Finding a Home for Future Me: Creative Housing Options for Solo Retirement

Single Retirement HousingI got an email from a reader the other day — which was cool! I love getting emails! — that said, in part:

Hi, I am so happy to have found your blog! I didn’t know if I’d ever find another single woman in her thirties who writes about personal finance and cooking! I [was frustrated] with only ever hearing from writers who are partnered, which makes for a completely different financial context than my own…. It’s so great to see another me out there!

The writer is planning to start her own blog (which is awesome, and I look forward to plugging it here whenever it launches). I’m looking forward to the company! There aren’t that many 30- and 40-something long-term single bloggers out there; it’s one reason why I really appreciate Tonya from Budget and the Beach.

When I started to write about my relationship with money and the stuff it buys, I was reading a ton of personal finance blogs, but as I noted in my first post, I was especially thinking about the specific issues I would face as a single childless woman trying to stay afloat financially not just now, but later. Recently I found a blog that really spoke to me: Double Debt Single Woman. The writer is a couple of years older than me and much deeper in debt, so our situations aren’t totally comparable, but so much of what she wrote about seemed like it was speaking straight to me, particularly in this post where she discussed her lowered expectations for her future. Since I happen to be sitting on a twin bed in a rented room right at this moment as I write, as I try to dig myself out of the financial black hole of my 20s and early 30s, it really got to me. So much of my emotional journey in the last year has been accepting that I’ll likely never do the things I always assumed I would: for example, own a house. My two cities of choice/aspiration are both phenomenally expensive and I’ll be lucky, given my field of employment (education) and solo income, if I can even afford a 1-bedroom apartment rental in either, let alone buying even a modest house.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not all woe-is-me about this. Indeed, if I were married to a lawyer or a successful personal finance blogger, I’d likely be in better financial shape than I am as a single woman with a humanities PhD!

[Side note: the general public really overestimates how much academics make. Actual conversation I had with someone at the shelter where I volunteer a few nights ago:
Him: So, you make six figures?
Me (startled into laughing): HAH, I WISH.
Him: Half of that?
Me: Closer, but nope.

But obviously being married/partnered often comes with financial challenges of its own. What if my husband had been a spendthrift, or had hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own student debt before I even met him, or became unemployed and needed financial support? What if he died, or we got divorced, and I was suddenly trying to support children and give them a home? Those things would all be very hard on the pocketbook, and are all based on real-life examples of personal finance bloggers I read (or in one case on a non-blogging friend of mine.)

My life as a long-term-single, childless person, is just…different. Different set of constraints. I’m free to make choices that, say, single parents would have a much harder time with, like moving into a room in a stranger’s house to save drastically on rent. On the other hand, I feel under a certain amount of obligation to make that choice — which wouldn’t necessarily be my first — so that I can focus on that retirement account, so that I’m not totally up a creek when I’m old and have no kids or spousal social security to backstop me.

So, what’s a girl to do with a mismatch between anticipated income and the cost of solo homeownership? Actually, when I sat down to think about it I came up with a surprising number of options I can see myself being into. None of them are the bungalow with garden and guest room that I had been sort of picturing, but none of them are really raw deals, either.

1) Cohousing. This is sort of a deconstructed condominium association aimed at building community among member-owners. Every family unit (including single people) has their own house or apartment, but they also share common spaces that vary from group to group (often a big kitchen/eating area, since groups often have shared meals on a regular basis, but also other kinds of things like communal guest rooms, which decrease the necessary size of individual units.) They often have quite good support for aging members, since the community is expected to act like it is a community, checking in on each other and helping out. Pros for me: I like the idea of being associated with other people in common spaces yet also having my own clearly defined space. Also like the idea of an all-ages group where I can have lots of contact with families, since I like kids. Cons for me: they can be nearly as expensive to buy into as normal housing, so I’m not sure I could even afford it; because of that they tend to be more racially homogenous and upper middle class than I’d like; I’m not sure it’s possible to artificially create community, but I’d love something like this with people I already know or have something in common with (like maybe a religious group.)

