Cost of Living: Half-Off
This is a departure from my usual writer-themed content, but it's been on my mind a lot lately. Here is some advice on how to bring down your cost of living. I have lived and worked all these experiences, so they are doable!
It’s the twenty-first century, but cost of living just about anywhere feels like it’s in the thirty-first century. As a Millennial hell-bent on independence, I’ve navigated the Wild West of housing, from dormitories to company houses. I’d like to share my experiences with any of you who may be just leaving high school, college, or switching careers or locations for any reason. A penny saved is a penny earned!
Here are my top 4 cost-effective living situations:
This one is largely self-explanatory. Whether you bunk with a significant other or some friends (or both), dividing up major costs such as rent and utilities can be a life saver. Maybe it’s only for 6 months or a year while you’re finishing up a degree or relocating to a new part of the world. You certainly need to keep communication open and decide on exactly what expenses are being split up and how. If the driver has great insurance and trust, maybe you and your roommate even share a car when needed. This is a smart option when you trust the person(s) and need to get your financial feet under you (and when you have different shift schedules).
This one isn’t location-dependent like the National Parks (see below), but it can be a bit more difficult to save money this way, depending on where you are. Rent costs might still be prohibitive to savings.
Don’t share things with your roommate that they don’t consistently share with you, because this could burn a hole in your piggy bank quite quickly. This includes even minor things like fast food meals, drinks, covering the tip at a night out, gas for a vehicle, spotting them $10 for that phone bill or pack of smokes—the list goes on and on. Watch out for that. It may sound stingy, but definitely document each little expense like this. It can also be a game-changer for each occupant to have their own mini fridge—I cannot recommend this enough. Find a mini fridge (or any furniture/appliance) for free/cheap at a thrift shop or in the graveyards of unwanted excess during college move-out months, if you’re in a college town. Also keep your eyes peeled for cheap sales on Facebook community groups/pages.
If tensions run high, and this roommate has accumulated $100 of favors from you in one month but claims this is equivalent to that one time they walked your dog for you—walk away. Awkwardly enough, this kind of non-tit-for-tat is more likely to creep up when you are rooming with close friends or siblings. Put on your roommate hats and respect each other’s budget.
Also remember that you are only splitting the rent and utilities, and whatever else you explicitly agreed on. Your two cats are not their problem. Their desire for takeout every night is not your problem. See what I’m getting at? Unless you’re a married couple or something of that nature, keep your boundaries solid—and even then, study your spending habits and be that annoying voice of reason to keep your money growing.
2. Work Where You Live Part 1: National Parks
This is probably one of the most universally accessible options. Even if you don’t live near a National Park, hop on a plane, a Greyhound, an Amtrak, or the highway and get to one. Some parks are only open in the summer or winter, while others are year-round. Some major concessionaire companies include Xanterra and Delaware North Company. If you can get hired in any position for retail, hospitality, food and beverage (restaurants), transportation (buses), human resources, or even as a National Park Ranger, you will be assigned housing. In a service position—for example, as a cashier, dishwasher, guest room attendant, or bus driver—you will be allocated a sparsely furnished dorm room with a roommate. As a National Park Ranger, your housing may be more along the lines of an apartment or townhouse. The NPS are the federal authority in National Parks, so it is great for those with a background or training in law enforcement, specialized scientific training, or a very outdoorsy personality with a willingness to learn (and, usually, a college degree).
Typically, the rent will be deducted from your paycheck, and the only utility you’re responsible for is internet (usually from a satellite or hotspot—good luck!). Rent for dorm rooms is fantastically cheap. Expect less than $100/month. No matter your position, you can apply for an apartment—just be prepared to wait literal years. Or, work hard and get a promotion! Higher positions such as managers and directors will typically be given an apartment, or even a townhouse if you stick around long enough.
The work is tough. Regardless of your position, National Parks are high-traffic, high-stress places to work. Think Disneyland but located in rugged terrains that the majority of tourists aren’t expecting—and with nothing cutesy to distract them. You will get yelled at by overnight guests about the poor AC or wi-fi, while you are living in a tiny room with neither of those amenities. It is a great gig to save up money, especially for students, career switchers, or retirees. You can do a season or an indefinite stay. It is certainly a wonderful opportunity to be independent and get some serious professional experience. You can even get a broad range of experiences—maybe after a few months, you go from housekeeping to tour bus driving, or you go from bartender to trail guide, or cashier to concierge—all while working for the same company, with no gaps in employment, housing, or insurance.
Bonus points if you can speak any foreign language, even a little bit—you will become a celebrity when it comes to helping international travelers.
