How I Moved to New York City and What I Spent the First Three Months

Times Square

Google ‘moving to New York City’ and you’ll come across many people who wonder, “Can I afford to move there?”

In the forums or blog comments you’ll be met with the same warnings:

“The average studio apartment costs $3,875. There’s no way I can afford that.”
“My salary’s nowhere CLOSE to $100,000 a year. I’m not spending my twenties living like a pauper.”
“OMG, I can’t afford to live in Manhattan just like Carrie Bradshaw, therefore, New York’s not worth moving to.”
“You better have at least $5k to rent your first apartment. You’ll drain your bank account on broker fees.”
“Date nights are gonna cost you $100 a pop, minimum.”

Here’s the consensus of the Internet: New York City is a terrible financial decision.

In 2010 I moved to New York City under what many would consider terrifying circumstances. I didn’t have a salaried job lined up, I had zero professional networking prospects, and I didn’t have a parental safety net in case I failed.

But I didn’t ask for anyone’s opinion on whether or not I should move, and I wouldn’t have listened anyway. I didn’t try to guess how much I’d spend per month. I didn’t bother looking for a full-time job from afar. Basically, I didn’t worry about how I was going to afford it.

Why?

Two Reasons I Made the Decision

1. I had faith in myself.

I’d moved to a new city before and I knew I could do it again. Because there are so many unknowns and variables I didn’t know, like what my rent would be, or my salary, moving wasn’t a financial decision based on numbers and statistics.

Since I didn’t have all the upfront information to make a logical decision, instead I asked myself, “If the very worst-case scenario happens, what would I do? Would the result be so unmanageable?” The worst that could happen was that I’d run out of money, and so then I’d just move back home. I decided I could handle that risk.

2. To me, asking whether or not you can afford to move was the wrong question.

The real question was: did I think the opportunities outweighed the risk? Sometimes you have to be willing to take a temporary hit for the sake of opportunity.

For me, the answer was a resounding yes.

My life before was perfectly fine. But there was one thing missing: I felt stuck in my job. Post-college, I saw myself working in a creative field, like publishing, advertising, or media. But there were only a dozen or so creative companies in Boston, where I lived at the time. If I was going to advance my career I’d have to move to where the jobs in my desired field were. And that meant only one place: New York.

The city is a place of relentless competition, but just as many opportunities. To maximize your chance of success, there is ONE thing you will need to thrive:

A willingness to make things work no matter what.

It doesn’t have anything to do with money or connections or a job. It’s about who you are.

If you are determined to make it work, then you will figure it out, even if things aren’t perfect. Because they won’t be perfect. If you don’t have this quality, I’d advise you to stay put.

People will tell you you need to pay a crazy-high broker’s fee to lease an apartment. Or that there’s no acceptable borough to live in besides Manhattan. Or that you will have no other choice than to spend $1000 a month on food. Those people are wrong.

You’ll need to trust your intuition. To have that drive to get creative and make it work. To put on your common sense headphones and tune out the noise.

The Four Steps That Actually Matter

1. Set a date and tell some friends you’re moving

This is important. You’re going to need motivation and accountability to increase your chances of going through with the plan. Studies show that if you tell people about your goal, to avoid looking bad in front of of others, you’re more likely to follow through. To give yourself that extra nudge, set a moving date and announce it to your friends.

2. Physically get yourself to New York

By bus, train, plane, whatever. If you’re in the US, a plane ticket shouldn’t cost more than $600.

3. Find a sublet or month-to-month lease

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to lock yourself into an apartment lease before you move. In fact, I think leases are a distraction you don’t need to waste time on. What if you decide you hate the city after a few months? What if you chose the wrong neighborhood? What if your roommate decides to eat all your food? These are all reasons why I strongly encourage anyone who moves to New York to focus on finding a sublet or month-to-month situation on Craigslist first. Do research on a few neighborhoods you think you’ll like, send charming introduction emails, and then line up appointments for one day where you can visit/Skype, etc.

