Saturday, June 24, 2017

Little things to make your grad student or adjunct hovel feel like a home

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I thought I'd take a weekend break from beauty posts for something a little different. I'm so not a lifestyle blogger, and I really couldn't be, because there's nothing aspirational about my lifestyle. That kind of comes with the territory when you get a Ph.D., especially in the humanities, these days. It's been three years since I got my degree, and I still don't have a permanent job, which is unfortunately not an unusual position to be in. I'm not saying that I wouldn't have gone to grad school if I'd known, necessarily, but the uncertainty has been a source of intense anxiety and stress for the past few years. (Besides, I started my Ph.D. program in 2007, before things became quite so dire, so I couldn't have known.)

I'm lucky enough to make enough money for everything I need, but I don't have extra money for things like new, coordinating furniture. Most things in my apartment were either free or the cheapest items available at Target or Ikea at the time, and as a result I have a hodgepodge of colors and finishes and styles. Let's just call it eclectic. What's more, I have moved every year for the past four years, and I'll be moving again this summer, so there's never much sense trying to find furniture to fit my apartment du jour, even if I had the resources to do so. It's fine--I don't need a fancy house--but I am someone who is pretty affected by my environment, and I find it easier to relax and to get things done if the space I'm in is visually (and otherwise) pleasant. As a result, I've collected some things over the years that make my home, if nothing else, a place I don't hate to be in. None of these are earth-shatteringly unique, but I'm hoping that maybe someone else here will find something to make their lives a tiny bit more materially comfortable too.

Framed Posters, Prints, or Maps

I like to have lots of things to hang on my walls since I tend to move from apartment to apartment every year or so. Because I know I'm going to again soon, I can't be bothered to paint my walls, and so I need to cover as much of the depressing, standard-rental off-white as possible. Posters are cheap, and they always look better in a frame. One of my favorite posters is the Polish Cleopatra poster above, but I can't find it for sale anywhere at the moment, though I got it a few years ago from Movie Poster Shop. (Amazon has lots of other great Cleopatra posters, fyi.) I also have a poster for the movie Cat People, which I've never seen, but it seemed appropriate.

I've bought cheap, plain black frames both from Ikea (cheapest) and from Amazon.

Another source of art in my apartment is a book of historic maps of Rome, which you can see in the first photo in this post. The pages in these books are designed to be removed and framed, and they include both maps and other images like etchings and vintage travel posters. You can get a books for a bunch of major cities: Paris, Chicago, San Francisco, etc.

Also, obviously, hanging your art using 3M Command Strips is the easiest way to make sure you can get everything to hang straight and (usually) not damage your rental walls in the process.

Good Sheets and Towels

It's not only a good idea to have things that look nice, it also helps me to have things that feel nice. We were lucky enough to get an amazing new mattress as a wedding gift from my mother-in-law, and I think that's the thing I'll miss the most during the next year when we move into a couple of furnished places temporarily. But even when we had a shitty Ikea bed, having decent sheets made it a lot more pleasant to sleep in. My sister got me hooked on these bamboo sheets (here's another set from Amazon) that breathe really well and just get softer and softer the more you use them.

Thick, soft towels are another luxury that's surprisingly affordable. My favorites are the Ralph Lauren brand--the big bath towel is usually about $15.

Good Coffee and Tea

As I said, this isn't exactly groundbreaking advice, but being able to make good coffee and tea (if you like coffee and tea) yourself is both a great way to save money and a nice treat, especially when you're writing at home. By "good," I really don't mean expensive. In fact, some of my favorite coffee is Trader Joe's Dark Roast, and I absolutely love Trader Joe's English Breakfast tea, which is $3 for a huge box. Otherwise I usually just buy whatever decent whole bean coffee is on sale at the grocery store. My favorite tea brand is Harney & Sons, which I've seen at Walgreens, but also purchase frequently on Amazon. Their Hot Cinnamon Spice/Sunset teas are delicious and magically sweet without sugar (seriously, you don't need to add sweetener). The Paris and Earl Grey Supreme teas are great too. I've bought them loose and bagged. (I also love the tins they come in, but I haven't figured out a good way to reuse them. Any ideas?)

If you prefer loose tea, but you're on the go a lot and don't want to keep a soggy infuser in your cup all day, you can get disposable empty tea bags. They're really convenient. I get my cheap travel mugs from Hollar.

I don't have a fancy coffee machine. I prefer to use a French press because it's easy and inexpensive. (I've also used a Moka pot in the past, but I'm much more prone to burning my coffee that way.) We have the Café du Chateau French press (above), which isn't fancy, but it has a lifetime guarantee, and since the lifespan of a French press in my household is about two years, I expect to get my money's worth. In fact, I've already successfully tested their replacement policy, because the first pot I bought had a slightly warped base that made it wobble, and they sent me a new one with 2-day shipping right away.

