Potentially controversial opinion alert: I think apartment improvements are pretty much always worth the time and effort.
I don’t know about you guys, but when I like my living space, I spend less money going out, I’m more likely to have friends over, and I’m generally more productive and happier. I even sleep better! All because I spent a weekend painting or swapping out handles!
Today, I brought in ASID-certified interior design Liz MacKeigan to share her best, most affordable rental-improving tips and tricks!
It’s no secret that home ownership instills a sense of pride and a having a stake in your local community. But what about those of us who can’t afford to buy or aren’t ready to settle down with a thirty-year mortgage? There is nothing that says renters can’t also take pride!
I can’t think of a valid reason to wait until “someday” to make yourself feel at home somewhere. Sure, ripping out a bathroom or replacing flooring surfaces is likely out of the question, but it doesn’t mean you can’t inject your personality or creature comforts into your landlord’s place.
At the end of the day, you’ll feel better coming home to a place that’s comforting and personalized to your tastes than you will when coming home to someone else’s poor, beige decisions.
Cheap apartment improvements: Living room
Blank walls make me sad. And because I don’t have a fabulous art budget, I’ve gotten creative over the years about hanging things on my walls. Here are some ways to get big art on a small budget, without utilizing your old NKOTB posters:
Aunt Peaches shows us how to turn wrapping paper into legit art.
If geography is your thing, blow up or photocopy a map and break out the Mod Podge for an inexpensive oversized map. I made something like this for a first-anniversary gift to my husband and now we paint the route of every road trip we take together. Awwwww.
Washi tape can make magical things happen to your walls.When hanging art, remember to keep it relatively at eye level, and hang pieces in groupings on large walls if your frames are less than 36”.
Cheap apartment improvements: Kitchen + bathroom
Kitchens and bathrooms in rentals typically leave a little to be desired. Without causing damage, you can typically make some small changes to make cooking feel a little nicer. Here’s how:
Swap out your knobs & pulls. Knobs are easy because they have one screw, but did you know there are adjustable pulls on the market? They’re great because you can haul them from place to place. These are my favorite.
Take off some cabinet doors! My teeny apartment in college had two-toned kitchen doors that were peeling, so I yanked them down and installed pretty contact paper the back of the cabinets. The kitchen felt larger and the doors were no longer mocking my sensibilities.
Cheap apartment improvements: Bedrooms
Need extra storage? A few inexpensive wall shelves and a can of gold spray paint might just solve all of your problems.
If you’re having trouble locating the right furniture for your space, check out my old post on tips for selecting pieces that can move with you from place to place.
Here are some ‘treats’ that I regularly give myself because I ‘deserve’ them:
* An entire block of Parmesan. Not on something, mind you. Just the cheese. Just the brick. I just hold it in my hand and take bites of it like an apple.
* Piles of $5 lady magazines
* Not brushing my teeth before bed (??!!??)
In case you’re keeping track, exactly zero of those things are good for me. In excess, each of those things is pretty detrimental to my physical and emotional well-being.
But here I sit, ‘rewarding’ myself with things that – if I’m not careful – will give me a stomachache, make me feel less-than, and give me cavities.
And what’s even more ridiculous is that I’m often treating myself after a hard, frustration-filled day. And what am I frustrated about? Oh, you know, feeling less than or drained or urpy.
I am literally engaging in ‘reward’ behavior that will make me feel worse in the long run!
Stop it, self. Stop. It.
I want better for myself. And if you are human and occasionally treat yourself in not-particularly-healthy ways, I rounded up 23 ways we can reward ourselves that don’t involve buying or eating anything.
1. Take a nap
Sleeping is awesome and I bet about 99.7% of us aren’t getting enough of it. Make your nap even more treat-like by changing your pillow case (it gives you that ‘new sheet’ feeling with less work), taking off your bra and spraying a bit of lavender or eucalyptus essential oil onto your pillow.
