How to Save When You Live in New York City

How to Save When You Live in New York City
Updated: 7/15/17

If you live in an expensive city it’s easy for money to slip through your fingers like sand.

With $3,000 studio apartments, $16 cocktails, and gym memberships that cost as much as car insurance, it’s no wonder people say you need at least $200,000 salary to get by. These things can seem like unavoidable facts of city life. And they can add up fast.

But are they really unavoidable? And with a median income of $85,200 for a three-person family, how is the average person not only making it, but thriving?

Like everything else in life, it pays to question the “default” way of doing things. Because spending half your salary to live in Manhattan is asking for a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle.

I think you can do better than that.

With a little resourcefulness and a few life hacks, saving money doesn’t have to be about eating ramen at home every night or saying goodbye to your social life. You didn’t move to a city to live like a hermit, so why bother if you don’t take advantage of all it has to offer?

So here are some ways to save in an expensive city without totally hating your life. Oh, and I’ve included some NYC-specific suggestions for maximum usefulness, but the principles can apply no matter where you live.

When It Comes to Housing, Live Below Your Means

If there’s one thing on this list to focus on getting right, make it this one. I’d argue that if you knock this one out of the park, you could even slack off on all the other tips. Here in NYC, landlords have this rule where your salary has to be 40X your rent. So, for example, if I was making $50,000, the most I could “afford” would be $1,250. That’s about 30% of your gross pay. Any more than that and HUD thinks you’re rent burdened.

My idea: try to pay no more than 20% of your gross salary on rent. That’s right. A full 10% less than the norm. How the hell? If you can’t live alone without spending 20% or less, find a roommate situation in your favorite neighborhood. If you do want to live alone, live further out in a less-happening neighborhood. Here’s why:

Both savings and expenses compound over time. For example, at one point I made enough money to live alone and pay up to $2,000 a month. However, I continued to live with my two roommates and paid no more than $950 per month. This means I was banking an extra $1,050 per month, which turns out to be $12,600 a year. What would you do with an extra $12,000 a year? You could buy 6 designer bags. Or go on 8 vacations a year. Or invest it all and make even more money. So, if you’re paying more than 20% of your salary on rent, make sure it’s a conscious choice and that it’s truly your top priority.

And when it comes to your living situation, it pays to be insanely thoughtful before making a decision. Because moving costs money. Packing and purging blows. Having to pony up a new security deposit is painful. Humans are creatures of comfort. When we’re settled in nicely in a luxurious apartment, most people would just stay put, unless they absolutely had to move. Housing is the one decision that’s the hardest to change, so take the time to get it right in the first place.

Brownstones in Brooklyn
Did you know that Manhattan isn’t the only borough you can live in? Here are some pretty brownstones in Brooklyn.

Which leads me to my next point…

Don’t Rely on Brokers to Find Your Apartment

I have not paid a dime in brokers’ fees in NYC. Most brokers will charge you 15% of the annual rent. So, if your rent is $2,000, you’d have to pay $3,600 in fees. Just because the broker has access to listings you don’t. So doing the work to find your own apartment can save you thousands. If you’re looking to live alone, focus only on the ‘By Owner’ section of Craigslist. If an apartment is by owner, it’s most likely going to be a small-time landlord. Small-time landlords will be more concerned about keeping good tenants and will be less likely to jack up the rent on you. For example, my SO has lived in the same 2-bedroom apartment for almost 7 years. And it’s owned by, you guessed it, a small-time landlord. When he moved in the rent was $2,450. Seven years later? It’s $2,550. So that equals about a $14 increase each year, which is excellent. Meanwhile, our neighbors who moved in two years ago pay $2,800 for the same exact apartment.

Want a 100% fool-proof way to avoid thousands of dollars in brokers’ fees? Then shack up in an established apartment with roommates.

When It Comes to Food, Explore Other Neighborhoods

Convenience comes with a cost. Don’t buy food from the bodega around the corner from your apartment. That’s how you end up with a $10 pint of ice cream. Look beyond your neighborhood, and you’ll find your grocery bill drastically reduced. Trader Joe’s might not be in your neighborhood but maybe it’s on the way home from work. Chinatown is also a great place for ethnic ingredients and super cheap produce.

