How to live rent-free (or way cheaper than you are now)

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According to the 50-30-20 budget rule, no more than 50 percent of your after-tax income should be spent on shelter, food, utilities, clothing and insurance. Given how much it costs to rent or own a place to live, cutting the cost of housing is an excellent way to reduce spending in that 50-percent category.

This is particularly important if:

  • You're already living paycheck to paycheck.
  • You want to cut spending to meet a short-term goal, such as paying off consumer or education debt.
  • You've got a specific dream, like retiring early or starting your own business(or both!).

An obvious way to cut the cost of housing is to share it. Want to leave a pricey apartment but don't want a dicey replacement? Let it be known you're looking for a roommate, both in your social circle and in the workplace, your place of worship, your former sorority/fraternity or any other place compatible folks might be found.

Let it be known among your besties that you've got a room for rent. Maybe one of them is secretly hankering to save money, too, and will jump at the chance to terminate that month-to-month lease and move in. Write up a rental agreement, even if you're rooming with your BFF; that way everyone's clear on house rules, rent due dates and the like.

Suppose no friends want to bunk with you? Look elsewhere. A few options:

  • If you get a part-time job, put the word out there (folks who get 30 hours or fewer per week may be looking to share).
  • Put up a note at your place of worship.
  • The student housing/student life departments at area colleges.

Don't neglect due diligence, no matter where potential roomers are found. A site called Sharing Housing has a "housemate questionnaire," which makes a good worksheet for potential renters.

The site also has a section devoted to articles on finding good housemates. Scan these to avoid making mistakes like not checking references or allowing someone to move in even though he doesn't have all of the deposit in hand. (Hint: If he can't handle money now, what makes you think he'll be able to pay his rent on time?)

Or check with the National Shared Housing Institute, which has a directory of member organizations in 22 states and abroad. You might even land in a situation where you can work off some (or lots) of your rent, e.g., helping senior homeowners with chores.

RELATED: 10 best cities in the US where it's better to buy a home instead of rent:

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10 best big cities in the US to buy a home instead of rent

Tampa, Florida

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Charlotte, North Carolina

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Atlanta, Georgia

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Miami, Florida

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Baltimore, Maryland

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Austin, Texas

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St. Louis, Missouri

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Become a house sitter

Word of mouth is an easy way to start: Put it out in the universe that you're available. But if you're looking at house-sitting as a long-term way of life, here's a trio of resources that have been around for decades:

"Caretaking" can be as simple as picking up the mail and watering the plants, but it can also mean a full-time job caring for animals and/or a landscape. Obviously you need to have good references; with some jobs, it helps to have certain skills.

"Workamping" means you'll be putting in at least part-time hours while living in a recreational vehicle. That's usually in a campground but sometimes involves caring for private property.

Insist on a written contract. One woman I interviewed was not told she would have to pay the utilities (in Florida, in the summer). Another house sitter was surprised to learn that several large dogs lived in the home.

You also need an exit strategy. Don't spend your last dime traveling to a housesitting or caretaking job only to find out you've been misled. Suppose you are cash-poor and couldn't afford to keep the central air running during August in Miami? Or that you're not comfortable with dogs and certainly not comfortable with having to walk them and clean up after them?

Don't feel bad about backing out if the conditions under which you agreed to work were changed with no notice. But do have a place to go, and sufficient cash to get yourself there.

Look for a rent-free gig

In other words, exchange care or skills for room and board. Start in your own family circle or that of a close friend. Suppose Grandma and Grandpa want to stay out of the nursing home but the extended family can't afford help with daily living chores? Offer to move in and do some of the shopping, cooking, cleaning and yard work.

Emphasis on some — don't let other family members dump it all on you. You may need a place to live, but they cannot expect you to be on call 24/7. Arrange for two days off a week, during which other relatives (or paid help) can step in. Remember: Full-time care would cost a bundle, so you'd be saving the family a lot of money by living there.

Good with children? Maybe a friend or relative with young children will give you a place to stay in return for a certain number of hours of babysitting per week. Or check the "live-in nanny" ads.

Strong and caring? Look into a job as a live-in personal care attendant for people with health issues or as a general factotum for an elderly person who wants to remain in the home but needs some help. You'll need stellar references for this one, too, so start lining them up now.

Handy folks might be able to land spots as apartment house managers. It can be frustrating at times — say, at 2 a.m. when a drunken tenant rings the doorbell to say he's lost his keys. But not having to pay rent each month is huge.

Finally, there's always home. Few of us really want to move back into our old bedrooms. But if your parents offer, consider taking them up on it. Draw up an agreement specifying house rules and which chores you'll do. Chip in for groceries, too.

What's your experience with lowering costs for housing? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page

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