You’ll likely be living remote, due to the nature of National Parks. With online shopping nowadays, it’s really not that tough to tough it out. Just tell yourself you’re camping with electricity. Also, you might need to switch your cell phone carrier depending on how spotty your coverage gets near mile-deep cliffs. And either get a car or make friends with someone who has a car—or investigate shuttles run by either your company or a local service to get you to the nearest Wal-Mart (which could be at least 1 hour away). In Northern Arizona, AZ Shuttle is best.
Even if you’re not sure what you want to do in life, most people can say they want to earn money. Start at a National Park! You’ll certainly come out with savings to spend, a real résumé to flash, and stories to tell.
3. Work Where You Live Part 2: Property Maintenance
This one is for all the handy guys and gals out there. Signing on as a maintenance technician in an apartment complex (often on-call) can provide discounts. Supervisory or senior maintenance technicians can enjoy the steepest discounts, or even totally comped monthly rent, depending on the location and company. You are more likely to run into this option in urban areas. You can expect better benefits if you are certified or licensed in your trade—for example, HVAC certification is always a hot commodity in the Southwest.
Also, an apartment complex often only has need of only one or two on-call employees, depending on the size of the property. So, if your buddy is in this plush situation, maybe search for work at another property owned by the same management company, rather than trying to squeeze into that same property. They may be maxed out on discounted rent—they might hire you, but without offering cheap rent.
What is a management company? It’s the company that staffs and maintains the apartment complex. They may be headquartered locally or in a nearby city. Call and ask the apartment office about their company. Or go to the apartment’s website and scroll all the way to the bottom, or click on anything to the effect of “About” or “Who Are We?” Apartment complexes love to list out their sister properties. More renters, more money.
Once you have the name of the management company, search them online for job opportunities, or even call them directly. Smaller companies often require paper applications. If you aren’t sure where to start, look around at apartment complexes where you’d like to live.
If you’re new to the maintenance profession, this could be a great way to get some experience. You will learn a lot about appliances, electrical, plumbing, and landscaping. Yes, you will be woken at 2:00am in a rainstorm. Yes, unsavory characters will pound on your door when they are in a bad mood. Yes, everyone will know which apartment is yours. That’s the trade-off. Cheaper rent, cheaper experience. However, especially if you stack roommates into this situation, it can be another great way to save some cash, even if only for the length of your lease. Even one year with $100-200 off the monthly rent can net you some decent savings.
4. Work Where You live Part 3: Education & Health Care
Are you a teacher, nurse, or doctor? Whether you are just graduating with your credentials or you have some experience, there is always a need for these professionals.
In particular, rural and remote areas always have a serious need. In Arizona, Reservations will often provide subsidized housing for doctors and classroom teachers. Indian Health Services (IHS) will recruit health care professionals; the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and local districts will recruit educators. The IHS and BIE also operate in Alaska and elsewhere with large indigenous populations.
Housing may be a modular home with a yard, a duplex, or a trailer. Some mines have company towns in Arizona (Morenci and Bagdad) that offer the same. The Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim also provides housing for teachers; medical staff might be offered housing, but many will commute in from Flagstaff an hour away.
In smaller towns in Alaska, teachers and doctors are also offered housing.
The more remote you go, the more likely it is that the district will offer low-cost housing. Often, these are multi-bedroom homes, perfect for a family.
Most people hear about these opportunities through word of mouth. The important thing is to research like crazy before signing a contract for such a job. Make sure you enjoy and are highly motivated in your career—it may very well dominate your social life, especially when nothing is open past 8:00pm or on Sundays.
Know the expectations and restrictions of where you live. Just like with National Parks, you may experience limitations for internet access and phone signal. On the Navajo Nation, you will be able to immerse yourself in a beautiful culture and may be invited to traditional ceremonies that you won’t find anywhere else in the world; but you won’t be able to buy a bottle of wine or a scratcher ticket without driving for an hour. In an Alaskan village, you will be able to swim in the Pacific or watch bears walk across your front yard; but you won’t be able to line up for a midnight blockbuster premier. You might even need an off-roading vehicle or a plane ticket just to get to your village. All these things might sound minor at first glance, but depending on your lifestyle, you should really take the time to evaluate such a move.
If you don’t know anyone in the area you’re considering, ask questions before accepting a job offer. The employer will be happy to give you an accurate picture of what life in the area is like. They offer such great benefits because they want to attract and retain talent in these hard-to-staff locales. If the lack of sushi restaurants or nail salons is a deal breaker to you, they’d rather know that before hiring you than 3 months later. If you’ve lived remote before, or if you’re ready to immerse yourself in another culture, these opportunities are for you!