2. Give yourself a mani or pedi
Add a few drops of essential oil and body wash to a pretty bowl of warm water and soak your extremities while you watch an episode of Broad City. If you don’t have a manicure or pedicure set, push your cuticles back with a wet washcloth. If you’re feeling fancy, exfoliate with a brown sugar body scrub and slick on a few coats of a color you love.
3. Re-read a favorite book
Resist the urge to treat yourself to a new book purchase! Trawl your local library the way you’d trawl a used bookstore or just re-read one of your favorite ‘comfort reading’ books. I’ve been reading a few chapters of this book every morning and I JUST LOVE IT.
4. Take a day off work for no reason at all
And then don’t run a single errand or go to a single appointment! YOU CAN DO IT I HAVE FAITH IN YOU. Use your day off to do awesomely unproductive things: sleep in, make yourself a big pancake breakfast, explore new parts of your neighborhood, Skype with friends in other time zones, write a letter to your Grandma. Nap.
5. Take a hot bath
Add powdered milk. Or flower petals. Or Epsom salts or bubble bath. Turn on your favorite mellow music, light a few candles, and stay in the tub so long you wrinkle and raisin.
6. Have a Netflix movie marathon
Now, this is a personal preference, but I think the best movie marathons are movies that you’ve already seen and/or movies that don’t require rapt attention. You need to be able to fall asleep halfway through or get up and make yourself popcorn! Suggested marathons: The Anne Of Green Gables movies, BBC’s Pride & Prejudice, all the Wes Anderson movies, all the Judd Apatow movies, everything Dolly Parton has ever starred in.
7. Listen to your favorite music
Make a playlist of all your absolute favorite music, choosing not to care if it’s thematically similar, segues nicely, or is ‘embarrassing.’ My favorite playlist goes like this: Dolly Parton, The Knux, Pharrell, Kasey Musgraves, Ke$ha, Flo Rida, Beirut. WUT.
8. Visit a pet shelter
So many snuggles and cuddles! And you don’t have to clean fur off your sofa or worry about that spot on the rug!
9. Take an aimless walk WITHOUT YOUR PHONE
Getting out into nature is lovely and calming and centering. Getting out into nature without the temptation to tweet, update, or Instagram about it is exponentially more lovely, calming, and centering. I’ll do it if you will.
10. Make a DIY face mask
It’s a cliché for a reason, that reason being: it’s awesome. You probably have everything you need for a face mask in your kitchen right now.
11. Go for a drive
Do you live near a body of water or a mountain/bluff/large hill-type thing? Go for a drive near it or on it. It’ll be sweet and relaxing and refreshing. Promise.
12. Watch a Youtube makeup tutorial and experiment
Do you, too, have a whole drawer of lipsticks and bronzers and eyeliners you’re not using? Have a search through Youtube and see if you can find some new ways to use them. Do you know how to contour? Do a real, serious cat eye? I don’t. Let’s learn!
13. Walk near some water with someone you love
Ahhhhhhh. Feel those shoulders come down from around your ears and your blood pressure drop.
14. Devote some time to self-pleasure
15. Go for a nice bike ride
Not to get exercise. Not to pick up some milk or tire out the dog. Ride someplace pretty and scenic and not overrun with other cyclists. Ride at a pace that feels easy and good and notice what’s happening around you.
16. Listen to an awesome podcast
No, but really listen to it. Lay down on the sofa, open your ears and just soak it up. Like everyone else, I love This American Life and Awesome Etiquette.
17. Go window shopping
This is almost as fun as actual shopping. Pack yourself a travel mug of something sip-able and then wander through your city’s swankiest shopping district. Peek into the windows and imagine where, exactly, you’d wear that avant-garde cape that costs $3,000.
19. People watch
One of my all-time favorite activities is watching people and making up stories about them. Second favorite activity: going for ‘house walks’ with my BFF and making up stories about the people who live in said houses.
A few of my favorite people-watching places: the airport, any public transportation hub, any downtown area during lunch hour or after work, flea markets, farmers’ markets, anywhere near a stadium on a big game day.