This is the exact picture of the room that I moved into.

New York City Apartment
My first New York City apartment

Was this a room, or a crack den??? I could have easily ghosted based on the picture, but I took it. I kept my eye on the goal: being in New York, in a month-to-month lease, so I could get a lay of the land. The gears started churning: I could paint the room another color. I could buy some elbow-length gloves to scrub it down. Again, I knew my living situation wasn’t the end-all be all. If I wanted to change it so badly, it was up to me to make it happen.

4. Have money saved up

It goes without saying, but this varies since everyone’s expenses are different. I had a little less than $10k saved, which I fast-tracked by cutting down on both shopping and going out for a few months. My arbitrary goal was $12k, but that didn’t happen by the moving date I set. Since the $2k deficit wasn’t the critical path, $10k was good enough for me to move forward with the plan.

Everything else you can figure out as you go. If you wait for the perfect scenario to move, then you’ll always find some excuse not to do it. Like I said, set up the four things above, have the drive to make it work, and chances are you’ll be OK.

Ask Your Current Company If You Can Work Remotely (But Having a Job Already Lined Up Isn’t a Requirement)

Full disclosure: I lined up two work-from-home jobs before moving:

  • At one previous job, we hired a lot of freelancers. I asked my old coworkers if they needed any help. They did, so I signed up to work on a project basis, at $15/hr.
  • The second job also allowed me to work from home. It was the job I left for NY, and I negotiated $40/hr to complete a project I started. I had leverage, because no one else in the department knew how to finish the project except for me.

Even if I didn’t have these freelance jobs, I would have moved anyway. But they were icing on the cake. Both gigs were part-time (I never worked more than 20 hours a week total), and were going to dry up after a few months. Pro tip: NEVER burn bridges with previous companies. You don’t know when they might be able to help you in the future.

Take “Average” Expenses with a Grain of Salt

If you’ve never done something before, it’s natural to ask someone who’s been through it how they did it. But make sure you ask the right person. Any time you encounter an article on average expenses for New York, you should always be wary, because averages are skewed by design. It means half the people spend more than the average, and half spend less. If someone spends $50,000 a month, then the average will be skewed really high. If you’re on a personal finance blog, you don’t want to be average. What is more important to you is not just the median: you also need to gather numbers from people who actually did it themselves, people who are like you with a similar lifestyle. For example, it doesn’t make any sense for me to get numbers from a Wolf-on-Wall-Street type, because I don’t live the lifestyle of expensive drugs and hookers 🙂

To give you an idea of what I spent the first three months, here are the exact expenses I pulled from Mint. My expenses are for a single person, no kids, sharing a 3-bedroom in a ridiculously nice neighborhood in Brooklyn.

September 2010
$800 – Rent + Utilities
$261.31 – Home
$234.11 – Moving Transportation
$172.06 – Food/Going Out
$119 – Subway and Visits Back to Boston
$60.45 – Health & Fitness
$59.82 – Entertainment
$41.00 – Phone
$40.00 – Personal Care
$40.00 – Miscellaneous
$10 – Shopping
September Total – $1,797.75

October 2010
$800 – Rent + Utilities
$215.79 – Food/Going out
$118.75 – Personal Care
$116 – Subway and Visits Back to Boston
$41.00 – Phone
$40.00 – Miscellaneous
$35.62 – Health & Fitness
$25.25 – Zipcar
$23.89 – Shopping
$9 – Portfolio for Job Hunting
October Total – $1,427.55

November 2010
$800 – Rent + Utilities
$342.63 – Shopping (someone got fancy here)
$220.51 – Food/Going Out
$170.83 – Home
$146.50 – Subway and Visits Back to Boston
$41.00 – Phone
$40.00 – Miscellaneous
$34.30 – Health & Fitness
$9 – Zipcar
November Total – $1,804.91

Of course, inflation pads these numbers a little bit for 2017, but I just looked on Craigslist, and there are still plenty of rooms to be had for less than $1000 a month. For a more detailed breakout, I think Stefanie’s is pretty solid.