Boarding schools are another opportunity to live where you work. Again, you will have more duties expected of you, such as being a dorm parent, coach, mentor, supervisor on a weekend outing, etc. But you may be able to rent an apartment or house quite cheaply while living on campus and teaching your heart out. Living and working on a beautiful campus? Especially for the younger or more flexible teachers out there, before you settle down or start a family—or after your family has left you with an empty nest—this can be a great way to get experience and save money.
Schools need nurses too, so this option is worth investigating for some health care professionals as well.
Boarding schools are a major phenomenon in New England and the East Coast in general, but they are also found on the West Coast and some states in between have a few up their sleeves. I can tell you Connecticut is bursting with them. They may be situated anywhere from a rural area to the suburbs to the middle of a city.
Some boarding schools offer fellowship programs, whereby they hire and train teachers—sometimes sponsoring them through certification or coursework. And because most are private schools, you may not need state certification to start.
Some smaller colleges and universities may offer similar housing benefits for faculty—but prepare again to be assigned a roommate.
So especially if you are in the Northeast, definitely check out boarding schools. If you were not a student at a boarding school yourself, do some research before making any promises. You could even call up the school to investigate or ask questions during the interview process. Some schools have a faith affiliation, and while you may not need to be a practicing Catholic to be hired, for example, you may prefer a secular setting, or a school more closely aligned to your background. Work-life balance may not be the best, but it is very rewarding. Again, this may be a stepping-stone in your career. Can you commit to it for a few years, then re-evaluate?
Bonus: Portion Out Your Expenses
When it comes to spending, patience is the highest virtue out there. Say you need some groceries, toiletries, and new shoes. You get paid every two weeks, and you realize you need all these things during the same pay cycle as your rent or car bill or other major expense hits you. Rather than blow all your money immediately and keep your fingers crossed that nothing unexpected crops up in the next thirteen days, space out your spending. What do you truly need right now to survive? The answer is most likely groceries, and maybe one or two hygiene products on your list, depending on how low your deodorant or shampoo actually is. Can you get another two weeks out of your shoes? It may not be the most fashionable fortnight, but it can help you to keep that extra bit of cash in savings—and watch it double after two successfully stingy pay cycles.
If possible, schedule your recurring bills so that they either hit on the same paycheck or are spread out across the month. Automatic payments for utility accounts, insurance, and credit cards can often be scheduled for a certain date each month. Rent can often be paid in advance. Find a time table that works for you, but anticipate when each bill will deduct from your account. You don’t want any surprises—or penalty fees.
With online shopping, deferring purchases becomes even easier. Keep the items you want in your cart, or bookmark them—on a smart phone, just email yourself the link! This way, you can still access the item later, when your next paycheck arrives. While it seems simple, this minor action can assuage some of the stress or impulsivity involved in splurge spending. You’re not giving up on that new makeup kit, video game, or upgraded bedsheets. You’re just waiting. Delayed gratification can do wonders for your savings account.
I’ve mainly focused on Arizona, Alaska, and Connecticut because that is the extent of my personal experience. However, especially if your area is remote or on/near a Reservation, there may well be some great opportunities in your own backyard. Having grown up in these remote locations, I may sound nonchalant, but conduct your own research and make sure whatever move you make is right for you and your situation.
Educators and health care professionals certainly have many options, from the brick schoolhouses of an academy to the extreme landscapes of deserts and tundra. But even if you have no work experience, you just may find your footing in the trails of a National Park. Or if you have some work friends or cousins or siblings you wouldn’t mind splitting an apartment with, save up for that move-in deposit. Hopefully one of you is a maintenance tech!
These are examples of ways to bring down your cost of living. Each situation brings with it some challenges. The willingness to relocate is huge. But if you are flexible and open to making some sacrifices for the experience and the money, you just may find your calling while ensuring you can pay your phone bill!
Resources to Explore:
· Xanterra National Parks jobs: https://www.xanterra.com/careers/
· Delaware North Company National Parks and Resorts jobs: https://careers.delawarenorth.com
· National Park Service jobs: https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/workwithus.htm
· IHS and BIE postings searchable here: https://www.usajobs.gov
· Boarding school opportunities: https://careercenter.tabs.org
· Other boarding school opportunities: https://www.gse.upenn.edu/academics/programs/independent-boarding-school-teaching-residency-teacher-education-masters
· Company town opportunities for teachers: https://morenci.tedk12.com/hire/index.aspx
· Grand Canyon opportunities for teachers: https://www.applitrack.com/grandcanyon4/onlineapp/
· Tuba City (Navajo Nation) opportunities for teachers: https://tcusd.org/district/careers-with-tcusd/
· Alaska opportunities for teachers: http://www.alaskateacher.org