The Cost of Living Alone and Liking It

Photo credit: withlovefromdc, CC BY 2.0.

Last year, while going through a rough time, I fell in love with a 1930s advice book. Marjorie Hillis’s Live Alone and Like It, published in 1936, is a total delight: the kind of wryly practical book your favorite great-aunt might write. The book is written for so-called “extra women,” aka single women who aren’t married and live alone.

Today, living alone is on the rise; studies report that in 2015, over 25 percent of U.S. households were one person. But in the 1930s, women were just beginning to live alone in increasing numbers — and apparently they didn’t really know how to do it or even enjoy it.

Enter Hillis. A writer at Vogue, she wrote Live Alone and Like It to advise women on how to enjoy living alone while staying within their means. Her assumed audience is certainly white women of a certain class; consequently, some of what she advocates is racist, classist, and dated. However, she does write persuasively about how important it is to make space for little luxuries (fresh flowers, bed jackets) in our everyday lives. Living alone for many years herself, Hillis recognized the tendency for single women to feel as though they’re missing out, as well as how exhausting it can be to take care of everything on your own. She writes, encouragingly: “The trick is to arrange your life so that you really do like it.”

I’ve lived alone for four years this August, after many years of roommates and two short stints of living with my parents as an adult. I didn’t need to read this book to convince me to like living alone — I’ve enjoyed it ever since I first moved into my small basement apartment. I love dancing around my apartment, putting my belongings exactly where I want, eating cheese for dinner if I feel like it, and cooing embarrassing nonsense at my cat. It’s not that people who live with others can’t do these things, but there is a certain sense of freedom, hard to articulate, when the only person between your four walls is you. I only feel like I’m missing out when I visit friends who cohabitate with their partners in much nicer apartments with bathtubs and big windows.

Since I read Live Alone and Like It, I’ve been thinking more intentionally about the choices I make and how I set up my life. I probably won’t live alone forever, and Hillis has helped me see these past four years, and however many I have ahead, as a privilege. For as long as I can afford to live by myself in a city with skyrocketing rents, I plan to enjoy arranging my home life exactly how I want it.

Plus, Hillis makes living alone sound so fun. She writes about having friends over so you can entertain from your bed in pajamas; throwing successful cocktail parties; spending all afternoon reading in the bath before a beau takes you out for dinner. None of that really represents my actual life, but it’s fun to pretend. (Entertaining in pajamas!)

Hillis ends each chapter with totally charming case studies of “real-life” women to bolster her arguments. I doubt they were actually real people, but here’s what Hillis might write about me:

Ms. K. lives in a one-bedroom basement apartment in an up-and-coming part of town, just what she can afford on her publishing salary. To her credit, Ms. K. has established a cozy and comfortable home despite these limitations. She needs no instruction in furnishing or decor, as she has outfitted her home with a mix of vintage furniture (from family members) and reasonably tasteful purchases (from IKEA). If others don’t like it, well, Ms. K. is quite happy, though she would probably enjoy some plant or other to brighten up the place during dark evenings.

Unfortunately, Ms. K. finds it a bother to cook for one, something she could stand to do more of to prevent quite so much of her income going to dining out.

Ms. K. is fond of clothes, but her bedroom wardrobe could stand replenishment; her collection of droopy leggings and old t-shirts makes breakfasting in bed feel sad rather than a treat.

Ms. K. doesn’t lack friends or invitations, but her hobbies consist of solitary pursuits: reading and that curious new fad, a “side hustle” — writing, in Ms. K’s case. If she pursued more activities that took her out of her apartment — and provided a little exercise — it would be salubrious for both attitude and waistline. On the whole, though she has lived alone for four years and considers herself something of an expert, Ms. K. still spends some nights eating an unsatisfying, hastily-assembled dinner and wishing for a little more elegance.

In order to get that elegance, I spent about a month following some of Hillis’s 1936 advice here in 2017. I tracked my costs, keeping in mind that her book is meant to help you design a whole life, and the costs can be spread out over a few months or even years. I also tracked what I learned.

(I live in Canada; all prices below have been converted to U.S. dollars.)

Buying flowers

This is something that lifestyle blogs always go on about: buying fresh flowers for yourself. Hillis recommends it too, so I buy a few pink roses.

Cost of fresh flowers: $3.97

Lessons learned: I probably won’t do this regularly (too lazy), but it is bolstering to have something bright and alive in my basement space.

