A Dozen Ways to Live Rent Free

A night in my 2003 Honda Element conversion.

For the past five years, I’ve been doing my damnedest to avoid paying rent. Given, I’m quite nomadic and largely avoid leases for the purpose of geographical freedom, but you might be surprised just how much time rent can cost you in a year.

I don’t particularly love articles full of numbers and perhaps you don’t either, but these are eye-opening numbers. Bear with me as we begin with a little math.

For the purposes of this article, let’s say your rent, utilities, and other housing expenses total $800 a month. This is a pretty frugal figure, as the average cost of rent alone for one bedroom apartment in the United States these days is over $1,000. So, at $800 a month, you’re well under that mark, and you managed to work your utilities into that number too. Well done.

$800 per month x 12 months = $9,600 a year

So, each year you would have to make $9,600 to exchange for a living space. This is money on which you get no return, other than a place to live of course. Come the end of a lease, it’s just an extra $9,600 you had to make to stay financially afloat.

Now, we’ll do the math with a few different hourly pay rates, under the assumption you’re working full-time (40 hours per week) and see how much time per year rent costs.

At $10 Per Hour:

The percentage you’re taxed varies based on the total amount of money you make for the year. Throughout this article, I’ll use this handy paycheck calculator to figure out that tax percentage. At $10 per hour, working 40 hours per week, you’d take home 83.20% after taxes. So a $10 per hour gross wage is actually $8.32 per hour.

Doing the math:

$9,600 year / $8.32 per hour = 1,154 hours of work per year

1,154 hours / 40 hours per week = 28.9 weeks per year of full-time work

That’s 7 months per year of full-time work to cover rent at $800/month.

At $20 Per Hour:

At $20 per hour, working 40 hours per week for the year, you’d take home 80.42% after taxes. So a $20 per hour gross wage is actually $16.09 per hour.

Doing the math:

$9,600 year / $16.09 per hour = 597 hours of work per year

597 hours / 40 hours per week = 14.9 weeks per year of full-time work

That’s over three and a half months per year of full-time work to cover rent at $800/month.

At $30 Per Hour:

At $30 per hour, working 40 hours per week for the year, you’d take home 77.11% after taxes. So a $30 per hour gross wage is actually $23.13 per hour.

Doing the math:

$9,600 year / $23.13 per hour = 415 hours of work per year

415 hours / 40 hours per week = 10.4 weeks per year of full-time work

That’s over two and a half months per year of full-time work to cover rent at $800/month.

At $40 Per Hour:

At $40 per hour, working 40 hours per week for the year, you’d take home 75.33% after taxes. So a $40 per hour gross wage is actually $30.13 per hour.

Doing the math:

$9,600 year / $30.13 per hour = 319 hours of work per year

319 hours / 40 hours per week = 8 weeks per year of full-time work

That’s two months per year of full-time work to cover rent at $800/month.

In Summary:

If your rent and other housing costs total $800 per month:

  • @ $10/hr = 7 months of full-time work per year
  • @ $20/hr = 3.5 months of full-time work per year
  • @ $30/hr = 2.5 months of full-time work per year
  • @ $40/hr = 2 months of full-time work per year

A whole lot of time:

What this says to me is that if I can avoid rent, I can save myself months of full-time work every year. When I work for money (which I’ve done less than two of the past five years), I usually get paid between ten and twenty dollars per hour. Judging by the numbers above, avoiding rent alone earns me around four months off of full time work per year.

When we convert money to time we get a better sense of the true cost of something. Asking yourself, “Would I rather work four months extra this year for rent or find an alternative?” is way more tangible than wondering about $800 per month.

For five years now, I’ve repeatedly chosen the alternative living situation.

Two points before we venture ahead:

1. The common move here is simply to buy instead of rent. This way, those months of full-time work become your equity instead of your landlord’s. And while over forty percent of a mortgage is usually interest to the lender, this is a massive improvement in the saving of your money and time. Also, the cost of real estate seems ever-rising, which makes buying an attractive option if you live in one place.

2. Paying rent makes life easier. Pay that $9,600 a year and you don’t have to think about where you’re going to sleep at night. You can do whatever the hell you want to — relax, focus, anything else — it’s your world, your impenetrable bubble. If you’re in school or super focused on your job, it’s often worth those months of extra full-time work to do well at what you do.

But what if you’re not cool with spending months each year earning the roof over your head? Maybe you love something that doesn’t pay well? Maybe you don’t want to be tied to one place? Maybe you learned the value of time from a near-death-experience and you care even more about how you spend your days than what you can trade for them?

Not paying for a place to live is a pretty foreign concept… I think most people believe the only adults without rent or a mortgage are twenty-somethings still living with their parents. But that’s far from the truth.

A Dozen Ways to Avoid Paying Rent:

There are many ways to avoid paying rent. Inevitably, we won’t cover them all. Some I’ve yet to encounter. Others are shadier than I might care to venture. Here are a dozen worthwhile ways to avoid paying rent. Personal examples are more interesting and memorable than generalizations — I’ll give them when I can.