2) A tiny house. Pros: I might actually be able to afford this kind of house! They aren’t necessarily dirt-cheap, but they’re more within my potential reach than a normal house. I’m pretty minimalist and expect to be even more so in retirement (literally half my stuff is work stuff — books, files, papers — so I won’t need any of that) and I like the idea of not having too much cleaning to do or paying a lot for heating/cooling spaces I don’t use. Many of them are theoretically movable so I could even take my house to a new city after a few years without having to pack, although it’s expensive and a pain. Cons: The other half of my stuff is kitchen-related. I cook a lot and tiny houses are not usually good for that. Also, for obvious reasons they have tiny hallways and tiny bathrooms, and unless I’m very fit as an old woman I might have trouble with that — a walker would be rough. It can be hard to find a place to put one that is legal (though that might change by the time I retire.)

3) The Jane Austen option: live with someone else’s kid! Again, it used to be common for single women to live with family members. I have two godchildren and might have a niece or nephew eventually. We’ll see how things play out but perhaps it might be possible to join forces with one of them; I could contribute childcare and housework and money, and they could contribute community/family and help with medical issues. And I’d make them the primary beneficiary of my will, in exchange for being my quasi-son/daughter.

4) The Golden Girls option. As the above option suggests, I’ve been reminding myself that women living alone, as has happened much more often since the 1960s, is a historical aberration. Single women who didn’t live with a family member used to live primarily in group settings — convents, for example, or, more relevant to my personal life, boarding houses. Remember boarding houses? Probably not! They went out of style decades ago. Only the poor have used them, or similar situations, for a long time now. But I think some version of this way of life is returning; single women of my generation will likely have to unite with each other in order to have a middle-class lifestyle in other respects. I can afford my retirement account and clothing and my car and travel and the occasional wedge of fancy cheese from Whole Foods; but only if I keep my housing costs under control by sharing them with other people. Pros: I actually really enjoy house-sharing if I’m friends with the other people; nice to have some privacy (my own bedroom and ideally bathroom) while also getting some human interaction. It cuts down on the “heating all the spaces I’m not using” problem but usually provides more generous common spaces (kitchen etc) than anything I could afford on my own. You just get general help — rides to the airport, help moving furniture, all that stuff I never take for granted. Cons: I’m not crazy about the idea of doing this with people who aren’t already close friends. I’m fine living with strangers (I’ve done it a lot) but it’s not my favorite. If I’m going to live with people I want to love them! This would be my ideal situation if I had close friends that wanted to do it, but I guess we’ll just have to see where we all are in 30 years.

I came up with other ideas that are either too goofy (a tent on the beach) or quite practical, but not good for me and my priorities (moving overseas for lower COL.) Really, though, if I want to avoid any of my four ideas, I should probably find a nice lawyer to marry!


39 thoughts on “Finding a Home for Future Me: Creative Housing Options for Solo Retirement

  1. You should make this a series where you look through various potential houses (or lawyers, we won’t judge) and see if they’re a fit.

    This relates to my desire for a tiny house (no lawyers) and a need to live vicariously through others, as the spouse would never go for one and I could spend all day reading about them or looking at the pretty pictures.

    Seriously though, it’s nice to hear different financial contexts that folks are in. I doubt we’ll be able to buy a house in this city, but maybe it’s for the best. Looking at OECD data, with Germans and Swiss near the bottom for ownership rates (with far more renting than buying), makes me feel like much less of an outlier.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Now *there* is an idea for a reality TV show. The Bachelorette meets House Hunters. Maybe I could only interview lawyers who already own houses, just to cut down on the hassle factor…. I agree with you that renting forever is not necessarily such a bad idea. I worry a little bit about rents skyrocketing when I’m on a more or less fixed income, but there are a lot of advantages to not owning, especially when you’re older and less capable of doing routine maintenance.

      1. Yeah, the high-rent-on-fixed-income factor is a concern.

        Your TV show should cover that, though.

        1. thesingledollar says:

          True — Bravo will fund my retirement house!

