Ben Boxer, a 21-year-old student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, knew he wanted to move out of the dorms and into an apartment for his senior year of college.
Boxer started looking for an apartment with his two roommates during the winter of 2019 — then the pandemic hit. When the roommates finally moved into the apartment in August 2020 at the start of the semester, their classes had almost all moved online.
Suddenly, their apartment needs also included workspaces and high-speed Wi-Fi to handle Zoom calls and virtual learning. "Essentially we're all just living here and attending school at the same time," Boxer tells CNBC Make It.
Budgeting as a college student
When looking for an apartment, "we all wanted to pay less than what the dorms cost," Boxer says. (Prior to moving to an apartment, Boxer shared a dorm room with two other people. A three-person suite at Carnegie Mellon University costs about $1,103 a month.)
The apartment the roommates found afforded them more space for less monthly rent. Boxer pays $800 a month for his own bedroom, and his two roommates share the second bedroom for $600 a month each.
To pay rent and handle the upfront costs of moving ($4,000 to cover the security deposit and last month's rent), Boxer, who is a former CNBC Make It intern, and his roommates saved money they'd made from their summer internships.
"We also had to cut back on our spending during the semester," he says. For example, the roommates all set monthly budgets, began tracking their spending and decided to cut back on eating out.
Desks in the 'dining room'
With most classes taking place online during the pandemic, Boxer needed a dedicated workspace at home that was separate from his roommates. "I can't imagine having to do Zoom meetings all in the same room," he says.
Boxer describes himself as "a huge nerd when it comes to technology." He created his "dream desk" in his bedroom by outfitting a simple Ikea kitchen countertop with high-tech tools like an ultrawide 5K monitor, a new Apple computer and color-changing smart lights. He also added an electric standing desk frame so he has the option to stand throughout the day.
"I actually spent well over $7,000 on a nice desk set-up to work at, and this was something that I'd saved up for well over a year," Boxer says.
The desk is the biggest investment that Boxer made in the apartment. "Now I have a really nice place to work in this apartment, get a lot of work done and I've been super productive," he says.
The roommates agreed to convert the apartment's dining room into an office space, where they have two more desks. "It's been a little bit interesting trying to share the Wi-Fi all at the same time," Boxer says. (They pay $105 a month for Wi-Fi.)
College experience during a 'crazy semester'
Getting to be around other people during an isolating time is one perk of apartment life, Boxer says. "We've been really fortunate to have this experience getting to all live together during this crazy semester," he says.
In their building, there are three other apartments with fellow students, which helps create a sense of community. Boxer has a "pod" of 10 people who he sees during the pandemic. They often hang out on his "massive" living room couch, he says.
Many of Boxer's peers who are international students weren't able to come back to campus this year. "It must be really hard for them to try to do everything entirely remotely," he says.