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MoneyDecember 10, 2021

The price of independence: Why does it cost so much to live alone?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

While increasing numbers of New Zealanders are going it solo, for many others, the financial reality puts living alone out of reach. Jihee Junn asks when society will catch up.

Almost a decade ago, American sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote on what he called “a remarkable social experiment”. After centuries of primarily living as collective units, more and more people had begun settling down as “singletons” for the first time in human history. These people were young professionals who could “afford to have their own places and preferred domestic autonomy to having roommates”, singles in their 30s and 40s who’d “refuse to compromise in their search for a partner” and enjoyed the freedoms solo life afforded, divorcees whose previous relationships “ended the fantasy that romantic love was a reliable source of happiness and stability”, and elderly folks who, following the death of a spouse, rebuilt their lives and embraced their newfound ability to live alone.

Like the US and other modern developed nations, the number of people living alone in New Zealand has slowly yet steadily been on the up. In 1996, around 297,000 households were made up of a single person. By 2018, that number had increased almost 50% to 439,000. By 2038, Stats NZ predicts this to reach almost 600,000 – or approximately 27% of all households – to become the fastest-growing household type in New Zealand.

There are a lot of developments (urbanisation, ageing population, declining rates of marriage, for example) that can be attributed to the rise in solo dwelling. But as a relatively recent phenomenon that’s yet to take hold on a truly mass scale, single dwellers find themselves navigating a world that isn’t exactly designed for lifestyles like theirs – a reality most notable when it comes to dealing with the financial cost of solo living. 

“The main reason why it’s so expensive to live by yourself is because there are a lot of fixed costs associated with living in a property,” says financial planner Liz Koh. “If you're paying a mortgage or rent, that cost will be there regardless of how many people live in the property. And with things like electricity, for example, there’s a certain amount that’s going to be charged regardless of usage.” 

“If you own your own home, there’s also the cost of maintaining the property, as well as things like rates and insurance … Basically, most housing-related costs are going to be fixed whether you live on your own or not.”

For Spinoff feature writer Sam Brooks, who recently started living alone (during lockdown, no less), he says he’s currently paying almost twice as much in rent for his central Auckland apartment as he did when living with another tenant. And combined with bills for things like internet, power and other household essentials, he estimates that’s led to roughly a 30-40% increase in the overall cost of living.

“There just aren’t a huge amount of one bedroom places that are suitable for somebody who wants to live somewhere especially nice,” he says. “I don’t think many one person houses are made to be lived in outside of transitional experiences – a few months here, and a few months there – I’d love to see more one-person houses that can be forever homes without sacrificing quality of life.”

Meanwhile, for those transitioning to homeownership on their own (which presents its own challenges from the outset when it comes to being approved for a mortgage), the costs involved are even more drastic. “On a weekly basis, I'm paying at least triple what I did when I was sharing a flat,” says Amy*, who recently purchased her first home after moving from Auckland to Christchurch. “I went from paying just over $200 a week in rent for a shared Grey Lynn flat (an incredible deal, I realise) to almost $600 a week on a mortgage.”

“Then there are rates, body corporate fees, contents insurance – which I never bothered with when I was renting … Also many less obvious costs, like the seemingly endless number of things that need to be bought when you're setting up on your own. Every single thing in my place, from big ticket items like couches and beds to crockery and gardening tools, had to come out of my own pocket.”

While the cost of solo dwelling clearly packs a punch, the intangible benefits it provides can often be worth it. There’s a freedom attached with living alone, and not just the freedom of being able to leave your dirty dishes in the sink for as long as you want (although, admittedly, that’s great too). Flatting with a group of friends or strangers isn't exactly an ideal permanent solution, especially as we get older and naturally start to want our own space to call home.

“There’s a sense of independence that I really like, and also a heightened responsibility for myself and my self care,” says Brooks. "While some might find that responsibility pressuring, and it sometimes can be, I find it quite freeing. It’s enlivening to rise to the challenge of being responsible for more or less everything in my life, rather than stressful. There’s also nothing like the feeling of coming back to a place after a day of work or a night out to a place that's entirely yours." 

“I’d say that my experience isn’t for everybody. Some people love living with lots of people, some people really need that person to come home to. I absolutely don’t, and I get a lot of that outside the four walls of my home, so I’m happy to treat my home like a refuge and a bastion and pay more, on a weekly basis, for that.”

Living alone is undoubtedly expensive, and as a chosen lifestyle, reserved for the privileged few. Rising incomes have been cited as one reason for the increase in solitary living, with people who can afford to live alone often choosing to do so. But for older people, who make up the majority of those who live alone in New Zealand, it’s not always down to a matter of preference. In many cases, older New Zealanders find themselves living alone after the death of a spouse, many of whom are women who tend to live longer than men. According to census data from 2018, more female New Zealanders (approximately 156,000) lived alone than male New Zealanders (approximately 88,000) from ages 55 and up. 

“The cost [associated with living alone] is an issue that's particularly important for women because they tend to earn a bit less,” says Koh. “So if a woman ends up living on her own it can be a lot harder than for a man who's potentially earning 10% more.”

While taking in a tenant or a boarder is one way of easing the financial burden for those who own their homes, Koh admits that it can be difficult to suddenly start sharing with another person once you get over a certain age. For renters, the challenges are even more acute, as older tenants face discrimination and an increasingly short supply of options on the market. 

For those with children, moving back in with them is another option. But other than the fact that not all of us want to be living with our parents again in adulthood (or the other way round), New Zealand’s ageing population and declining birthrate means this will be even less of a choice in the years to come. 

Housing is expensive for everyone in New Zealand right now, but for those without a partner or someone they’re comfortable enough to commit to living with on a permanent basis, there don't seem to be a whole lot of affordable options going forward. As the number of solo dwellers continues to go up, it’s another thing the government and property developers will eventually have to deal with. Overall, cities like Auckland need smaller, more efficient housing anyway, and apartment complexes designed specifically for single residents with communal areas or shared facilities to lower costs could be one option (which, in turn, would likely free up larger houses for families that need them). 

Like a lot of developed nations, many New Zealanders no longer live as traditional nuclear families. Fewer of us are getting married, fewer of us are having kids, and more of us are choosing to do things on our own. Being independent is an empowering thing – hopefully, in time, it won’t have to cost us a small fortune. 

* Name changed

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