Hong Kong Supermarket
So many hot sauce options at Hong Kong Supermarket in Chinatown.

Stock Up When There Are Sales and Shop Online

There’s no reason to ever buy toilet paper or paper towels full price. If you prefer a brick-and-mortar store, only buy these items when there’s a sale at your local pharmacy. I had a Rite Aid near me, and I would always check the weekly flyers online to see what was on sale. If you’re buying in bulk, Amazon has some great deals, and their Subscribe and Save program can save you up to an extra 15%. Take advantage of new customer discounts at Google Express, FreshDirect and Peapod. By signing up for Google Express I got Whole Foods to deliver a huge jug of oil that I normally would have had to pay them $9 to deliver. And yes, we have a Costco in Sunset Park. Personally, I couldn’t find enough stuff to buy to make it worth the membership fee, but this could make sense for others in the city.

Already used up the new customer discounts? So, create a new account with a different e-mail address.

Maximize That Metro Card

If you live in a major city, you probably have an excellent transportation system. For us New Yorkers, it costs $2.75 to go from the southernmost corner of Brooklyn all the way to the opposite corner in Manhattan. That’s a total steal. If you have a regular 9-5 job outside of the home, swipe that monthly metro card like there’s no tomorrow. If you work from home or have an irregular schedule, a pay-as-you-go card might make more sense for you. Supplement as necessary with a bike for close-by trips.

Cabs should only be used when it’s late and you feel unsafe where you are, or if you’re running late to something important.

Find Friends Who Are Frugal

If your friend group is super spendy, well, it’s going to take a ton of willpower to be frugal when you’re around them. First, don’t feel the urge to keep up with other people. Understand that they may not have the same financial circumstances as you. They could have financial help (let’s face it: so many people in NYC do!), credit card debt, or might be living paycheck to paycheck. If they’re constantly suggesting expensive activities, they probably don’t know you’re trying to be frugal. Be honest with them. If they’re real friends they’ll make an effort to find more affordable things to do, or will understand when you turn them down every now and then.

Always Check Happy Hour Deals

Let’s be real: you’re going to go out for food and drinks no matter what. So pick a place that has a happy hour. There are plenty of sites that list happy hours, but I’ve found the most accurate source is Yelp. Use their filters to pinpoint an area and either use the ‘happy hour’ filter or search for ‘happy hour’. And happy hours don’t apply just to food and drinks, either. I’ve been to a couple birthday parties at karaoke spots and spent half the usual price just by going a few hours earlier.

Pro-Tip: Places with good happy hours tend to close down after a while, so before heading out, call places first to make sure the deals are still happening.

Make Your Own Coffee at Home

At $2.50 per cup bought every week day, that’s $600 a year. My SO used to buy a coffee out every single morning. One of the first things he did to cut down on spending was buy a $20 coffee maker where you could program the brew time. That way we can set it up before bed and we wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Best decision ever.

Don’t Ever Buy New Furniture

After moving into a new place, your next step is to buy furniture. But why does it have to be brand new? Aside from your mattress (because eww, bed bugs), stalk secondhand furniture from Craigslist. Think about it: there are tons of people in the city with high-paying jobs and discerning taste. That means you’re more likely to find more variety and better-quality items when you live in a city.

Yet another plus for living with roommates is the common areas in the apartments will most likely already be furnished. That means you’ll only need a bed and a desk for your room, which is a lot more manageable than furnishing an entire apartment.

Work Out for Free

Yeah, you might see a celebrity at gyms like Equinox and SoulCycle, but they can cost hundreds of dollars a month. If you’re on a budget, consider joining a sports team, using a workout app like Workout Trainer to exercise at home (which I used to do), or volunteering your time for discounted classes. I personally love street running, as it helps me see the city in a new way.

Prospect Park
People exercising for free in Prospect Park.

Get Creative With Date Ideas

Controversial opinion: Dinner and drinks is pretty played for a first date. Also, do you really want to drop $80 on someone you don’t even know? Someone you probably will never see again? My favorite first dates were just going for a walk in a park, or even walking around the city.