  2. Great post! Thanks for the shout out. Yeah, where are all the single lady PF bloggers?! I’ve been thinking about this housing conundrum myself. Yes, each option has its own benefits and drawbacks. It will be interesting to see what new or hybrid options may be created between now and when we retire. Assisted living tiny house retirement community, anyone? Fortunately, we have a bit of time to figure this out. In the meantime, send one of those single lawyers my way! 😉

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I think an assisted living tiny house community sounds great! It’s finding a balance between community, space where I can have control and be alone, and what I can afford. If housing prices keep going like they are, though, this is going to be a problem for a lot of people so I expect there will be a lot of new ideas and solutions by the time we actually get around to retiring.

  3. dojo says:

    We would like to get a small home near the city in the next 10-12 years. We’d retire there and just enjoy the ‘countryside’, while our daughter would be able to still live in the city. As long as I have wi-fi, I’m happy anywhere 😀

    1. thesingledollar says:

      That sounds like a lovely plan. And I agree, wi-fi makes any location acceptable 🙂

  4. Isabella says:

    I am long married with four grown children, but I enjoy reading about personal finance from may vantage points. These are great points about potential housing. However, I am not sure if marrying a lawyer would be so great! They seem to have the largest debts, and income isn’t that great for them anymore in a competitive market.

    My husband and I have always been on the same page, but I would think that partnering with someone with opposite goals and values would be very tough.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Hee, you’re right that a lawyer is no guarantee! I shudder at the thought of taking on someone else’s law school loans 🙂 And I’d definitely rather be single than partnered with someone whose goals are really different from mine – that seems like it would be so so stressful. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Cindy says:

    Even though I’m now “partnered”, I have a very similar concern: With Bryan being almost 20 years older than me, it’s most likely I’ll be single again by the time I hit my golden years. It’s unlikely that we’ll have children. Never say never, but not likely. Bryan always comments that his kids will be like my kids, but I think he’s being too optimistic there. One of them doesn’t even know I exist (yet), and the other doesn’t really care. Plus, they have their own mother, and their own problems. Having been single for so long, I’m used to doing it on my own. I just have to keep that in mind as we’re planning for the future!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      That’s a good point — this is a real concern for you too. Actually women very frequently outlive their spouses even when the age difference isn’t large. But you’re right that you’re likely going to face a longer “gap” than most, and if you probably won’t have kids, then it’s especially important to keep in mind that you’re likely to need a solo solution as you think about your financial planning.

  6. Chonce says:

    I think that the fact that you are single gives you a better variety of housing options since there is nothing really tying you down in a sense (relationships, kids, etc.) Living with family in a decent sized house might work. Tiny houses are definitely worth looking into in my opinion and I wish I could do the same but my kid likes to run around and I need a door to shut on my SO when I need ‘me time’ lol but you should never say never. We can plan for the future but no one knows what will happen or change somewhere down the line.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, the great upside of being single/childless is that I don’t have to worry about getting an acceptable living situation for anyone but me — my options are way less constrained than they would be with a kid or two. You’re so right that we have no idea what’s coming — I like to plan ahead, but also know that things could always change.

  7. Michelle says:

    The house in the picture looks awesome! I love tiny houses, and we have actually toyed with the idea but may just have a tiny house as a rental or a vacation home.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Isn’t it beautiful? That’s my favorite of all the ones I’ve seen. I think a tiny house as a vacation home would be amazing — set it up in the middle of the woods somewhere and go relax there whenever.

  8. Thanks for finding me and also mentioning my blog! I’m excited so see some of the things you’ve written! It’s funny because I find the most satisfied freelancers are the ones who have another income or person to fall back on, i.e. spouse, partner, bf/gf, etc. It’s a lot of pressure AND being 44 and trying to save more for retirement is even more pressure. So many millennials write how they would NEVER sacrifice travel to save save save and I’m thinking, “see what you think about that at 40.” lol! PS I nominate myself to be a possible golden girl in your situation if you ever need one. Could be fun!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      LA is one of my oh-if-only target areas! (I have close friends there and looooooooove the weather.) So a Golden Girls scenario is a real possibility. If so, you are in charge of making me exercise since I’m terrible at it on my own 🙂 I should’ve just written to you months ago since I didn’t have a Disqus login, oh well. I’ve been reading you for ages, though. It really is good to hear from someone who’s closer to my situation than a high-earning 27-year-old. I freelanced in film and theater (costumes) for several years before I went back to grad school and even though I did ok in the end, it was really scary not having another income to backstop me. I thought — please don’t laugh — that academia might provide a little more stability, and here I am ten years later trying to make it in a field that got absolutely steamrolled by the recession and still don’t have another income. Oh well! Luckily I’m pretty good at being flexible and creative out of necessity.

