The Economics of Being Alone

This is a submission for the October 2019 Carnival of Aros, on the subject of “Aromanticism and Aloneness“.

On a purely emotional and social level, I don’t really have any objections to “going it alone” in life as single, unpartnered aromantic person. I’ve always had what I think of as a very…self-sufficient personality, I suppose. While I enjoy having a lot of more casual and informal friendships, I’ve never been the type to have super tight “best friend” type relationships where I pour my heart out – my style has always been amicable relationships with large social groups and events rather than the kind of emotionally intimate close friendships that I sometime see others describe.

And when it comes to things like talking about feelings and emotional support, I find that more introspective activities like good cathartic fiction and writing and blogging to strangers on the internet help me process my thoughts and feelings much better than turning to other people in my offline life for direct one-on-one support.

So from that emotional and mental health level, I like to think I do just fine as a single person with no so-called “committed relationships”, whether romantic or platonic or otherwise.

However, where that certainty about my ability to live a sufficient and satisfactory life alone breaks down is when I start thinking of the practical consequences of living alone.

As I’ve gotten to the point in my life where once-immediate concerns about school and job-seeking have receded (at least for the time being), I’ve started thinking more in-depth about what I would want out of a “relationship”, and what steps I would be willing to take to pursue one – not as a hypothetical for future me as I used to think of it, but as a “what steps do I want to take now” kind of thing.

I’ve also reached the point where I now have several years of built up experience on what it’s like to live both alone, and with other people, and without the automatic inbuilt family support structure that I had when I lived at home with my parents as a younger person.

And based on that life experience, I’ve realized that trying to modify traditional relationships (dating, marriage) to fit was going at things the wrong way, because when I actual break down the parts of a relationship that I want – cohabitation, sharing some (but not all) resources, mutual caring during illness, having someone to come home to and talk about the cool things I saw today, short term commitment – and the things that I don’t want or need  – emotional codependence, romantic or sexual exclusivity, lifelong commitments, family recognition – I realized that what I want isn’t a modified boyfriend/girlfriend/romantic partnership. What I actually want is basically just a housemate: I’m not looking for the romantic or emotional support or closeness of having an intimate partner, I’m looking for the more material and social comforts of splitting the bills and having someone to come home to so I don’t become just a hermit.

And frankly, those material commitments of having someone to share expenses with – whether it’s minimal cohabitation expenses like rent and power bills, or slightly more developed entanglements like food costs and entertainment budgets and travel budgets – are pretty serious.

The Costs of Living Alone

As someone currently living with 4 other housemates in a 5 bedroom house (an arrangement which is honestly close to my ideal for short-term relationships, tbh), I can afford to have nice things like living less than 2 blocks from major public transit, an in-unit washer and dryer and dishwasher, a living room large enough to host 15+ person social events, my own room, a garden area for my plants, and more.

If I were a single person living alone, like I was for a short time a few years ago, I could not even afford to live in this city at all, let alone this county – basic studios and one bedrooms start at like 175% of my current rent. Living in a nice place with a yard and washing machine is even more laughable of an idea.

Beyond just rent, other resources like netflix subscriptions, internet bills, food delivery fees, nice furniture, cookware, and more become much more accessible when the costs are split across a household instead of falling on a single person.

Even in terms of intangible resources, having a household also saves time, when you can distribute tasks like cleaning and repairs and streamline cooking for multiple people. Having other people in the household who I can depend on also means that if I’m sick, there’s already someone nearby who can bring me cold medicine, or help me get soup heated up, or to notice and make sure to get me to a doctor if things start getting worse. It means that I have people onsite that can water my plants if I’m home visiting parents, or sign for packages if they come in while I’m out running errands, or check if I left the stove on when I’m having irrational anxiety.

And it’s not just resources in the home that drive home the costs of going it alone – I think what drives it home even more is how much I notice when traveling.

I was recently looking into the possibility of taking an Amtrak Coast Starlight train up to Portland, or maybe Seattle – maybe taking a week off for slow, relaxed, and scenic rail travel in a sleeper car instead of frantic and tightly secured airports.

However, the thing is that if you want to get a sleeper car ticket, you have to buy a ticket for a sleeper car that sleeps two, even if you are a single person traveling alone. Most traditional hotels are the same way – designed and priced for pairs.  And while I totally understand the reason for that (economies of scale!), it really drives home the extent to which life is just not optimized for living as a single agent.

And that’s why I want – not necessarily a “relationship” relationships, but – a household, or traveling partners, or other people who are willing to commit to sharing resources (be it housing, utilities, hulu passwords, hotel rooms or something else).