We Have Amazing Libraries. Use Them.

You’ll never need to a buy a book again. With dozens of libraries in the city, all you have to do is reserve an item online and it can be delivered to your branch of choice when it’s ready. Borrowing e-books is my favorite thing ever because hello, instant gratification. Aside from books, libraries are great place to hang out and browse. The Netflix options are crappy this month? The library has tons of DVDs you can rent out. For free. Japanese fashion magazines? We’ve got those, too.

Free Events Are Everywhere. Look Them Up.

What cities lack in affordable housing they make up for in the sheer number of free and low-cost events. In NYC, there’s almost never a reason to pay the admission fee to museum. Check the list of free museum days. And subscribe to The Skint, which sends out a daily e-mail of the best free events happening around the city. Also follow your favorite brands on social media. I personally follow a lot of fashion brands, because that’s what I’m into.

Other excellent events sources:

Bareburger
A free burger I heard about from The Skint.

Plan Ahead, Always

Going out for the day when it’s 80 degrees out? You’re probably going to get thirsty. Bring a water bottle with you so you don’t have to buy water when you’re out. Headed to the club? Pre-game at home first. Hitting up a cocktail bar? Have a drink limit in mind. I personally won’t buy more than two drinks when I’m out. Tired from work and want to gorge on Seamless? Hey, we’ve all been there. Eat half of what you ordered and save the rest for lunch.

Take Advantage of Work Benefits

Wanna be smarter than 99% of your coworkers? Then take the time to read your benefits package from cover to cover.

By enrolling in my company’s pre-tax transit program, I’m saving about $30 a month on commuting costs. That’s $360 a year.

My SO’s company offers $8 movie tickets. Retail cost for movies here is about $15, which is crazy. My company also offers discounts to gyms, even high-end ones like Equinox. Don’t over pay because you didn’t take an hour out of your day to educate yourself on benefits you’re entitled to.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

You moved to the city for a reason. Probably because of the countless opportunities that the city offers. Maybe you wanted to work in fashion. Or act on Broadway. Or work on Wall Street. When living here gets hard (because it will), then remember why you moved here in the first place. When it’s late and cold outside, and it would be so easy to pay surge pricing for a car ride home, thinking about the goals you’re trying to achieve will help avoid temptation.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to city living, strategically focus on your biggest expenses, like your housing situation. Doing this alone could result in thousands of dollars in savings. And with a little bit of know-how and an opportunistic attitude, enjoying the city doesn’t have to cost a dime.

What are some ways you save in the city?

Images: The Luxe Strategist

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  • Adventure Rich

    These are great tips! I need to send this post to a few of my NYC friends 🙂 I like your idea to explore ways of shopping, both in other neighborhoods and by utilizing online shopping. And working out for free… yes! It is ridiculous how expensive some gyms can get when there are so many free resources in local parks, outdoor areas and even online for indoor workouts (youtube!).

    • Thanks for reading! Yeah, I definitely get why people pay for gyms, but I personally can’t do it myself. A lot of people HATE running, too, but I don’t mind it at all!

  • My Strategic Dollar

    I can’t even imagine trying to be frugal in NYC. You’ve provided some great tips, but I feel I’d still be pissed at the prices I’d be paying even on the cheap.

    • Ha, yeah. If you told me when I was younger that I’d be paying RENT that is more than $2k a month, I probably would have laughed at you. NYC has this way of making you accept outrageous things as “just the way they are”; hence, why I wanted to write this. Besides housing though, plenty of things can be had on the cheap.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Alicia McElhaney

    I love these all! I would add that there are ways to go to the movies for super cheap, like getting an NYC ID card, which gets you a free membership to BAM Rose, which means $5 movie tickets. Syndicated BK is also a great movie theater!

    • I remember when the NYC ID card came out and the lines were intense! I figured my work benefits could get me the same stuff for free, but I didn’t know about BAM Rose. I actually wanted to see a movie there, but decided to go elsewhere because I didn’t have discounted movie tickets! I need to do another post about actual cheap stuff to do, because I thought it would be out of scope for this one, heh.