I also have an excellent hand-cranked grinder, which isn't something you really need, because you can usually grind your coffee beans to the right consistency in the store. It's easier to find coarse-ground coffee (like the stuff from Gevalia) in stores these days, too. But I like having a grinder, and I much prefer mine to those extremely loud powered grinders. My other special gadget is a fancy electric kettle with different temperature settings, which means I won't overheat my water for the French press or for green tea. I made do with a cheap stovetop kettle for many years, though.


As someone with a completely black thumb, I avoided plants in my apartment for a long time. Somehow, however, I've managed to keep this orchid alive and even blooming for years now, against all odds (thank you orchid food). But I really can't overstate how much nicer a space will look and feel with a little greenery in it. Here are some plants that might not die even if your space isn't well lit.

Velvet Hangers

Like me, maybe your apartment is a mess, but you try to keep your wardrobe looking decent. Those velvet-coated hangers are really worth getting, because they stop your clothes from sliding off and crumpling on the floor, and they also prevent necks and shoulders from stretching out as they sag on a slippery plastic hanger. Plus they're slim, so you can fit more clothes into a tiny closet. You can get them just about anywhere (e.g. Amazon, Hollar).

Jewelry Display

Hanging my jewelry in the open both creates a pretty decoration in my bedroom and also lets me see everything at once so that it's easier to decide what to wear when I'm half asleep and getting ready to go to campus. I have these cheap racks shaped like lyres, and they do the trick quite well.

A Cat

When my cat died this past winter, my husband and I both felt like there was something important missing from our home. We're Cat People, after all, and I've lived with a cat my whole life. But we knew we would be moving before the end of the year and that it would be harder to find a temporary place to live with a pet. So we decided to sign up at our local animal shelter to provide a foster home for one of the cats there. They sent us Lucia (above, and more photos on Instagram), who was surrendered by her family after living with them for 11 years, ever since she was a kitten. She was so stressed out in the shelter that she wouldn't eat. She loves living with us, though (in fact, she's getting a little too fat . . . ), and we've really enjoyed having her around to keep us company. (She's up for adoption here, if you happen to be in Michigan or know someone who would like to adopt her! Her adoption fee will be waived until the end of June. We're going to have to find her a new foster home if she's not adopted by the middle of next month.)

If you are an animal lover, but can't adopt an animal for one reason or another (like your job is temporary or you're going to move after grad school), I highly recommend fostering. Most organizations who put animals into foster homes will pay for some (in our case, all) of the supplies you need in return for your housing the cat or dog. If you can afford to pay for food, etc., even better--either way, you get a fuzzy houseguest and you make a homeless animal very happy.

Your turn! Tell me what sorts of little pleasures you have that make your home cozier. I can always use some more inspiration.


  1. I am cheap so we do Costco coffee, I love Bigelow flavored teas, Tetley black tea if I'm feeling a little more luxurious, for loose leaf tea (with reusable steepers from ikea), And my favorite wedding gift ever is an electric kettle that I use for everything from tea to oatmeal to baby bottles.

    My husband gardens on our apartment balcony and I've had succulents but between the squirrels, limited sunlight and Chicago winter nothing survives out here.

    He also doesn't hang things on walls because he didn't want to lose the deposit but we've since had kids so that deposit is long gone now lol. Really, I guess all of the comfort is in the kitchen.

  2. I feel you re: moving frequently. I've been in Toronto since April 2016, which is my longest in one place since 2012. I've moved eight times in the past 5 years. And of course I'm moving again in August, so everything I've set up here is slowly getting packed up. My standard strategies are prints and fake flowers. I go to stationery stores and get nice big prints that they sell as wrapping paper and then get cheap black frames from IKEA and I end up with something that looks like it cost more than $12. I actually have an orchid now too that I've miraculously kept alive for a month, but all my other plants are fake so I don't have to worry about them. I also like having smaller decorative items that I can easily move with me for comfort and continuity. And my final strategy is to view everything I own as potential decoration. Like, I have my shoes on a bookshelf (very Instagram of me, I know) because that way they're a part of the decor instead of clutter next to my door.

    The velvet hangers are the absolute best! I get big packs at Dollarama whenever I'm there because I never want to be in a situation where I am lacking enough of them. I don't know why anyone still makes wooden or wire hangers, because velvet is the clear way to go!

    I've considered fostering a cat while I'm doing my Master's, but I worry that I would get too attached. Like, I miss my ex's cat more than I miss her, so if I actually lived with one, I don't know if I could say goodbye!


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