Rethinking “Committed Relationships”

When people talk about “committed relationships”, I think that the concept is often based on modifying ideas of traditional romantic/sexual relationships, in the same way that I tried (and ultimately failed) to model my own relationship desires for years. Thus, there’s an idea that “commitment” also means lifelong partnerships like marriage, and often some level of exclusivity (whether emotional, romantic, sexual, or otherwise). And the idea that being in a committed relationship required that emotional closeness and lifelong commitment made me wonder if I could ever make that a reality – and if that was even what I wanted.

But what if we model “committed relationships” after another type of relationship – like, for example, roommates! We can think of the central bond as being resource sharing, rather than an emotional or sexual commitment; and the time as the term of a lease, perhaps, rather than the term of a lifetime. When short-term and mid-term commitments, and pure resource based commitments without any feelings stuff, become options on the table, suddenly the idea of a “committed relationship” (of a sort) becomes both more appealing and seems more achievable.

I like the idea that being romantically/emotionally independent, unpartnered, and “alone” in the “are you single or in a Relationship (with a capital R)” sense doesn’t have to be incompatible with other types of committed relationships (with a lower case r), even if they’re not what we traditionally think of as ‘relationships’ (for example, I get along great with my roommates, any my relationship with them satisfies a lot of my ‘relationshippy’ cravings, but they’re all pretty conventional and I don’t think would ever think of themselves as being in a “relationship” with me or our other housemates, if asked in those terms.)


12 thoughts on “The Economics of Being Alone

  1. “And frankly, those material comments of having someone to share expenses with…”

    Do you mean ‘commitments’ instead of ‘comments’?

    FWIW, I will probably want to take the Coast Starlight into Oregon some time next year, though I would probably want to get off in Klamath Falls/Ashland rather than Portland. Ashland is a nice town worth visiting for a few days. I’ve taken the overnight Coast Starlight multiple times in coach class … it’s hit or miss.

    • Woops, clearly I should also think about committing to spellchecking my own posts too…

      I’ve taken the coach Coast Starlight for shorter trips in the opposite direction (to San Lous Obispo) and yeah….it can definitely have a lot of misses (my last trip included 4 hour delays on an originally 6ish hour trip – fun!) but I still enjoyed the train aspect enough to want to do it again.

      • Honestly, if you are taking the Coast Starlight from Emeryville to anywhere in Oregon, you WANT it to be delayed by a few hours. Specifically, you want it to depart Redding station a few hours late – if the train departs Emeryville late they generally run at max speed through the Sacramento Valley and sometimes manage to catch up enough to reach Dunsmuir close to schedule. The best scenery through northern California is usually obscured by darkness, but if the train is running a few hours late, you’ll have enough sunlight to see the Sacramento River when it is just a charming little forest creek, and Mount Shasta (the train has better views of Mount Shasta than Interstate 5).

  2. Also I think you meant “home to” and not “how to” here: “having someone to come how to and talk about the cool things I saw today, short term commitment”…

    My experiences are overall very different from yours. I’m curious how you found your roommates/housemates, how much of a friendship you have both before and after the lease, etc.

    I left my abusive mother’s house in my junior year of high school, the last week of April 2017. Through mid June my brother and I both lived with our grandmother on weekdays, spent weekends then the full summer with our dad, then my brother started at a new high school for 3 years down near my dad whereas I stayed living with my grandmother on weekdays for just my one final year of high school.

    Living with my grandmother was actually living with both my grandparents. My Granddad stayed in his room 95% of the time but I saw him at dinner but the 3 of us ate in silence while NPR played on the radio. It was in many ways extremely lonely and I’d sometimes say things only to not have spoken up loud enough for them to hear with their deteriorated hearing. Even my grandmother who never seemed at all deaf to me. Or maybe she was hyperfocused on her radio show, I don’t know. I’d come home from school and excitedly try to share one detail about my day sometimes. Or talk about the tv show I loved and was watching. She’d barely react. She wouldn’t engage in conversation. She wasn’t an at all fulfilling social connection.

    I went off to college and each of the 4 years i got different sets of randomly assigned roommates. For the first 3 years it was 2 roommates (3 of us in a room) and those 2 were friends with each other. Senior year of my undergrad experience was just one roommate. One pair had me to hide their vodka in the closet when they forgot before leaving for spring break, and yeah i was there to notice one girl was dangerously close to death from alcohol positioning although I didn’t call for paramedics because her closer friend was also paying attention and didn’t decide to do that. We were there to try and make sure she wouldn’t die but I think we were dangerously close to not having helped her enough. Anyway…

    Freshman year was the closest to the 3 of us becoming friends and i can thank them for getting me interested enough to figure out my stance on religion and atheism, and for pushing me onto a path for my major to end up being in Linguistics.