  • Reid@WealthRehab.com

    I think you have everything covered Luxe. Having frugal friends are key in this city. I live in Brooklyn on a single income for a family of 4. And my friend group has been there if we needed childcare or a carpool. You really have to think outside the box in this city. But it is worth it.

    • A single income for a family of 4 is impressive! I didn’t even want to touch daycare costs, so it’s awesome you have friends to help you out. Thinking outside of the box is key, and I love finding ways to stick it to the city.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Church

    My wife and I live in NYC, so this post is much appreciated. My humble recommendation is a side-hustle OR a life-hack, depending on if you own a car or not (I actually wrote a piece on it). The company’s name is called Turo – basically an Airbnb of cars.

    We rent cars once a month to go visit my family in PA or hers up in CT. And sometimes it is just nice to leave the city for the weekend. All the major car rental agencies, even zip car, are way too expensive compared to be renting with. With Turo, we find deals anywhere from $32-$54 dollars per day.

    And thank the Heavens above for Happy Hour specials and $1 pizza slices…

    • Oh, I didn’t know you were local! What’s your URL? I don’t see it in your profile.

      I’ve never heard of Turo, but I have heard about car-shares like that. Seems like a game changer, especially as we go up to the Northeast a lot. I see a lot of the cars are in NJ, but that’s closer than what we do (go to CT). I’ll have to compare the costs. I actually wrote draft post about how I save on car rentals. It’s pretty complicated, but I can’t stand to pay $80 a day for a rental in the city. It’s insane.

      Dollar pizza slices are a godsend when I’m super busy at work.

      • I just updated the DISQUS profile to include my details, I am a newbie to this blogging stuff

        Here is my Turo post> http://www.mymattressmoney.com/turo-the-reversible-belt-of-side-hustling-life-hack/

        It is one of my first posts, so go easy on me. Would love to hear if there are differences between car-shares and Turo.

        • Glad to see a profile pic, at least. And they say if you aren’t embarrassed about your early stuff then you’re doing it wrong. I keep telling myself I’m gonna go back and fix my old posts…

          Oh, so Turo used to be RelayRides. I like the idea in concept, but I have the tolls here. That’s one thing I get to bypass by picking up the car in CT.

          Also, are you on Twitter? It really helps to connect with other bloggers.

  • I love your #1 tip of living below your means in terms of housing. Very relevant to me today because my SO and I finally decided on where we’re living when we move to NYC – and it’s cheaper than our place here in Toronto. I’m willing to adapt to whatever it entails!

    It’s true what you said about being creatures of comfort – we could have saved a lot by living in a less expensive condo in our current city.

    Next up is furniture – I discovered a company called Furnishare that sells used furniture, etc. in NYC at great prices. Have you heard of this one? It seems convenient since they offer delivery and verify that the used items are in good condition.

    • OMG, so exciting! Do you mind sharing the neighborhood? I hope it’s Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens (my favorites). And nice job getting a cheaper place than in Toronto.

      I think living in NYC is really about adjusting your expectations, and adapting like you say. Like, unless you’re paying a boatload of money, there’s always something that won’t be perfect with your apartment. Like my friend lives in a right next to a popular subway stop…but he doesn’t have a sink in the bathroom, lol.

      I have never heard of Furnishare but it looks like they have good reviews on Yelp. Looks like it could be a good option if you don’t feel like digging around on Craigslist. Just make sure you get the brand-name stuff!

      • We’re in East Harlem, close to Upper East Side area. It’s a VERY small and VERY old building so I’m going in with an open mind haha.

  • I lived in the city for about 5 years and definitely found it close to impossible to save a dime…

    100% agree with you on “Don’t Rely on Brokers to Find Your Apartment.” Not only is the fee a problem, but so is the waste of time. The emails, the setting up a time to go to their office… THEN finding out that that apartment I had seen online was no longer available.

    I found that absolutely nothing could beat StreetEasy — yes, there are still brokers… But there are also no-fee and smaller listings. Also, if you happen to see a building you like while you’re out walking, you can search on there by address and see availabilities.