  9. The Cohousing situation sounds really cool. I’ve never heard of that before.

    There are some great options out there, but being single definitely makes it a bit more complicated. With the sharing movement that is currently going on, I’m sure many more options will become available.

    I wouldn’t bank on marrying a lawyer. Usually we are all full of problems- usually it’s debt or chemical dependency. I’d go for the CPA. Typically, there’s less ego involved!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Oh dear. I’d already ruled doctors out on the grounds that they’re all crazy; I guess I have to at least look skeptically at lawyers too. I’ll add “CPA” to the list of marriageable men. 🙂

  10. I am a single mom and trust I can relate with some of what you are saying. I am in my early 40s, but I refuse to settle for what I want in life. I believe that your selling yourself short and that if you work hard work with much saving you can afford a beautiful home.

    Another option is to buy a short closer home or a fixer upper and do your own spin on it to make it your home. One thing that I have learned with living in Japan, is that a space doesn’t have to be large to be gorgeous. You just have to put love in it and your own flare.

    I really hope that you create a series toward this goal for I would love to follow it.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      You’re right — a house of my own isn’t totally out of the question! I’m pretty good at saving money these days so who knows. But I think a lot will depend on what city I choose to end up in; there are some where housing prices are within reach, and some where they just aren’t, and friends/family may draw me to the out of reach market. I’m pretty optimistic about the future, though; I’m sure I’ll figure out a solution that will work fine. It just may not be what I thought it would be ten years ago!

      1. I see what your saying….about you believing things would have been different by now. I always thought that I would be married with four kids, living in the perfect home with a golden retriever. Instead I’m a single mom who makes money sailing on aircraft carriers and policing war zones for a living. I have one child and a poodle who thinks he’s a human. Trust me this is not what I thought my life would be, but now that I can put the military behind me I am on a mission to create a new life for me and my two babies.

  11. The Stoic says:

    Great article and one I have a lot of interest in. I’m actually attending a Meet Up permaculture group that is discussing tiny house living with a local woman who is in the process of building her own tiny house! Which I think is amazing!

    My own plan consists of purchasing 3-5 acres and building a modest cabin. My housing situation now is great, but by building my own place I believe I can achieve a level of sustainability that I’m unable to now.

    Whatever a person decides to do with housing, contemplating its impact on our freedom should be given considerable weight. Tell me how increased square footage and high end finishing work contributes to a persons freedom. I would argue that it doesn’t, and in fact actually decreases it. Alternative housing may not be traditional or even acceptable by many, but who is to say that traditional housing options really contribute to our quality of life?

    I’m reminded of a quote by Thoreau, “Many of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I like that Thoreau quote! And the meetup group sounds awesome. I’d like to look for something like that locally. Your plan also sounds very appealing! I agree that we ought to get creative about housing options not only out of economic necessity but because committing to “alternative” ways of life actually makes us happier, in general. (The key is the mental commitment; if people feel forced into alternatives, they are generally not pleased about it.)

  12. Kirsten says:

    You went to wordpress in my absence!!! Wow! I love the look and I’m happy to have an easier time commenting now!

    I have to admit, I like the tiny house option. I would do it today if my family were on board!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Hee, yes, you missed a lot around here 🙂 The comment issue was such a problem! There was finally a good sale at godaddy and I just went and made the move. It’s been great. Glad you like the look! I need to do more work on images (I also got a pinterest account, I’m going crazy here) but I think it’s good for me to learn some of this stuff. Anyway, I like the tiny house option too! If I could get it optimized for kitchen somehow…. They are so cute and I love the idea of taking up less space.

