In this series, we discuss the cost of big city living with little budget spending from our own experiences in New York, Boston, and LA.
Moving to New York City was a huge leap for Johnny and me. Although Johnny grew up in LA, sprawling cities build out, not up. And I grew up in small towns in Tennessee and Alabama. My first time in NYC was when Johnny took an internship there in the spring of 2009. It truly felt like a foreign place to me. Wide open spaces? zilch. Days spent without seeing a crazy person? zero. Total times I didn’t feel grimy after a day out? zip. But Johnny’s internship was temporary, so we never had to come face to face with the practicalities of City living.
And then Johnny took a job on Madison Ave. in Manhattan in 2010. Just a few months earlier we’d committed to paying off all of our school loans in two years’ time, so we were faced with a dilemma. How were we going to meet our goal while living in the most expensive city in the country? What does a budget in NYC look like? Where do you save and where do you spend? What sacrifices do you have to make in order to be able to pay off debt in the big city? I thought you’d never ask!
This was the big kahuna of expenses. We decided that if we were going to live in NYC, we’d live in the heart of it and really experience city life. Aside from that, our main requirement was to live in a safe neighborhood. So we decided on the Upper East Side, the most “reasonably priced” safe neighborhood. Our ideal budget for an apartment was $1600. Johnny flew out and saw dozens of rentals. Most weren’t even livable…shower in the kitchen, no closets or storage, etc. We ended up with a 450-square-foot “one bedroom” apartment that rang in at $1645/month. No dishwasher, no laundry. And our shower went from piping hot to freezing cold at random intervals… except during the summer when it didn’t get hotter than lukewarm.
Electric: $160 (Summer), $80 (Winter)
Our electric bill was quite pricey for how tiny our apartment was. The winter was cheaper because the heat came from radiators in our apartment, which is required by the city to be covered by landlords. Our A/C during the summer was a window unit in our bedroom, which kept only our bedroom cool. We used a floor fan in the kitchen and living room to circulate air flow.
Believe it or not, our best option for groceries in the City was by delivery. I always found coupons to cover the delivery costs, and I just made one big order every two weeks. I only went to our local grocery stores for minimal items because they were so expensive. Even after a less expensive grocery store moved in a few blocks away, it still wasn’t worth the several blocks I’d have to walk home with groceries.
Needless to say, we didn’t buy ice cream. Johnny and I also made huge Costco runs every couple months to stock up and save $$$. AND, since we didn’t have a car, and to avoid paying for a taxi (and cancelling out our savings), we carried all our Costco goods home in duffle bags and backpacks on an MTA bus to our apartment over 30 city blocks away.
Eating Out: $100
We rarely ate out, and chose instead to order takeout once a week. We also loved food carts, which usually only cost $5 per meal. And then twice a week, Johnny would get $1 pizza by the slice which put us out a whopping $4/week. We surprisingly miss $1 pizza and dirty food carts a whole lot.
Johnny had a monthly unlimited MTA pass, which cost us about $100/month. Since I worked from home and used the subway less often, I simply put $75 on a card every few months. We would share Johnny’s card when possible, too. If I met him for lunch, he would swipe me through the turnstile with his unlimited card to see me off. And we pretty much never took taxis unless absolutely necessary.
Our local laundry mat was a block and a half away. I would haul a huge bag of laundry down the sidewalk every week or so and do two loads: whites and darks. I know I overstuffed those machines, but at $3.50 PER LOAD, I didn’t care. I then put all of the clothes into one dryer, which cost me $.25 per 5 minutes. We also got Johnny’s button-up shirts dry cleaned semi-regularly. There are so many dry cleaners in NYC that it’s actually really cheap, costing only a little over a dollar a shirt.
Living in NYC is often thought of in a glamorous light. But the lives we led were far from it while we were there. But I don’t think we enjoyed ourselves any less. I loved running in Central Park, and Johnny and I loved taking night walks when the City was deserted and quiet. We took advantage of free and cheap museums and spent numerous Saturdays just walking the streets and soaking the City in. Really, the things I remember and love about our time as NYC residents had nothing to do with money at all.
How do you feel about city living? Would you ever consider it? If you’ve lived or are still living in a big city, how do you find ways to save?