After spending three years living with my folks during and after grad school to aggressively pay down student loan debt, I started apartment hunting when Bay Area rents were beginning to spike. I had become pretty grumpy over that time, blaming the student debt crisis and feeling defeated that I would never find financial freedom. However, it only takes one dream come true to open your eyes to what is possible – and for me, this was it.
When it comes to money, there is an inescapable negotiation with time. Paying up now for what I bought in the past. Not spending now for something I want in the future. Having less in the future for what I want now. So when I decided to find a new place, my priorities with time shifted: from paying off my past to paying for my present. Such is the calculation we make with every financial decision. True, the wealthy can sometimes afford both, but no one can buy limitless time.
So was this the right choice for me? Was it the right time? With my business degree, I knew how to project and calculate multiple repayment scenarios. I was reaching a threshold where that lifestyle was limiting my present-day, my sense of self, and my ability to forge my own path. I felt like debt was ruling my life and making all my decisions for me. Sometimes, the human heart just doesn’t calculate in dollars.
The San Francisco Bay Area rental market from 2014 to 2015 was changing so drastically that one friend said I should pay $1,000 while another said there’s no one-bedroom for under $2,000. (These were Oakland prices, while San Francisco could more than double them.) I was also weary that my nonprofit salary, in comparison to tech salaries, would look risky to prospective landlords. For the most part, talking to people was discouraging. The predominant opinion being that the best I could hope for was an aging studio. It was a horrible start. Despite the odds, I started looking – in my own nerdy way.
Any sizeable financial undertaking should, when possible, be properly prepped and primed – especially if one is still bound to debt. Here are the steps I took to prepare:
- Clarified the WHY
I made a vision board – and from it, I articulated why I was moving: to live in a peaceful and creative space. If this goal was not met by any new prospective apartment, I might as well stay at home – with home cooked food and the family dogs. So “no” to the aging studio if it could not serve as a peaceful or creative space.
- Calculated the financial impact to my checkbook and quality of life.
Would my new lifestyle cause more or less financial and lifestyle strain? I was not willing to extend my debt longer than necessary, so I was willing to pay my loans for another five years and would keep that monthly payment steady. In addition, if groceries would be a struggle or if I had to say goodbye to the gym – which I consider baseline – then again, I would be compromising my higher purpose. Peace and creativity do not come at the cost of eating well or neglecting my health.
- Told my mom six months ahead of time.
It would be an adjustment for my mom – and changes to family dynamics take time to settle in. I am an only child, and our relationship mattered to me. Her initial reactions went from: “Is it that bad living with us?” to “Don’t you want to save for a home?” (which was mathematically refuted when I showed her how much down and mortgage I’d need) to “I’ll make your pillows and curtains.” I knew that not giving her an adequate adjustment period would slow down my move logistically– as in we’d be talking it out while I would be packing. So with the cat out of the bag, I began purging all my belongings I didn’t plan to take with me. Meanwhile, my mom was already mentally decorating my new place… moms.
- Observed rental prices for ten months
I knew I had to be realistic. I would plan to meet the market rather than cross my fingers for the hidden deal. I learned their timing – when new listings appeared and how long they stayed up – which was only a few hours. During this period, I also saved for my moving expenses – security deposit, first and last month’s rent, new furniture, odds and ends. I aimed to move in the spring before prices jumped during the busy summer season. Oh yeah, I also stopped listening to nay-sayers and how “crazy” it was. First of all, it was a real yum-yucker to what is actually a fun and exciting project. And second, it was more practical to base my understanding of the rental landscape on listings and not on what I heard “on the street.”
- Understood the cost of rework and long-term savings
Naming my deal-makers and breakers was key. I was not limiting myself to a particular area or neighborhood, but I was unwavering on specific day-to-day factors that would cause enough inconvenience for me to potentially need to move again: safety, ease of commute, on-site laundry, gas stove, natural light. The point was to move to a place once – a place I would love and want to stay for a while.
My active search lasted three weeks. In total, I viewed four apartments (only ones that met my non-negotiables) and submitted two applications. My place met all of my criteria and more! When I saw the listing and the photos, it was too good to be true.
What kills me now is that I had an old voice inside me saying “The nice stuff is other people, not for me.” The pesky, unworthy voice I had to viciously silence. Despite all my preparation and lead-in work, I nearly passed it up! Luckily, my officemate cheered me into calling the owner right away while he closed our door and waited outside. I was signing the lease 48 hours later. The price was $1,600 – within the range that my research had predicted. And as it turned out, my aggressive student loan debt repayments (along with my solid credit history) gave me an excellent credit score that impressed my new landlord, even my salary that just barely made the minimum requirement.
I have to show you photos from the actual listing!
The similarity between my place and my vision board images is uncanny. And yes, the universe also decided to throw in a Japanese wooden soaking tub. I’ve been living here happily for the past two years going on three, with a slower debt repayment granted, but I’m schedule to finish it off completely in under two years.
Three important lessons I learned about pursuing dreams responsibly while in debt:
- Articulate your ultimate WHY and use it as your compass.
- Don’t make space for the nay-sayers (including yourself!) when going after a dream.
- Do your homework and give it time. It will save you the cost of future setbacks.