This is definitely not the cheaper option, unless you can find a cheap but liveable apartment to live in.  However, if you do choose to live in an apartment, sharing one is definitely cheaper than renting even a studio apartment on your own.  When sharing, you share a bathroom, and all common areas, which is where the savings come in, compared with living alone.  Also, with everyone pitching in, you should be able to furnish the apartment reasonably cheaply, including equipping the kitchen and a few luxury items like a TV and DVD player.

Option 5: trade dwelling for work.

This may sound unusual, but it actually benefits both of you, the student who is trying to attend school the frugal way, and the owner of the dwelling who needs help with grocery and cleaning, or babysitting, etc.  If you are looking for one of these unusual arrangement, keep in mind to have a well-defined contract that defines what you get (room and house access? room and food? room and cooked meals?) in exchange for what work (babysitting after the kids’ school for 2 hrs – does it include homework help, or just keeping the kids safe ; getting groceries once a week or daily trips to the store? full house cleaning once a week or daily dusting?).  If you don’t, there are bound to be misunderstanding and consequently, unhappiness on at least one side.

Option 6, or 17: living in a trailer, van, or tent.

Ok, you may say, this woman has gone crazy!  Yet, some (a few) students have managed to live in a camping trailer, a van or a tent during their studies.  Most of these were living in the less cold parts of the United States, making keeping warm in winter not much of an issue.  However, you may want to consider pitching a tent one someone’s land (someone that you know and have prior permission) if you can shower at school, for example, during the warmer months.  If your parents have a camper trailer, or an RV, would it be possible to borrow it in order to use it as your home during the school year?  Ken Ilgunas did it for his Master’s degree – he moved South so he could live in his van throughout winter, and managed to live, get a degree, and not be in debt at the end of it.  An example of his adventures is here:  His months living in a van put us, frugal-wanna-be, to shame in terms of how ‘spartanly’ one can live. 

So before you sign that lease for a great apartment, ask yourself: ‘is this the most frugal way to live?’ and ‘did I consider all other options for my dwelling?’ You may surprise yourself!

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