Sunday, January 28, 2007

When's it time to "grow up" and upgrade your stuff? (& does it have to break the bank?)

"Keep living like a college student after you graduate" is one of the best bits of frugal advice for twenty-somethings, and one I've taken very much to heart. But recently I've begun to wonder: how long is that supposed to last? Once you reach a certain age, how do you figure out what's frugal and smart-- and what's putting off "growing up," to your own detriment?

Very soon it'll be three years since I finished college, but you would never know it from visiting my apartment. The furniture is nothing much to look at: not high-quality, rather mismatched, all used and well-worn (in some cases visibly so). The decor isn't elegant, and leans more towards posters than art. The apartment itself is small-- a decision I'm happy with and don't plan to change, but one that certainly doesn't help the other factors.

Most of my friends are a) laid-back and b) younger than I am, so I've never been embarrassed to invite them into my place. But lately, after hearing the "This looks just like a college student apartment!" remark one too many times, I'm rethinking a little.

See, I don't mind the status quo for my own sake. I know some people really enjoy living in a well-put together, elegant home, but that's not a top priority of mine. But as I get older, as I make new friends, as I become interested in maybe hosting acquaintances, colleagues, etc. at my apartment, I don't really want my place to shout out "Penny's just a sloppy, mismatched kid! Please don't respect her as a mature adult!"

So I am really interested in hearing from those of you who are around my age, and those who are older and wiser, about how you handled this stage. How important do you think it is to upgrade the way your apartment looks? Is there a certain age at which people start really wrinkling up their noses at an adult sporting a college-student style? Or is this just another situation where being a good frugalite means not buying into the pressure to be defined by your material possessions? Did you ever find yourself feeling the way I do, and how did you approach it?

I'm sure plenty of you will say "You can be smart about having a sophisticated-looking apartment on a budget!" Well, your suggestions are greatly appreciated! Do you have tips for putting together an elegant style on the cheap? Are there certain approaches that have the most bang for the buck? And damn, most furniture is expensive, and hunting down bargains is not conducive to having pieces that match! Is there any way around that?

Sorry, no answers today, just questions!

[Update: Check out this followup post with highlights of the wonderful comments and suggestions I got!]


Good Fortune said...

I was going to go into a whole essay about when it's right to upgrade your lifestyle, but I've decided to skip and just recommend Ikea :)

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a thirty-something who DID spend a lot of money putting together an "adult" lifestyle in my 20s, I'd say: 1) don't let others define your idea of what your material possessions are like and 2) when you get all that adult stuff, the thrill of it wears off really fast.

I can't tell you what to do -- I can tell you I've really struggled to pay off debts I accumulated buying a nice household full of stuff that hasn't really satisfied me at all. Take that and think about it a little.

Now here's my best suggestion: upgrade your lifestyle -- sanely and methodically. Take a cue from the "simplify your life" people. Start out by taking an inventory of all your things. Figure out for yourself whether you like it, love it, or if it really is just "making do" for you.

Prioritize your stuff this way, and look for your personal style in the things you like and love. Put some creative thought into replacing the things that are making do. Don't feel you have to do it all at once, but have a plan to replace those items with something you'll love (and can afford). If you can, sell the stuff now to make room for the new stuff.

If its furniture you are lacking, can you refurbish something you have with slipcovers or paint? Cheaper than new furniture.

If it's artwork you lack, for not very much money you can replace your posters with some more grown-up art. It's amazing how far you can refurbish your look cheaply just by being mindful of the accessories of the room.

And remember -- it's better to have only a few things of decent quality than a whole bunch of cheap stuff.

Best of luck! Don't sweat the apartment too much -- make yourself happy and who cares what others think!

bluntmoney said...

I think that what matters is what YOU think of your things. Are you happy with them, and it's just the "college student" comments that annoy you? How much entertaining do you think you'll be doing, and for what purpose?

I am a person who likes to be surrounded by nice things, so I handled "upgrading" by taking the long-term approach. Very long term. I'm almost 39 now and I've just now got about 3/4 of things the way I like it.

I do use the hunting method, and the waiting for things I really want. It doesn't matter if things don't "match" as long as they go together well (if that makes any sense.) I'd start by deciding what's most important to you, and what overall look you want to have if you decide to change the look of things. And remember to be flexible with buying pieces that will still go in a variety of environments, in case you move.

English Major said...

Personally, I'm looking forward (I'm only 23) to adopting a thrift-friendly aesthetic. I totally fantasize about learning to refinish yardsale furniture and making it into something unique and beautiful. I hope to have a whole living space full of projects--things I've invested time and energy (more of that than money) into.

I'm still going to want the $300 Kitchenaid stand mixer, though.

ispf said...

We bought the house 3.5 years after the better half started working and we had saved enough to pay for the 20% down payment. During those years, we had bought a new set of living room furniture and a gently used dining set, both of which we took with us to the new house. Over a period of time, we slowly added more furniture. Its almost two years now since we moved into the house and still a couple of rooms are unfurnished. The only occasion we have more than 2 overnight guests, is when we have a get together of old friends, who are all perfectly comfortable crashing in sleeping bags for a couple of nights (if we ever sleep that is :)

I just want to warn you that if and when you decide to change your lifestyle, it will hit you like an avalanche. You will want to buy a lot of things at the same time. But if you take it slow, you will have stuff that you will admire and appreciate more and that changes with your changing tastes. Particularly, if you are going to buy it anyway, make it coincide with some events like birthday/anniversary/promotion and you will enjoy them for years to come.