20. Take time to do your hair and makeup
Even if you’re not going anywhere. Every time I take the 10 minutes required to apply eyeliner and curl my hair I’m floored by how different I look and how confident I feel.
21. Watch a Youtube yoga or dance tutorial
Youtube dance tutorials are The Actual Best And Most Fun. No one ever has to know what you look like when you’re twerking! You can just keep rewinding and re-trying till you either a) get it b) collapse from laughing at yourself.
22. If you already have a gym membership, go there and take advantage of the non-athletic stuff
I mean, you can also go to the gym and work out but I don’t think that’s much of a treat, do you? Does your gym have a sauna? Or a hot tub? Go have a soak or a steam!
23. Shave your legs and put clean sheets on your bed
This is probably the best any of us will ever feel in our entire lives.
Do you ever find yourself ‘treating’ yourself in ways that aren’t actually …. beneficial? What are your favorite non-buying, non-eating rewards?
P.P.S. Did you know I have a (free) private Facebook group dedicated solely to the topics of money and happiness? And the stuff we talk about has helped members change jobs, save thousands of dollars, and fight less with their partners? Join us!
Let’s imagine for a moment, dear readers, that I invited you over to my house for a barbecue.
And let’s imagine that when you went into my bedroom to throw your purse on the bed, you took a peek at my bedside reading. You’d see a copy of Spookand my friend Rachel’s new book. You might see some ubiquitous lady magazines and one of those weird round lip balm things. You’d exit my bedroom believing that I was a lover of non-fiction who happened to have dry lips.
What you wouldn’t see is the pile of books that I hid under the bed:
Two months ago, I found myself at a run down coffee shop on a college campus, picking at an over-sized muffin and working on a pretty good anxiety stomachache.
I was there to meet with a financial adviser. I anticipated a terrifying, math-y, money-based conversation that would somehow make me feel both poor and stupid. (Like most people in the world, I prefer to feel not-poor and passably intelligent.)
My advisor turned out to be a lovely, helpful, totally normal human who used normal human words to explain complex subjects. I did not, however, expect her to be a source of Buddha-like insight.
As we were poring over my savings and retirement plan, she turned to a multi-colored graph and said “So there are basically three approaches to saving. You can work more. You can save more. Or you can want less.”
And then the skies cracked open and a choir of angels tootling on reasonably priced horns announced a personal paradigm shift.
I am not unfamiliar with the minimalist movement. I love a good capsule wardrobe. I know how to make do and mend. I don’t have a tv blahblahblah. I’ve lapped up a million magazine articles and life coach-written blog posts about the importance of less. But there was something thrilling about hearing this from a numbers-based, decidedly non-woo woo financial professional.
She was simply relating a numbers-based reality. I could stop working and spend more time by the water if I adjusted my vision for the future. I could have an apartment on the water in Minnesota before I could have a house on the ocean in California.
Now, I’m not saying we should collectively ‘aim lower.’ I’m not saying that we should all take mediocre jobs or date boring humans who don’t light our fires. I’m not saying you should stop wanting a vacation home in Italy BECA– USE I ALSO REALLY WANT A VACATION HOME IN ITALY.
But what if we took a look at the things that we believe we want and really, actively considered them? Are they goals that we set for ourselves? Or are they wishes that seeped into our brains via women’s magazines and billboards? Do we really want a fancy car or are we just enamored of our friend’s 2015 Audi?
What would our lives and futures look like if we gave ourselves permission to want a little less? To not quite strive so hard? To make a conscious decision to shift our focus?
I’ve given myself permission to want less. If you want it, here’s yours.
I’d love to hear about your relationship with wanting, striving, consuming. Have you spent a lot of time considering your goals and dreams? Have you ever found yourself chasing a dream that’s too big for you or not really yours to begin with?
P.S. Did you know I have a (free) private Facebook group dedicated solely to the topics of money and happiness? And the stuff we talk about has helped members change jobs, save thousands of dollars, and fight less with their partners? Join us!