    But overall none of these 7 people in my life being roommates were really the social connections of the type of actual commitment to help each other out with finances (that’s now how college roommates work) other than maybe sharing one tv and one mini fridge in the room, to be willing to be involved enough in each other’s lives to heat up soup for another if one was sick, to sign for packages if not home, etc. I can’t imagine these types of dynamics with strangers often enough working out and being that friendly and helpful and being able to rely that much on people you’re not at least in some kind of friendship with. I don’t know.

    I just feel like my experience with a rotating cast of my grandparents then 7 college roommates made me feel one way about how roommates who aren’t friends. Or family who aren’t friendly enough. Etc. It’s just. For me I think it’s easier emotionally to live alone, at that point? I’m not sure.

    Sorry for the overly long personal comment about myself on your post. I like your post. Thank you it was super thought provoking.

    • Oh, yeah, I think it would help to clarify more about my own roommate relationships – I’ve had some previous “randomly assigned” roommate type situations in college dorms, which were more “live and let live” rather than any intentional relationship, but all of my roommates since then have people that I either 1. Was already friends with or 2. I had at least met a few times and had enough recommendations from mutual friends that I liked and trusted them. (I’d also been to their apartments and talked to their previous roommates, so I had reason to expect we have reasonable compatible lifestyles). My current roommates are all people I’ve known for years, and we all run in similar and shared social circles.

      Also, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I’m talking about my ideal housemate relationships – while that would be the ideal dream, I do think it’s good to acknowledge that many (most?) housemate relationships will not work out that way, especially if there’s not some intentionality put into setting them up that way. Even my current relationship don’t meet all my ideals – for example, they are more happenstance than intentional, and I find some to be closer and more reliable friends than others (but are good enough that I am content with the current situation).

      I think it’s also important for me to mention add the additional caveats that I am financially secure enough and have ample enough savings that if I needed to, I could drop a bad roommate situation immediately (even if I had to deal with breaking a lease or small claims court or other worst case scenarios), and that I can take my time and be a bit choosy about who I do agree to live with. This financial angle is a huge part of it – financial instability and desperation trap a lot of people in co-living arrangements that would be considered unacceptable in a romantic relationship, from the merely mediocre to the outright abusive. (Although I should point out that many people end up trapped in bad romantic/sexual relationships for the same reason – it’s hard to break up both romantic and practical relationships when it means potentially losing your only place to live).

      It’s always seemed sort of odd to me how there’s this common contrast where moving in with a romantic partner after the first date is often seen as wildly risky and likely to inevitably end badly, but moving in with strangers from craigslist or student housing groups or wherever is just a fact of the matter part of every day life in many cities. While I can understand it happens because of the financial concerns above, I think it would be good to have more recognition put into the fact that roommates are a type of relationship that can have huge impacts on your life and health; that entering and continuing roommate relationships you might not be ok with because of financial necessity is a hugely endemic problem that should be taken seriously; and that bad roommate relationships can take just as much of a toll on people as bad romantic/sexual ones.

      (In a dream world, I’d love to see some equivalent of matchmaking and “dating” steps where people could get to know potential roommates much more seriously before making such a big decision, but the harsh reality that most (nonromantic) cohabitation is the result of financial necessity and impending lease deadlines rather than mutual desire makes that difficult to pursue in reality).

      Finally, I think another angle is that I’m just someone who happens to really, honestly, like living with other people – I know a ton of other people (probably the majority of my friends) who just can’t stand the idea of living and sharing spaces and resources with others, and I think that’s good to be able to recognize that early on!

      • “I think it’s also important for me to mention add the additional caveats that I am financially secure enough and have ample enough savings that if I needed to, I could drop a bad roommate situation immediately (even if I had to deal with breaking a lease or small claims court or other worst case scenarios), and that I can take my time and be a bit choosy about who I do agree to live with.”

        Yes, this. Also (in my case), if I were to move into a roommates situation, I would always have the option in the foreseeable future to move back in with my parents. And I have time to consider whether or not I want to join a roommates situation, and if yes, which one, because I can stay with my parents indefinitely.

        Specifically in San Francisco (possibly nowhere else, not even other places with rent control), being a master tenant vs. a subtenant is also an important distinction. A master tenant can unilaterally evict a subtenant for any reason if they put the appropriate disclosure in the contract (and there is no reason, other than ignorance/inexperience, for them not to put in that disclosure). A subtenant cannot evict a master tenant, even if they are blatantly abusive, violating the contract / rent ordinance / other laws, etc. There are clauses in the rent ordinance to protect subtenants from abusive master tenants, but in practice (I know this from communicating with a subtenant who was being financial abused in a way which clearly violated the rent ordinance) it is very difficult to enforce these clauses because if the subtenant petitions the rent board, the master tenant may evict them in retaliation. And who is more likely to be a master tenant? People with money, time, social connections and/or luck.