Good luck!

Madame X said...

I definitely "adultized" my living environment pretty slowly. I gradually went from having pieces borrowed from my parents to buying a few things at the unfinished pine furniture store, to upgrading to unfinished birch ply and other assorted "real" furniture. I'm in my late 30s and only just moved out of my tiny studio that was about the size of a dorm room. THere were several years in the midst of this when I moved in with a partner who was older and already had "adult" stuff, but when I moved out, I still had a lot of my same old things from before, so I still had work to do.
I think the key thing is not to worry about doing it all at once, as that will break the bank. You can gradually buy nicer things that will last, one at a time. There are also inexpensive ways you can make your space look a bit more grown-up without having to buy all new stuff-- keeping things neat, and maybe framing posters instead of just tacking them up, and some of the ideas that other commenters mentioned. It's also a good idea to keep an eye on Craigslist and similar sources-- I know people who have gotten very nice furniture just because someone was moving or downsizing and needed to get rid of it.

HC said...

My apartment is still very much "grad student revival," so take my opinions with the appropriate grains of salt.

If you're going to upgrade, first upgrade the things you must have and can't cover. A well-made couch will elevate the whole room in the way a slipcover rescue version can't. Even a midgrade entertainment center can be a vast improvement on an older, cheaper one. On the flip side, plywood 3-leg side tables can look very nice if covered with a skirt. An older dining table can be dressed up with a nice table cloth.

Most other things can be hidden behind screens (desks) or draped with blankets (chairs) to be spiffed up. And accessories generally don't need to be that expensive to look fresh and stylish.

I strongly second checking out Ikea and Craigslist, if for no other reason than that seeing the styles will help you decide what you do and don't want.

mara said...

I agree with the step-by-step approach. Replace old furniture on your own terms, when you're tired of looking at it, or when it stops being useful/comfortable. I'm 25 and pushing 4 years post-college, and I still use most of my frugal first-apartment home decor. :) My friends seem to think it's cool; it's obvious that my decor reflects my personality, and we can chill out together without worrying about spilling wine on an expensive leather couch, or knocking over any expensive art.

Posters, Christmas lights, beanbag chairs and sagging couches really scream "dorm room". Even with most of the same furniture and decorations, removing the aforementioned items can completely change the way your apartment looks to visitors. You can buy frames for your favorite posters and pass along the old ones. You can sometimes find quality wall decorations at thrift stores, or mat your own photos/illustrations. You can make an interesting display by hanging the mats from binder clips and stringing them along a fishing line across the wall.

For furniture, I personally prefer finding quality secondhand stuff on Craigslist or at garage sales. I'm not into the IKEA aesthetic myself, but IKEA is a great way to get matching sets of things (dining table and chairs, coffee and end table, etc).

If your apartment has enough natural light, plants can give it an organic, homey feel. You can grow your own herbs, flowers, or go for low-maintenance ferns, spider plants, and other indoor tropicals. Really elegant pots and vases can be expensive, but people often sell or give them away at moving sales, because plants are inconvenient to move.

Living Almost Large said...

No way I wouldn't upgrade anything for a long time. I have a awesome home, and I've got money to furnish it right now. BUT I still have everything we had at 21 and 23, now at 27 and 29. We've thought about it and even gone furniture shopping, but to be honest we're nervous.

We've never bought "good" furniture and aren't even sure how to start. We don't have any furniture considered grownup except a flat screen tv (electronis we know). But otherwise we're very unsure because this is a lifetime purchase.

Others may laugh but we grew up with really frugal parents who kept furniture 20+ years, so we feel what we buy has to last and we have to LOVE it, not just like it.

But being so cautious has saved us a ton of money. And most of our friends are just jealous of our home, the $500 grill we bought, TV, and the fact we've furnished it at all. Our stuff has been free stuff given away mostly or used from classified.

What I could really use is a bedroom set. But I've decided I'm not buying one until we settle more and I know it'll fit in my new place. So I wouldn't rush into buying furniture.

mOOm said...

I'm 42 and never really changed my lifestyle much apart from of course getting my own apartment instead of sharing once I had enough money to do that. I guess I should say I haven't changed my lifestyle much since being a grad (PhD) student. When I was an undergrad I didn't have any of my own furniture apart from one chair. When I did my masters I think I owned one bookcase.

Jenn said...

I have two suggestions to make.

#1-as you get raises, take that money and put it away and continue to live on the money/standard you had before you got the raise and earmark the "raise" money for furniture. This is what Yankee Bill and I did in the military. Over time (usually in about 2-3 year increments as raises occured) we wound up buying a bedroom set, then an entertaiment center, then a couch and recliner. Just a thought.

#2-Meredith over at "Like Merchant Ships" recently had a post about using a whole house color scheme.

I thought this is a great idea, especially for someone in a small apartment who might want to be able to swap things around, or someone who moves frequently (like my sister who's husband just went in the military) if you keep things in the same general color scheme with variations through out, then you can easily swap pieces from one room to another. Also when you are thrifting or bargain shopping, and you see something, if it is in the right color scheme you'll pretty much know that it is going to go (like the pillowcases that Meredith mentions in her post)

Just thought that might be helpful for you.