A traveler friend once told me that she breaks down the best moments of her trips into monetary units.
That amazing, three-hour lunch under the Spanish moss with your best friends cost more than the $150 restaurant bill. It’s the four-hour, $400 flight that brought you to Savannah and the hour of faffing around at the car rental place. It’s the 30 minutes of Googling to find this gorgeous, hole-in-the-wall bistro and the $50 dress you bought for this trip.
Using her calculations that meal actually cost me $350 and two days of my life.
I’m sure I audibly gasped when I ran the numbers on some of my favorite memories. $550 for that time I hand-fed the sassy alpaca! $375 dollars for the afternoon Alex and I played board games in the park and ate hipster ice cream! $400 for real, actual tacos in Mexico, consumed on paper plates while sitting in plastic chairs on the side of the road.
Even if my friend’s idea was more budget-based than inspirational, it had a surprisingly centering effect on me. Because I have this ridiculous, terrible habit of rushing through happiness.
I’m standing on the parade route at Dollywood, watching one of my favorite celebrities wave glamorously, and as soon as she’s past, I’m wondering where we parked. It’s the last day of a perfect cabin weekend with friends and instead of pouring myself another mimosa on the deck, I’m thinking about weekend traffic and looking for my phone charger.
Why is it so hard to sit in our happiness? Why is it so difficult to say “Be happy in this moment, this moment is your life” … and then stay in the moment? Am I the only one who recites that mantra and then immediately starts thinking about what I’ll make for dinner?
If this sounds familiar, let’s make a pact.
Let’s learn to sit in our happiness (even if it makes us a little uncomfortable.)
Let’s honor all the hard work and time and money that went into any given moment of transcendent joy. For every joy and laughter-filled dinner party, there are hours of menu planning, cooking, and clean up. For every triumphant finish-line-crossing, there are months of training and sweat and compromise.
As of 2014, 70% of American college graduates have school debt. The average graduate is $33,000 in debt by the time they collect their diploma. After undergrad and graduate school, my school debt was around $50,000 – even with a little help from my parents, scholarships, and working while I was in school.
Just like everyone, I hatedhatedhated those monthly payments. I’d fantasize about how different life would be when I had an extra $350 a month with which to buy cheese and brightly colored skinny jeans.
So in the last two years, I committed to paying off those horrible loans ahead of time. The ‘tricks’ I used are hardly tricks. They’re fairly obvious, relatively well-known budgeting methods, but combined they work like magic. If you’re trying to pay down debt – school or otherwise – these will help.
1. Pay as much as you can (but not so much that you hate your life)
I know it’s incredibly tempting to lower those monthly payments when you find your dream apartment and it’s $200 a month above your budget. I totally, totally get it. But before you lower you payments, I’d encourage you to check out a loan amortization calculator.
The longer you take to pay off debt, the more money you’re giving your lenders.
Paying off $40,000 at 4% over 20 years = $58,174
Paying off $40,000 at 4% over 15 years = $53,258
That’s almost $5,000! And your monthly payment would only go up by $50! Which is, like, one Target impulse buy and one fancy cocktail, right?
Drastic? Yes. An awesome adventure that will help you save money like whoa? Also yes.
I spent the 25th and 26th years of my life chasing kindergartners around a classroom in Nei Li, Taiwan and stuffing my face with stinky tofu. With a 10% tax rate, a great exchange rate, and a very low cost of living, I was able to save $1,000 a month without even trying! I ate out a lot (like dan bing for breakfast most days), lived in a nice apartment, and even flew home and vacationed in The Philippines, all while wiring home a grand every month.
3. When you travel, do it cheaply
I’ve nearly perfected the art of cheap travel (all my tips are here) and I’ve snuck in tons of trips while still paying down my loans every month. Travel can be surprisingly affordable if you use Airbnb or stay with friends, stick to public transport, visit cheap places (or expensive places in the off-season) and cook your own meals.
