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How I Managed To Live Off Friends For Free Without Being Hated

The romantic view of big cities like New York is that you can show up with a few pennies in your pocket and make yourself into something fierce and successful and, eventually, rich as hell.

Here's what's usually left out: it takes awhile to earn enough to match sky-high living costs.

That's when people – including myself just a few years ago – turn to friends who'll let them crash for free while their career heats up.

There's a smart and a not-so-smart way to conduct yourself when living the couch surfer lifestyle. Here's how to be sure you won't overstay your welcome: 

Give as much notice as possible. I get it. Sometimes job opportunities crop out up out of nowhere and you can't let them slip away, no matter how costly the move or anemic your bank account might be. But when you start sending out feelers for a place to stay, you want to give your hosts as much notice as possible. Explain why everything happened so suddenly and they're likely to be more understanding. Have firm dates in mind for your stay and be as flexible with their availability as possible.

Don't ask via social media. E-mail is today's handwritten letter, so take the time to send a thoughtful message to your future host. A request sent via Facebook or even a direct message on Twitter can seem off-putting to someone you're asking to open up their home at no cost. And try not to sound too desperate in the subject line (Bad: "I'M HOMELESS PLEASE HELP!!!!!"/Good: "Would you be willing to host me?"). 

Pack light. Please, for the love of everything that is tactful, do not bring your entire closet with you. Your goal as a guest is to make yourself as un-burdensome as physically possible and no host wants to trip over your 50-pound suitcase on their way to work in the morning. Bring a small bag and have the rest of your belongings shipped over once you've settled into your place. If you need to make a quick move, you'll be glad you did. 

Follow the "Vampire Rule."    Unless your host invites you into a certain room, you should basically pretend you'll burn to ashes the minute you cross the threshold.  I once hosted a couch surfer and found her lounging at my work desk  – in my bedroom – one day. It was very unpleasant.  

Small gestures go a long way. No one's expecting you to earn your stay like an indentured servant but doing the dishes after a meal or simply folding and storing your bedding each morning are little ways of paying it forward. If they have kids, offer to babysit once a week or help them with their homework. You'd be surprised how often they just want someone to chat with after a long day at work. 

Break up your stay. Ben Franklin said it best: "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days." Take a page from that braniac's book and limit your stay to under a week. If your host insists you can stay longer, then by all means accept the invitation, but it's a good idea to line up new places to stay every 3 to 5 days. Try finding a host on CouchSurfing.org (I've met some incredible people that way). They're often very knowledgeable of their towns can be great tour guides in their own towns. 

Don't pilfer their fridge. Nobody wants to open their junk food drawer and find their guest's helped herself to all the Doritos. And if you really want to get kicked out in a hurry, I dare you to drink all the coffee. Try to scrounge whatever food you can on a tight budget and get used to the idea of not eating out straight away. Most hosts will eventually offer to share meals but the key word there is "offer." Wait for it.

Mimic their schedule. This is the most annoying part of couch surfing, but it's a good idea to tailor your schedule to your host's. If they turn in early at night, you won't do yourself any favors stumbling in at 4 a.m. during the work week. Remember, you're living rent-free and sometimes that comes with a few adjustments.

Be mindful of utilities. You're not paying the water or light bill but someone else is. Do them the courtesy of not using up all the hot water in the morning. Turn off lights after you leave rooms and keep a power strip handy, which is a simple way to shut off your electronics at night and save energy.

Don't miss: 10 signs that your neighborhood's property value is declining >

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