      • (In a dream world, I’d love to see some equivalent of matchmaking and “dating” steps where people could get to know potential roommates much more seriously before making such a big decision, but the harsh reality that most (nonromantic) cohabitation is the result of financial necessity and impending lease deadlines rather than mutual desire makes that difficult to pursue in reality).

        It’s interesting you say this, because I definitely did things that were essentially matchmaking/dating when looking for a roommate. (I actually took my later gf to a cafe I knew about from a roommate-interview-date lol). Now, it wasn’t super comprehensive, and also I live in a major metro where roommating is essential, but that was the social expectation. (It was also, incidentally, exactly as useless as I ultimately found dating so I had to move back in with parents and now I live alone! Go figure)

  3. I like the idea of reframing the ideal relationships off of something like roommates/housemates rather than romantic life partners. However, when I think about previous housemates I’ve had, the ones where we’ve had each other’s backs the most have been the ones where we were friends. And I still miss those friends, now that we live far apart. Do I know that I’d want a situation where I lived with the same friends forever? No. But there is also something that seems almost too temporary about the housemate/lease situation. Like something about how temporary it is impacts the relationship itself, and how supportive we are of each other. That support also hinges on a lot of external factors, I think. IDK. I guess even though I don’t think I’d want to same housemates forever, I still think I’d want us (the housemates and me) to see our relationships as important and potentially long lasting. It’s such a weird space to try and navigate, still. I don’t think I want the lifelong romantic (or nonromantic) partner; it’s just not something I can see for myself (but who knows, I can’t predict the future). But I also don’t think finding housemates I could strike the right kind of balanced relationship with would be at all easy. And I think it might in fact get harder each time I did it, assuming I had to consistently look for new living arrangements with different people throughout my life. So I don’t know what would work better for me personally.

    All that said, I don’t think I’d want to live alone for the rest of my life, partially for the reasons you listed: it’s super expensive. I’m several years into a professional career and am doing well for my profession, and my apartment is in a nice area but it is TINY. For me personally, living alone also takes a psychological toll. Not because there’s no one to talk to (although I think that can also come into play), but more because mentally, I have to be on top of everything all the time. If I forget something, no one is there to help me out with that. If I get sick or have an emergency or leave my phone and glasses on the bus (the latter of which did actually happen) there’s no one to help me resolve any of that, or get by until I get it resolved. I was injured a while ago and had trouble walking, and was lucky enough to have a coworker friend who lived close by and could drive me to/from work. Without her I would’ve paid for a lyft every single day. Not having that support is both financially and psychologically draining, I think. Having to be on top of everything all the time (knowing that if you don’t do it it won’t get done, or if you make a mistake you’ll be the only one who has to deal with it) is just incredibly stressful and taxing.

    Sorry to ramble all over your post. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year or so, though, and I’ve basically come to the conclusion that no matter what, I need to reach out to more people generally, and see if I am able to (and actually want to) build stronger relationships from there. The other option I have is to (not quite yet b/c I just moved) live closer to my family. Close enough that I can have those ties and that support while still living on my own. I think that might be what could best address the issue of longer-lasting security, which to me is a benefit of the lifelong partnership option.

  4. Thank you for sharing! (And don’t worry about rambling – I am also a major member of the long rambling comments club).

    I think it’s worth emphasizing again that while this is my personal preferred way of thinking about ideal relationships, I don’t expect that it will work for everyone (or even most people).

    Also, I feel you about the briefness of the commitment – in common housemate situations with one year leases, etc. I agree that there often tends to be a lower level of commitment and intermingling, especially with younger people whose lives are often volatile, with people moving to new places for schooling or jobs or new relationships or even just a change of pace.

    For many of those reasons, my own current housemate relationships are definitely on the much lower end of the range of intentionality/intermingling/commitment scale than I’d like in an ideal relationship.

    But on the other hand, I frankly am also one of those younger people not quite ready to settle down into more serious or long term commitment!

    So while I would like a future relationship that has a bit more intentionality and a slightly longer scale commitment (like, hey, how do you feel about committing to try and continue to live together for the next several years, and to sharing xyz resources and responsibilities) instead of a more casual “well, the lease goes until next april, let’s figure out how to split up utilities and chores and then go in on some furniture together I guess”), I frankly am also not completely ready to commit to that on my end, so I haven’t really tested the water to see if anyone else in my circles would be as well.

    I definitely do see it as a concern when that future comes, though, because I know that a lot of people (including my current roommates) don’t place as much importance and intentionality into these kinds of things as I do.

  5. If you do ever take the train to Seattle, the second Saturday in a month is typically a good day to be here. It’s better to be in Portland on the first Saturday. (Not that you’d want to go to random ace meetups on your vacation…)

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