I think it’s really important to continue to live a life you actually, you know, enjoy while sticking to your budget. I call it “putting my money where my happy is.” When I make time and space for the activities that bring me joy I’m less likely to self-medicate via expensive boots.
4. Buy a used car – with cash if possible
My car is not particularly sexy or impressive. It is, however, reliable, cheap to repair, and not so fancy that anyone wants to steal it. More importantly? I bought it with cash.
Or more accurately, I put it on my credit card to get a bunch of miles and then immediately paid it off. I’ve never had a car payment! Sure, sometimes I get jealous of my friends’ heated seats and climate control but then I realize that I am not my car.
And even if I was, I’d be little and zippy which really wouldn’t be the end of the world.
5. Buy just about everything secondhand
True Story: I furnished my entire apartment (from nothing!) for about $700. Yes, even including that cute couch. Nearly everything I own came from a thrift store, Craigslist, or the Ikea as-is section. And I’d like to believe that’s not painfully obvious!
Pro tip: if you’re looking for something specific on Craigslist (“midcentury dresser St. Paul”) but you always see the postings too late, use IFTTT to send you Craigslist alerts.
6. Learn to cook
We all know eating out is expensive and unhealthy. Yes? Yes. Cooking at home is more fun, more healthy, and a jillion times cheaper than eating out. I’ve been obsessed with this cookbook lately and if you want to get really frugal, check out the Good And Cheap cookbook. It teaches you how to eat well on $4 a day!
Also (and this probably goes without saying) drinking is ridiculously expensive. Did you know that cocktails made with bottom self liquor have a 1,026% (!!!) markup? Let’s pre-game at home, shall we?
7. Cut the cable and land line
But I’m sure you already knew this, right? That’s what Hulu, Netflix, and Skype are for.
8. Use your library
For books, sure! But also magazines, cds, dvds and events. The public libraries here in the Twin Cities are always hosting movie nights, readings, and other events. All completely free!
9. Plan for a cheaper social life
It’s hard to be the friend who’s sticking to a budget when everyone else is chugging $13 cocktails and being all “Oh, let’s just split the bill three ways” when you had a Diet Coke.
One of the best ways to deal with this is to take initiative during the planning stages. When friends are talking about getting brunch, be the one to suggest the place with the $5 breakfast. When your friend wants to see a movie with you, suggest a cheap matinee or the second run theater. It’s easier to steer the initial decision than change someone’s mind.
10. Honor the ‘immediate yes’
Living on a budget means living with less. But how, pray tell, does one live with less and not come to hate their life? I’ve made peace with less by honoring the ‘immediate yes.’ The ‘immediate yes’ is that gut reaction you have when you see a dress/necklace/piece of art from the across the room, stop your conversation and drift towards it. Your vision practically narrows and you’re pretty sure you can hear the Hallelujah chorus.
When you experience this, you should probably buy that thing. Even if it’s expensive. If it doesn’t make you feel this way, maybe you should leave it on the shelf.
(It’s my experience that when you wait for the ‘immediate yes’ you buy a lot less but you’re much, much happier with what you buy.)
When you’re paying off tens of thousands of dollars over decades it’s really easy to feel like you’re Sisyphus in ballet flats. Snowballing your debts doesn’t make a huge difference financially but it does make a big difference psychologically.
When you Snowball your debts you make minimum payments on all of the debts except the smallest one, attacking that one debt with a vengeance. Once you’ve paid off that first, small debt run around your apartment yelling “High five, self!” and then get to work Snowballing the next smallest debt.
Have you paid off significant debt? If you have, share your best tips in the comments – we’d love to hear them!
Edited to add: As with any conversation about finances, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my privilege in this situation. I’m white. I grew up in a two-income household with parents who encouraged and (slightly) financially supported my education.
If you’ve read Nickel and Dimed or this blog post, you know that it’s actually very hard to save money when you’re really, truly broke. I want to acknowledge that these tips are for those of us fortunate enough to have cable and the occasional fancy cocktail – people who do, in fact, have a bit of money to spare.