How To Live In A Big City On A Small Budget

by Chloe Muller on April 6, 2021

From college grads to small business owners to young married couples, many of us dream of leaving small town life and moving to an urban center. You don’t need to earn six figures in a major metropolis to live well and love your life. You can still live in a big city on a small budget.

Reality check: You will need to make some sacrifices. It took me exactly one subway ride to realize that the life of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City was possibly the most detrimental myth ever perpetuated. Samantha, sure. She was loaded. But no one who freelances by writing one advice column per week is living in a 1 bedroom apartment on East 73rd Street in Manhattan, with all those shoes, alone. In real life she’d have 6 roommates, or live in the Bronx.

However, I can wholeheartedly attest to the fact that you can get a ton of fun, food, culture and even savings from your small budget in a big city.

Here are a few tips on how to do so:

1. Shop around for the city that’s best for you. We call New York “the city” back home, because we’re the liberal elite, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one, and many of the others are warmer, friendlier and cheaper.

2. Go without a car. Many American cities have great public transportation, with monthly and even weekly discounts. In New York I paid $89 per month for an unlimited MTA pass. I could go as far as I wanted on any train, bus- and even the Staten Island ferry- with limitless transfers all month long. These days you can barely fill a gas tank on $89. If you want to get out of the city for a weekend or vacation, you can rent a car, or take the regional bus or train. Zipcar has really good rental rates. If you really need a car, look for a used one or a reasonably priced new model.

3.  Live in a cheap neighborhood. Especially with the advantage of good public transportation, you can live well outside the city center and still go anywhere in the city in under an hour. This will vary depending upon the size and layout of your city). New York City has 5 boroughs, Manhattan being the center of it all and the most expensive, though parts of Brooklyn are now just as pricey (thanks, NYU and gentrification.) I lived in a far flung Brooklyn neighborhood, but only a block from the subway. I got to work in 45 minutes. I could be in Times Square (not that I’d want to) in the same amount of time.

4. Rent instead of buying a house or apartment.

5. Get a roommate. Or several. This can cut your rent by a huge percentage. Place an ad (or search existing ones) on Craigslist or a similar site, and be specific. Make sure you have an “interview” first. Roommates can turn out to be good friends for life, or absolute nightmares. It’s all part of the fun.

One word of caution: I do NOT recommend moving in with your SO (significant other) just to save money. Do it for the right reasons, like free wifi and cable. Kidding aside, sharing living space with anyone can be intense, so carefully consider who you’re moving in with. Try to put yourself in their shoes from time to time (Figuratively, of course. Do not borrow your roommate’s shoes without asking.) And make sure that you’re being a good roommate too. Communicate openly about household issues (cleaning, shopping, shared expenses) before they become problems.

6. Cook at home and pack a lunch for work. Eating out in big cities is not cheap. Sharing the cooking and the grocery bill with roommates can cut costs too. It’s also a social activity, so skip the big nights out once in a while and stay in. Cook a big pot of spaghetti, buy a $6 bottle of wine (also cheaper in stores) and watch DVDs or play charades. If you’re out for the day on the weekend, being some snacks with you.

7. Stop the insane cell phone upgrading. Just get a phone that makes calls and sends texts. That’s all you need. A pay as you go phone is cheaper than a plan, too.

8.  Free fun. Cities are excellent for the amount of free entertainment they provide. Public parks are always free, often well maintained and beautiful, and free events like concerts, street fairs and sports competitions are also a big perk in the warmer months (or all year round in warmer states.) All libraries and many museums are also free. Most libraries now get all the newest publications as well as new release movies. Museums also frequently operate on “suggested” donations. I never paid more than a dollar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has one of the world’s most impressive art collections. Not a bad way to spend a rainy Saturday. Look into how far flung your city’s public transport is, you might even be able to take it to nearby beaches, suburban or rural towns, parks or other areas of interest. A great resource for free events is TimeOut magazine. Most major cities have one now. Save more money by checking online rather than getting a subscription.

9. This goes for anywhere you live: don’t get into debt and don’t live above your paycheck with credit cards. Most young people are already strapped with student loan debt, which is awful enough. Work at getting out of debt if you are already in it, and don’t accumulate more.

10. Make a concrete savings plan and stick to it. Of course, the initial move to a city and the next few months will be “settling in” time, but once you’re working, look at your expenses and your income to see how much you can afford to save each month. Then do it. I saved $9000 the year before I left NYC by following this strategy.

11. Skip the gym, not the workout. Gym fees are another cost you can cut. Big cities all have parks, river paths and endless miles of walking, biking or jogging potential. Search your local TimeOut or paper for donation based classes. Join a social sports team and play soccer, football or ultimate Frisbee in the park.

12.  Ditch the brand names. This goes for food, coffee, cosmetics, etc. If you really need a cup of coffee (and wifi), then I guess Starbucks is okay once in a while. Stay out of boutique stores and head to the Rite Aid instead. Though I adore Whole Foods, and there are some vegan things you might need there, try to shop at a lower priced supermarket for most everything else.

13.  Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it: Shop at the thrift store. These are fantastic places to snag a (sort of) new winter coat, a barely worn pair of Diesel jeans or an amazing designer dress that the previous owner didn’t realize would ever come back in fashion and now goes for $3. Make a day out of it with friends, then put the money you saved towards a few happy hour priced beers or a reasonably priced dinner.

14. This one hurts me to write, but so does the truth. Read the news online. I hate that the publishing industry’s financial decline signals doom for my beloved New York Times, and I love the feeling of folding back each page carefully as I lounge on the couch, but online news is free. Treat yourself to the Sunday edition if you must. That’s what I did. You’re only buying it once a week, it has more content, and you can read it throughout the week anyway.

15. House Party (II). This was a huge source of fun for me in New York, particularly when it was too cold to go out to the bar. Book clubs, wine clubs, chess clubs, Christmas parties, Thanksgiving, Superbowl, 4th of July, Administrative Assistant’s Day, Harry Potter movie marathons- I can think of any excuse to throw a house party. I like to cook and host, but if you don’t, make it a BYO or potluck event. Make the invitations open if you’re looking to make new friends.

So can this really work? Let’s do the math. Say you earn between $30,000 and $50,000 annually. After taxes, let’s say it’s more like $ 22,500 to $42,500, or $ 1875- $ 2500 per month. You can check the actual amount for your salary on the IRS website.

At the low end ($1875/ month), if you spend $500- 800 on rent (which you can totally do with roommates or spouse/ SO), that leaves at least $1000.

Bills (cable, cell phone, electric etc) can be under $200 with shared expenses.

You’ve still got at least $800. Groceries, let’s say $100 per week per person. That leaves you $400!! Save $200 and keep the rest for treats and emergencies.

At the high end ($2500/ month), using the same budget, you’d save at least $1100, which means you can afford to put a little more towards entertainment or savings.

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