The High Price of Living Alone

A new book documents the incredible rise in popularity--and cost--of going solo.

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FE_DA_Going Solo Cover.jpg
Going Solo book cover

In his new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, sociologist Eric Klinenberg documents the incredible boom in people living on their own, and explores why so many people are willing to pay a premium to have a home all to themselves. “It has a real value to people and they’re willing to find a way to afford it,” says Klinenberg. Today, about 31 million Americans live on their own.

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Klinenberg, who’s now married with children, paints an attractive picture of single life: His subjects, who live in urban areas, enjoy setting their own schedules and meeting up with friends at restaurants and events. But living alone, especially in cities, tends to be more expensive than sharing housing with a partner or friend. In addition to housing costs, solo-livers generally pay more for utilities, telephone service, and groceries, although Klinenberg points out that grocers are increasingly adding more options for single-sized purchases and prepackaged meals for one.

We spoke with Klinenberg about the cost of living alone, and what one can do it about it. Excerpts:

Did the high cost of living alone come up frequently in your interviews?

Definitely. We know that living in cities is expensive, and living alone in cities brings it up to a whole new level. In places like Manhattan, D.C., and San Francisco, you can’t help but wonder how anyone can afford it.

People definitely struggle with it, but what’s interesting is, people have a surprisingly strong demand for solo living. They’re willing to pay a premium for it, and are even willing to make sacrifices in other parts of their lives so they can get a place of their own. They will pay a bigger portion of their salary for an apartment and forgo things like cable TV, international travel, and expensive restaurants.

Did you find that to be the case across different age groups?

Living alone is especially desirable to young adults who increasingly delay getting married and having children. They see going solo as a key way to become an adult. For them, the choice to live alone is often the choice not to live with roommates or their parents. They are especially likely to make sacrifices in other parts of their lives so they can get the privacy, anonymity, and control that comes from having a place of your own.

Hasn’t the economy limited people’s ability to do that, with more young adults deciding to move back in with their parents?

Absolutely. There are more young adults moving in with their parents in recent years because the labor market is so bad, but what we usually don’t hear is that the dip in living alone for young adults has been small. In 2007, about 12 percent of adults under the age of 30 lived alone, and today, about 11 percent live alone, so the decline has been surprisingly small. That boomerang label is undeserved.

So the desire to live alone overrides the costs?

If you can’t afford it, you can’ afford it, but people are willing to go to great lengths to make it possible. It’s an experience people really want. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to find a partner or be in relationships, but people don’t want to settle anymore or be locked into the wrong relationship. If they make enough money, they don’t need to be.

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That’s true for older adults, too. They’re paying an enormous premium to live in assisted living facilities. It gives the experience of going solo while being connected to a world of service providers and companions. Families literally move themselves close to bankruptcy to make sure their older relatives have the luxury of living alone as long as they can. That’s a huge change from 100 years ago, where the majority of widows and widowers lived with family.

Do solo-dwellers find creative ways to save money—by sharing meals, for example?

[People share meals] not for financial reasons, but more for social reasons. In Sweden, where the book ends, they spend more energy to support each other while living alone. In one housing complex where people live alone, they have private kitchens but they have dinner together, and they take turns cooking. That way people save money, and they save time, and create community. We do a lot less of that here. As we face up to the reality that so many people are going solo, we’ll hopefully start redesigning our buildings, neighborhoods, and cities to make it an easier and more affordable experience.

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