After three months, I  found a full-time, contract job for $27/hr (I negotiated!), in the exact industry I wanted. If I hadn’t, I still would have had another five months of savings to hustle some sort of income, which I think most people would be able to do. If you’re making at least a salary of $35,000/year, you could spend similarly. Never did I feel like I was deprived or slumming it. In fact, aside from basic expenses like food and transportation, I also spent on extras, like going out with my friends and shopping.

Know You Can Change Your Situation

As I mentioned earlier, you might have some temporary setbacks. You might not be able to pad your savings account at first. You might not get your dream job right out of the gate. But a temporary setback is just that–temporary. You will find another job. Think about it: Do you know anyone who’s gotten stuck at the same exact job for 50 years?

It took me a few months to change my situation. I found a better room that didn’t have purple walls and slanty floors. And then a higher-paying full-time job a year later. While I was working freelance I had the freedom to pursue entry-level gigs in fashion, just to test out whether or not I’d like it. I wouldn’t have been able to try that anywhere else.

The Takeaway

Don’t let other people’s scare tactics distract you. If you want to move to New York, get rid of most of your things, mine knowledge from people who are like you, find a place to live, and hedge your bets with savings. If you take that risk, and have the willingness to make it work, you’ll be rewarded by living in one of the best cities in the world.

People who live in New York: how much did you spend when you first moved here?
People who want to move to New York: what’s stopping you?

Image: The Luxe Strategist

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  • Jane @ Cash Fasting

    Yes!! NYC can absolutely be affordable; I keep telling my friends and family back home that. I moved here in May of 2016. My average monthly expenses have been just shy of $2,000, but I also landed a job with a decent salary. That said, I’m flabbergasted that some people are willing to pay $2K a month for a place. There are plenty of options well under that.
    Thanks for sharing!

    cash-fasting.com

    • Expenses of $2k a month is stellar for NYC, and nice to know the expenses I listed are still holding up.

      And yes, $2k on rent per person? That’s a hard no for me.

      Thanks for the retweet–so sweet!!!

  • Really looking forward to reading more about your move and NYC in general. In college I thought I wanted to move there since I was a finance major but life pulled me other ways. I now get to visit the city 2-3 times a year for work and it is AMAZING!

    Love to see the numbers that it can be affordable. Also love your mindset and attitude going into the move. A good solid plan and foundation but letting nothing really get in your way. Also being an analyst in my day job I always love the opportunities/risk argument.

    Thanks for posting!
    -Cameron

    • NY is a great place to visit; a terrible place to live. Kidding, sort of. For sure, there will definitely be more posts showing #s in the future. Stand by!

  • Finance Patriot

    Another great article that is easy to read and easy to follow. I agree completely that people way over pay and don’t really gain additional happiness. When I graduated college, my share of the rent was $250 in WI, and I had two roommates in a 3 bedroom, 2 bath apartment. yup, $250 was it, $800 rent total for the place. No one I worked with could believe I paid so little (they all had one bedroom apartments).

    I would also like to say that your analogy of “not being able to afford” NYC is the same kind of push-back you will get once you tell everyone you are retiring early, with your lifestyle should hopefully happen very young. People will tell you it can’t be done, or the market is going to crash (hint, the stock market is 77% more likely to go up in any given year than decline). All the haters will be wrong. Like Taylor Swift said, the “haters gonna hate hate hate.”

    I think you have the perfect mix, a City that has great salaries and yet you combine that with a low cost of living. That’s a lethal combination.

    • Yeah, I remember sharing a bedroom with my best friend in college and only paying $187 a month. Now I can only dream of those rent prices…

      “People will tell you it can’t be done” – yeah, that was my main point in this post, that there are so many excuses people make up to avoid doing things. If you really want to move to a new place there are only a few things you need in order to do so. And no, you don’t need a job, despite what anyone says.