    Thank you for not mentioning sample sales. This might be an unpopular opinion, but I’ve never found anything that was 1- amazingly priced or 2- that I actually wanted. 😳 I know there are magical exceptions, e.g. my dad’s $75 John Varvatos suede coats, but I’ve never found anything at a sample that was ~incredible~ like that… Although the APC ones looked better than the average sample sale, I was always out of town. I’d love to know your thoughts on them!

    • Ha, I did have sample sales on there at first, but I removed them! Sample sales are not for everyone. I definitely agree with you that sample sale deals vary. For example, I went to a Rag & Bone sale and the prices were not all that. You could get the same stuff online for cheaper. But sometimes you really can get some good deals. I’ve never been to an A.P.C. sample sale, actually. There’s that surplus store I went to in Williamsburg before but never saw anything worth buying. But you reminded me I should check it out again.

      I’m naturally suspicious of brokers, and I also hate that you have to pay thousands of dollars to essentially a “gatekeeper”. And the whole bait-and-switch thing drives me nuts. When something looks awesome online, it’s almost always too good to be true.

      Your idea of just cold-calling a building is BRILLIANT. I’ve definitely done that a couple times. See a building, put your name on the list, and then wait for a spot to open. In that case, being persistent really works.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Dr. Curious

    When I lived in London, I ate KFC and McDonalds for most meals. I skipped ketchup on my fries because it costs extra there. I survived because I was young and otherwise healthy, but I don’t recommend this technique.

    You forgot the best free activity in big cities: people watching!

    • Yeah, in my early 20s I used to survive on ramen noodles and hershey kisses. Would not recommend.

      Ha, yes, people watching is the bestest. I did have specific activities at first, but I removed them because I thought it was out of scope for this post. Definitely need to write a couple off-shoots.

  • Sophie

    Such a helpful post! I definitely want to check out Skint now 👍🏼 Can’t say no to free food 😁

    • Thanks! Yes, the Skint almost has too many good options. Not enough time in the day to do them all!

  • Really solid advice. “Housing is the one decision that’s the hardest to change, so take the time to get it right in the first place.” This is good advice regardless of where you live. It takes so much time, energy, and money to switch your living situation.

    • Hey, thanks! Since you have ‘DC’ in your username I imagine you can relate. But yes, I agree that we should be minimizing housing costs no matter where you live. It’s so easy to say you’ll move next year…and then not do it.

      Thanks for reading!

  • This is awesome advice. Thankfully, our cost of living is much lower in the suburbs. But living in a ‘burb that prides itself on being Chicago-lite still means $12 drinks and three-figure dinners are standard. If that’s what you accept as standard. This post makes the excellent point that there are some aspects of COL that we can’t change, but there are a ton of things that we can control. Thanks!

    • I always thought living in a suburb of a city was the best scenario. You get space to breathe but have easy access to city stuff when you need. But yeah, you’ve totally got it, accepting external factors as-is is not the way to go.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • I’ve looked into it, and I don’t think we will ever own here in NYC. What you get is a small 2-bedroom for $800k. So for now, we’re just investing our money. Looking forward to reading more about your adventures of trying to find a house in SF!

    Yeah, I’m surprised how many ppl don’t take advantage of the library! It’s even a fun place to just sit and browse for a day.

    I haven’t heard of nextdoor.com, but I’ve heard of Free Cycle. We usually just leave stuff outside our stoop and it’s gone in a flash.

  • Tim Kim

    New York is something else. My area (Los Angeles / Orange County) is a VHCOL area, but New York and San Francisco is nuts. I feel like here in LA/OC, you need $100K to get by, especially if you have a home. A 1 bed 1 bath (apartment) next to our place goes for $2K a month. I think especially among the millennial cohort, it’s important what you say about hanging out with frugal friends. Because we tend to spend a ton on eating out. A few grand a month on eating out seems fairly normal around here..

    • 100k will sadly not be enough for a home here, unless it’s “affordable” housing. Yeah, I think frugal friends is so important. My friends are always conscious about spending and picking places that aren’t super expensive. Like this weekend, we’re probably going to get free ice cream for National Ice Cream day. And you also can splurge more if you eat out only occasionally. But wow, a couple grand a month on eating out is crazy. YOLO, much?