McLaughlin: Off-campus living need not pump stress into your life

By Katie McLaughlin

Moving out of the dorms is a big step toward adulthood that many students dream of, but few… Moving out of the dorms is a big step toward adulthood that many students dream of, but few fully appreciate the responsibilities off-campus life entails. From monthly rent and utilities to food, parking, textbooks and entertainment, living on your own can be expensive — especially in Oakland, where the rent is high but the quality of housing is generally low. Now that you’ve signed a lease and committed to a residence for the year, plan strategically to ensure a stress-free off-campus lifestyle.

First, draw up a contract with your future roommates. Don’t worry. This isn’t a prenup and doesn’t doom you and your BFF’s relationship to fail. It will simply protect you should your roommate stop paying rent, begin partying every evening, eat all of your food or fail to wash the dishes ever. Done correctly, a written roommate contract will generally stand up in court if you find yourself in the position of collecting 10 month’s back-rent from your ex-friend.

Once you’re legally covered, consider how you’re going to pay your rent. (Hopefully you thought about this a bit before you signed that lease.) If you work enough during the summer and the pay is good, you won’t need a job during the fall or spring semesters. You can also use Stafford Loans to pay for rent. I don’t recommend using other loans or credit cards, though — the astronomical interest rates will send you plummeting into debt.

Now when you calculated your rent for the year, did you remember to account for utilities? Unless they’re included in your rent, gas, water, electricity, cable and Internet access cost extra. Keep what you need and ditch the rest, and consider using less water and electricity. But know that if you’re living in an old Oakland house, paying for heat is a must — many houses have little to no insulation in the walls. Spend $10 and cover your windows with fluffy fiberglass insulation in the winter to keep your heating bills down. Pro tip: The clear, plastic insulating sheets you can buy to shrink-wrap your windows only stick to matte paint. If your windows are surrounded by glossy paint, then sacrifice the sun, shove the pink stuff in your window and keep yourself toasty.

Every year, someone decides to keep his gas off in an effort to save money. This only ends in broken water pipes and cold toes. A $200 gas bill is scary, but it’s nothing in comparison to frozen pipes that break and send water raining down into your kitchen. You’ll find that it’s hard to muster up the will to cook your dinner when your soggy ceiling is removed and the kitchen becomes the same temperature as the inside of your refrigerator.

Once you’ve covered the rent and utilities, remember to budget money for transit, food and fun.

Gas isn’t cheap these days, and parking in Oakland is a nightmare. If you truly need your car with you, buy an Oakland parking permit for $20, park your car near your apartment and never move it. Take advantage of your Pitt ID and ride the bus to your favorite grocery store with the weekly-specials circular in hand. Pay attention to sales if you buy food regularly. Food prices can fluctuate wildly, and you’ll only find the deals if you keep an eye on the free circulars that appear in your mailbox every week. Rite Aid and CVS have higher prices than most grocery stores. Leave Oakland for lower prices.

Lastly, save some money for fun. Whether moviegoing or barhopping is your stress-reliever of choice, everyone needs a break from studying and winter-proofing windows. Whether you choose to eat only Ramen noodles for a month or cut back on your electricity use, keep some extra cash in the bank.

Of course, the ideal way to pay for your off-campus lifestyle is by the generosity of your parents. But remember, you’re trying to convince them that you’re mature and can fend for yourself on the wild Oakland streets. Impress them with your ability to pay the rent on time, and they might slip some money into your bank account for food, even though you never asked.

With three years of off-campus living experience, Katie thinks she’s got it all figured out. Disagree? Contact her at [email protected] If you’re looking for off-campus living tips from the University, go to the Office of Off-Campus Living’s website, www.ocl.pitt.edu.