  13. I agree with the reader who emailed you. Probably 99% of the content on the blogosphere is focused on people who are married or dating. It’s a good example of how content can be worthless because it simply doesn’t apply to people. Like someone who makes $150k a year who has no debt other than a mortgage say “I save 80% of my income – you can too!” It’s not relatable to most readers.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      To be fair, the vast majority of people are married or dating, so I don’t think the blogosphere is all that out of line with reality there (much as I’d love to see more creative ideas for singles out there.) I think a much bigger problem is the other one you bring up — so many bloggers make really good money, and if you’re in a profession where the salaries just don’t work like that, it can be kind of dispiriting. However, I still learn from people who are making much more than me and/or are partnered — hopefully some of my posts are also intriguing for folks who are in a different situation…. I sometimes wish I was a mom blog though because I think I’d get way more site traffic 🙂

  14. I appreciate the different ages, incomes, careers, and marital/family statuses represented in the PF blog community. I’m struck by how much I can relate to and learn from people whose situations might be quite different from mine. I’m also struck by your certainty that you’ll remain single for the rest of your life. It’s very smart to plan your finances according to that scenario, but I wouldn’t get too attached to it. That nice lawyer – or plumber – or chef – might be just around the corner. Just make sure he’s good with money. I like the communal housing idea. Too bad it’s expensive. No matter what your eventual decision, save hand over fist. It will serve you well single or partnered, and in any kind of housing.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Well, you’re right, I’m not 100% certain…but I haven’t really shown any signs of being likely to get into a long-term relationship so far 🙂 I think it’s best to plan for the strong possibility. And you’re right — I can’t really go wrong saving up as much as I can!

  15. I’m a 30 year old married with kids and a house, so I understand that we have different points of view here. But interestingly, we have some of the same ideals here.

    I love the idea of cohousing where everyone has there own personal space, but there’s a communal area too. I love the idea of tiny houses to serve that purpose as well and it’s something I’ve actually looked into quite a bit. I also have loved living with friends and family. In our last house we would rent rooms out and I loved having that extra interaction built into my life. No one seems to want to live with us anymore in the suburbs with our toddler, but it’s a scenario I hope we can make happen again.

    Being a single lady gives you a lot more freedom to pursue options that may not be as viable for a coupled up person. I really enjoyed reading this piece and getting a glimpse into your planning process. Thank you for sharing.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I’m hoping for a family with a toddler that wants me to live with them actually! I love getting that extra interaction that comes with living in community, yet still having some private space because I need a *lot* of downtime. Cohousing is super interesting to me; if it was with the right group of people I know I’d absolutely love it. Glad you liked the piece! I like seeing all the different POVs out there too.

  16. Brooke says:

    I don’t know if you would consider this, but mobile/manufactured homes are another way to beat the cost! Our home cost us $30,000 and has 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, over 1,000 square feet. With the debt situation we wanted to make our housing costs as low as possible. There are a lot of retirees in the park.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I actually have thought about it — much more since you’ve been writing about yours! They look a lot nicer now than my grandparents’ did when I was a kid 🙂 So I would definitely consider it; main con I can think of is that most of the parks I’ve seen are pretty far away from the city proper (why they’re cheaper) and I worry about isolation since that’s one of my main fears, being minus partner/kids.

  17. Brooke says:

    Some people buy the plot of line (you choose the location) and then build a modular home on that. Modular homes are pre-built in chunks and then assembled. Since they can be pre-built, that’s also worth looking at in terms of costs.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      ooh, interesting idea. Definitely worth thinking about. Thanks!

  18. Lewis says:

    I too am writing about personal finance from the point of view of a single person. I got burned financially with a previous partner and would never marry up finances again. I hate working for a living lol so, my blog is about pretty much the same as yours, but without the cooking element. I have another blog for that ( because I think that not everyone wants to save hard in order to save for retirement.

    I do battle with the balance of saving for retirement vs living my life. If you do the maths, even with a good salary it’s pretty hard to save for retirement to retire before 60 if you start saving after the age of 30.

    PS: Why do you assume you will be eternally single, or do you just want to maintain financial separation as I do?

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Hey! Good to know about another one — will have to check out your blog. I’m not 100% sure I’ll be single forever but given my personality and past experiences, it seems fairly likely 🙂 At the very least, I’m going to plan for it and then if something else happens I’ll get a pleasant surprise.

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