Replenishing my bedroom wardrobe

Of a bedroom wardrobe, Hillis writes, “This is no place to be grim and practical.” I’m very fond of nightgowns, something I share with Hillis, but I wear old leggings and stained t-shirts to bed on the regular. Clearing these out opens up space, right next to my cherished “Victorian ghost” nightgown, for more attractive nightwear. Because Hillis goes on at length about the wonders of bed jackets (“Don’t think that four bed jackets are too many,” she writes), I also buy a kimono, which I’ve decided is a modern version.

Cost of one simple black nightgown and a kimono: $51.87

Lessons learned: Wearing nightgowns does make me feel a little bit like a rich person in a period drama, plus it’s appealingly decadent to lounge around in a drapey kimono on weekend mornings.

Breakfasting in bed

Hillis loves breakfast in bed. “Of course,” she writes, “the civilized place for any woman to have breakfast is in bed,” so I take my toast there. I learned from Downton Abbey that it was usually only married women who breakfasted in bed around this time, so perhaps Hillis’s suggestion was a tiny bit radical for her time—single women deserve to treat themselves with as much care and attention as married women command from others.

Cost of a loaf of bread, one jar of peanut butter, and some pre-cut mango spears, breakfast for about eight days: $12.09

Lessons learned: I eat breakfast at home every morning anyway, so I’d be paying this regardless, but eating in my comfortable bed makes getting up feel less daunting. I do worry about crumbs; should I buy a small tray? This shows how easy it is for “treat yo’ self” type purchases to add up.

Stocking the bar

Hillis lists the seven essential bottles one needs to have for entertaining at home: “Sherry, gin, Scotch, rye, French and Italian vermouth, and bitters.” It’s 2017 and I won’t be serving sherry to anyone, so I adapt this list for my own tastes. I already have whisky, two bottles of red wine, and two kinds of Pimms, so I restock my gin and acquire tonic for mixing, lemonade for making Pimms cups, and a bottle of white wine. I imagine that I’ll need to restock wine, tonic, and lemonade every few weeks, depending on how social I am.

Cost of one bottle each of gin, wine, and lemonade, plus a six-pack of tonic: $38.18

Lessons learned: Pimms cups are delicious, and being able to offer guests something other than the standard glass of wine makes me feel very fancy.

Entertaining at home

Dining out is an area where I know I should cut back. I do hate cooking for one — it takes so long on a busy weeknight — and increasingly, socializing with friends happens at restaurants and bars instead of at someone’s house. Everyone has such small apartments, but the cost of going out obviously adds up. Hillis says not to let a small apartment be an impediment, so I invite over my “man friend,” another “liver-alone” (two of Hillis’s terms), for dinner. We make linguine with pesto shrimp and vegetables.

Cost of dinner ingredients including shrimp, fresh linguine, various veggies, and miscellaneous seasonings (some of which I already had): $26.41

Lessons learned: I’m nervous cooking for other people, but the end result is pretty tasty. It made enough for the two of us plus three more servings, which is great because leftovers mean I don’t have to cook for another few nights.

Here’s what I learned from this experiment: everything looks cheaper when it’s converted into U.S. dollars.

Here’s what I really learned: Hillis is right when she notes that “the notion that it ‘doesn’t matter because nobody sees you’ with the dull meals and dispirited clothes” is not helpful. Loneliness isn’t a problem for me, but letting things slide when I’m alone, like making proper meals and wearing non-ratty clothes, is. Live Alone and Like It is a helpful reminder that treating your time alone like a treat is worth it. And it does make a difference — I feel very pleased with myself whenever I put on my new nightgown or enjoy breakfast in bed. I still have areas to improve (hobbies), but I like to think that Hillis would be proud.

I can see, though, how quickly costs can add up when you’re justifying purchases in this way, like how the Parks and Recreation mantra of “treat yo’ self” has become a consumerist slogan used to sell everything from candles to handbags. In her second book, Orchids on Your Budget, Hillis advises adhering to a practical monthly budget. Writing during the Great Depression, she was certainly familiar with the need to watch one’s money carefully. Much of her advice is very fun—liquor! impractical bedroom garments!—but without the solid foundation of realistic money management that she also espouses (and which it’s easy to overlook in favor of the part about cocktails), my life would take a quick trip to Bankruptcy Town. As someone quite fond of the “treat yo’ self” ethos, this is the most important lesson I take from my experiment.

In the end, though I don’t have a bathtub or big windows, I still love living alone. For the final word on why, here’s Hillis again: “From dusk to dawn, you can do exactly what you please, which, after all, is a pretty good allotment in this world.”

Kathleen Keenan is an editor and writer in Toronto. She contributes at Book Riot, writes a monthly newsletter for a local bookstore, and blogs about what she’s reading. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenMKeenan if you’re interested in tweets about books, cheese, and Nancy Drew.

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