Is living alone worth it?

A single blooming flower extends its stem throughout a house to find light. Outside the sun has set and a full moon shines on the home. Illustration.

Curbed’s advice columnist wants to help you solve your biggest
solo-dwelling dilemmas

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 advice@curbed.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 living alone is 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 décor 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 s*x 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 and 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. —Unmutual Friend

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 work-arounds 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.

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
Is living alone worth it?