1. Rent your place on Airbnb. Last summer, I met a graphic designer from New York City with a very expensive apartment. She rented her place on Airbnb for $200 a night and crashed on a friend’s couch when it was rented out. Reservations weren’t frequent enough to cover all of her rent, but did put a big dent in it. There’s a large gap between what a place is worth nightly on Airbnb and yearly with a lease. If your landlord is cool and you have another place to stay, you can exploit the gap.

2. Rent a big place and sublease. My senior year of college, my three roommates and I lived in large, loft-style four bedroom apartment next to campus for $1200 a month. In Flagstaff, Arizona this was a pretty great deal. We had an absolute ball and I wouldn’t change a thing. For the sake of example, though, say I rented the whole place myself. I could have easily sublet three rooms for the year at $500/month, not only covering my own rent, but making a few hundred dollars a month.

3. Reside in a vehicle. Be it an RV, van, boat, or other vehicle, there’s a large movement towards moving into things that move. The #vanlife movement has resulted in some remarkable, fully functional homes on wheels, an especially attractive option people who work remotely. I turned a Honda Element into a tiny home on wheels and spent five months of 2018 living out of it. There are pluses and minuses to mobile living, both time and money are part of the pluses.

My tiny home on wheels.

4. Rent in another country. To rent in another country is not to avoid rent, but if you’re from the United States or another expensive real estate market, rent can be fractional elsewhere. I sublet a room in an upscale apartment for a few months in the Caribbean paradise of Playa del Carmen, Mexico for four-hundred US dollars per month three years ago. Yet, compared with other places, that’s still quite expensive.

My home for three months in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

5. Travel. There’s no need to pay rent while on the road. A bed in a hostel in many parts of the world cost but a few dollars per night. I was just in the capital city of Nepal, Kathmandu, paying ten US dollars a night for my hotel room (breakfast included). Life on the backpacker’s circuit in many countries costs a fraction of rent alone in the United States and is even cheaper off the well-worn routes.

A free room on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal (as long as I promised to eat dinner and breakfast there).

6. Rough it. A term we’ll use to cover anything from camping to squatting to any other form of not having a place to stay. Roughing it is kind of rough and most people aren’t interested. But hey, there’s also this romantic way to look at roughing it: life from another perspective, a bit at odds with society for a while. While pedaling a bicycle across the United States, I found such adventure and thrift in “stealth camping,” rolling into towns with no idea where we were to stay, pitching a tent somewhere obscure after dark, and leaving early the next morning.

The morning after a stormy night stealth camping in a park in Virginia.

7. Work on a boat. Beyond avoiding rent, you can live with virtually no expenses working on boats. Most fishing vessels, cargo ships, cruise ships, and private yachts house and feed their employees free of charge. I worked as a deckhand on a small cruise ship banking nearly $10K in twelve weeks. Many people make and save loads of money in a few years of work on private yachts as well, here’s a sweet guide to that.

Life in the hull of the forty-nine passenger American Glory.

8. Work seasonal jobs. The past three years of my life went something like this: work five months managing a lodge next to Yellowstone National Park. Take seven months off to travel, read, and write. Repeat. In the summer, I lived in the lodge’s spacious manager’s office and bedroom above it, which I “rented” for fifty bucks a month. Seasonal work often comes with housing and keeps you free of the confinement of a lease, allowing you to spend your months off however you damn well please.

My brother working out in my “manager’s office” with a bison grazing out the window.

9. Teach English in another country. While in many countries you’ll have to rent your own place (though at a fraction of the cost of rent in the United States), some countries offer both solid pay and free housing.

10. Become an au pair. Wealthy families around the world hire au pairs, usually younger women, to help raise their kids. Some situations might include traveling with families, others might earn you your own nearby apartment nearby and a stipend.

11. Work trade. I lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for two and a half months in a little pink cabin on a farm in the middle of the rain forest in exchange for twenty hours of help per week through WWOOF. With HelpX, I found half a dozen hostels throughout New Zealand to exchange a couple of hours of work per day for a bed. This made four and a half months of rambling around New Zealand ridiculously cheap.

My little cabin on the Big Island of Hawaii.

12. Become a house sitter. Websites like Trusted Housesitters and Nomador, connect homeowners and house sitters, finding the former someone to watch over their home while they’re away and the latter a free place to stay. Three years ago, I paid $89 for an account with Trusted Housesitters. I was looking for a place to write and applied for half a dozen gigs throughout the United States, but I never received a single reply back. I think people worried that, being a male in his early-twenties, I might throw wild parties in their home or something. Be mindful of stereotypes with this one.

13. Live with your parents. Nobody wants to live with their parents… the stigma… your parents… I know — your own space is a wonderful, wonderful thing. However, living with your parents allows you to save money like a fiend and time to ramble like a young Kerouac. I tend to live life in chapters, five months here, three months there etc. In between, I’ll often spend a couple of weeks at my parent’s place. Any longer and I’ll get stir-crazy, but within a few weeks we have a good time.

Be conscious of how you spend your time. Know you can be creative as you want with it.

Our time is short — it’s truly our most valuable resource — a more important metric than money.

Converting dollars and cents to days and hours allows us to see how we’re spending our lives. If the numbers don’t add up in our favor, we are free to rethink it all, adapt in whatever ways we see fit, and live as creatively as we please.

Wonderer. Wanderer. Writer. ethanmaurice.com

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