Over the past few months, thousands of college-bound students have likely browsed Pinterest for aesthetic dorm room inspiration, picked out their new twin XL bedding, and shoved their most cherished belongings and necessities into cars, moving boxes, and suitcases. As the excitement to move into their college dorm or apartment grew, many likely imagined how they would decorate and organize their new space — without a care or thought to the “what if” of a plan gone awry.
I should know: When I was getting ready to move to my first off-campus apartment, I imagined the space would be organized and feature plenty of storage, coordinated decorations, houseplants, and efficient appliances. I dreamed about taking bubble baths in the tub, a fridge full of fresh produce, and flowers every week for the coffee table. Of course, the reality of my situation was different from my fantasies of it, in ways Pinterest and Instagram could have never prepared me.
In Athens, Georgia, which is home to many of the University of Georgia’s 39,000 students during the school year, a significant portion of the real estate market is focused on college kids looking for off-campus housing. Yet by the time my roommates and I started looking for an apartment at the end of February for the following fall, it was already late in the game and the real estate scene had been picked over. Eventually, we heard about an apartment complex a mile from campus with one unit left. We called, toured, and signed for the last unit all in one day.
In a city where rent often climbs as high as $1,000 a month per person for off-campus student housing, it can be difficult to find a deal, and reasonably affordable housing often is reflected in the amenities. We got what we paid for: appliances from the late ‘80s, yellowing paint on walls that had been patched one too many times, and a beat-up beige carpet spotted with mysterious stains. Though we were lucky enough to have an in-unit washing machine, it was tiny and broken; a piece inside would come off and occasionally rip our clothes. Our heating and air broke frequently, and our toilets were the opposite of water-saving. The kitchen sink also leaked frequently, rendering the storage space underneath it useless.
Even though we knew the apartment wouldn’t be luxurious, it was hard for me to have an accurate image of how it would look and feel. In many movies and television shows, even cheap apartments and even college dorm rooms are decorated down to the pencil cups. While these images from pop culture are fantasy, they contribute to the idea that living spaces should be “perfect” — even if the person living there is on a budget or only there for a short amount of time.
My ideas on flawless living spaces didn’t just stem from pop culture, however: Social media is also to blame, resulting in thousands of images of pristine and color-coordinated dorm rooms, often at a parent’s expense. As Vox noted in August, consumers are expected to spend an estimated $6.8 billion on dorm decor this year, and the algorithms that prioritize idealized living spaces don’t help the impulse to contribute to that. My roommate Gianna said social media influencers used to make her feel like her space had to be “perfect and cohesive.” Another one of my roommates, Ella, said she doesn’t like the trendy look of minimalist rooms with white walls; she’d rather have a space that’s personal, colorful, and cozy, even if that means certain items clash.
We moved into our apartment in August, and given that we hadn’t been in Athens since classes went online in March, decorating was the least of our concerns. We were just excited to get out of our hometowns and see each other again. Though we each contributed furniture, appliances, and decor to the space, we never put pressure on ourselves to achieve a look meant for filming TikTok hauls or get-ready-with-me videos. But as we put our things together, we realized that we all lean towards maximalism and we’re all sentimental. We keep birthday decorations up for months, and random bits and bobbles cover almost every surface. McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, paper mache figurines, an obscene amount of candles, and Christmas lights decorate our home. Our gallery wall of notes from friends, Polaroids, and albums from Athens bands represents friends, memories, and the experiences we’ve had.
As a college student, a lot of my income goes directly to utilities, food, and gas. If I have any left over, that extra spending money goes towards clothes or entertainment, and I hardly ever have the money to invest in new home decor that isn’t from the thrift store. I also know right now is not the time in my life to splurge on any big-ticket furniture item, especially given that I’ll move who knows how many times over the next few years. The sectional in my living has been through hell and back, and any rug we invest in is destined to get something spilled all over it. For now, the wobbly, bar-height kitchen table and a short IKEA bench for a TV stand more than fit our needs.
When we signed the lease for our apartment in February 2020, we didn’t know the apartment would serve as our home, classroom, office, movie theater, restaurant, bar, you name it. And even though our apartment doesn’t feature a lot of storage, we have a lot of seemingly unnecessary things that have helped us through the pandemic. We spent nights gathered around the television, snacking on popcorn from our carnival-style popcorn machine, and mornings have been defined by the ding of our toaster oven, the screech of our blender, the beeping of our coffee maker, and the hissing of our espresso machine. While these appliances left us with little counter space, they offer us extra comfort (not to mention almost anything we could imagine for breakfast).
Maybe when I’m older I’ll want an apartment that reflects my maturity, with color-coordinating accents and details that look like a set designer placed them there. But right now, an effortlessly decorated, spotlessly clean apartment would be nearly impossible to achieve, and also unauthentic to my life. Sometimes I read the wrong pages for class, my planner gets disorganized, or I forget to show up for a Zoom meeting. My life isn’t perfect, and my home doesn’t have to be, either. My apartment reflects the stage of life I’m in — it’s a little confusing, definitely chaotic, but also just a lot of fun.
In July, my roommates and I said goodbye to my first apartment and moved into a renovated unit in the same complex — one with appliances from the 21st century, hardwood floors, tiled showers, and ceiling fans in our bedrooms. While these improvements undoubtedly elevate our space, as did the furniture my brother gave me when he moved into a smaller place over the summer, it was an unspoken rule that we would stay true to our roots by proudly displaying all of our sillier decorations. It’s far from perfect, and sometimes cluttered and chaotic, but it works for us. Most importantly, it’s home.