Surviving the City: A Guide to Living in an Expensive Town

Surviving the City: A Guide to Living in an Expensive Town

I have several friends in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago who all sing the same praises, and shout similar complaints, regarding life in a big city. Most of the positives include the ability to order literally any kind of food to your apartment, and the countless number of events, festivals, and hipster-approved activities. The negatives usually involve dirty public transportation, the smell of trash on a hot summer day, and the insane cost of living.

I’ve seen recent articles discussing how if you make less than $150,000 in New York you might as well go live under a bridge. The opportunity to earn a larger salary is far more plentiful in a major metropolitan area, but a city’s cost of living severely diminishes the power of your dollar. Six-figures in LA is not comparable to six-figures in a rural area.

So what if you want to live in a major city but don’t make the big bucks? Do you have to co-op space under a bridge? Is it possible to live in an expensive urban area on an average salary? Yes, it is possible, but you’ll have to compromise, downsize, and prioritize!

1. Love thy Roommates and Walking

Housing and transportation are our two largest monthly expenses. Cutting down on trips to Starbucks and only ordering well drinks at the bar will save you some cash, but you’ll find the most serious opportunities to save in where you live and how you travel.

Do you like roommates? If you live in places such as New York or San Francisco, and don’t make a ton of money, I hope you’re answer is “yes”. Living with roommates isn’t always easy. I don’t have tips on how to find good roommates, because I am the person no one wants to live with. I don’t do well with sharing, I like peace and quiet, and I’m beyond awkward in most situations. I could go an entire year without speaking to a roommate for no other reason than I hate one-on-one interactions. I hope you’re better than me, because roommates can save you thousands over the course of a year.

Secondly, pick a neighborhood to live in that’s a solid compromise between price, convenience to work and amenities, and the amount of patience you possess. Think of it this way: how long are you willing to commute to work? How far are you willing to walk to a grocery store, restaurants, etc? In most cities, the further away from the action, the lower the price. So how much patience are you capable of exuding each day? Your personal happiness could suffer if you don’t take this into account.

I love Uber as much as the next gal, but relying on your own car, cabs, or Uber/Lyft can be costly. Walk to as many places as possible, utilize public transportation, ride a bike, or better yet, let’s make rollerblading cool again. The exception here is LA, because you can’t go anywhere without a car there (one of 10,000,000 reasons I could never live in LA).

2. Meal Prep for Dummies

Sundays aren’t just for hangover recovery anymore. Use them to meal prep! You’re an adult for Christ sake. I write this as I sit un-showered and still in my pajamas at 7pm. The internet is making it easier to prep food and that’s a good thing for people like me. I hate cooking. I suck at it and I don’t have a lot of patience and/or skill. The last thing I want to do on a Sunday is meal prep, but every time I do, it saves me time and money the following week. Simply type “meal prep recipes” into the Google machine, and you’ll find 3.4 million results. Don’t let laziness or a lack of cooking talent stop you in your quest to conserve money. Even though I personally hate meal prepping, it’s worth it. I begrudgingly meal prep by turning on my favorite tunes and pretending I’m Giada De Laurentiis. Making meals ahead of time is not just healthy for the wallet, lots of muscular people with blogs suggest it’s great for your waistline as well.

3. Track Your Drunken Fun


I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up after a night out, looked at my bank account and said, “You are an idiot.” I suppose it’s a rite of passage for young adults. You’ve got to learn to say no to that last round of shots. I know once the drinks get flowing this can be near impossible. Even I, as a financial planner pushing 30 years of age, recently slipped up. I was in a bar in Hollywood, I ordered four drinks and the bartender said “that’ll be $81.” I smiled the fakest of smiles, handed him my debit card, and whispered under my breath, “I hate LA.”

It’s crucial to track your fun. Look back at your bank statements from the past few months and figure out just how much of your monthly income is being spent on entertainment. Is there an area that can be improved upon (i.e. examine your spending at restaurants, bars, theaters, strip clubs, cat cafes, etc.) Even cutting out one night a month in a city could save you a hundred dollars or more.

4. Downsize, Downsize, Downsize

If you want to live somewhere like New York, you better learn to live without a closet. My first apartment in Boston had one coat closet in each bedroom. We had to get super creative with storing our clothes. Finally, I purged. This experience helped shape me into the minimalist I am today. I like the one year rule: if you haven’t used it in a year then sell it, donate it, or trash it. Selling items you no longer use is a solid way to increase your discretionary income for the month!

Downsizing is important in a city because the less stuff you have, the less space you need; and the less space you need, the lower your rent will be. Simple as that. Also, if you plan on moving to New York or downtown Boston, try sleeping in a dog crate for a few nights to get used to the tight quarters these cities provide.

5. Get A *Legal* Side Hustle

Speaking of discretionary income, Captain Obvious says: the best way to improve your quality of life is to make more money. Use your skills to take advantage of side gigs and opportunities to make extra cash. Whether you’re a talented writer, you’ve got technical skills, or can sell things in an Etsy shop, there are countless ways to pull in extra cash.

6. Pick the Right City

Why do you live in or want to move to this particular city? Have you thought about other cool up-and-coming areas? I’m completely biased when it comes to Boston and New York. I spent close to five years in Boston and I loved every second. New York is my favorite city to visit. But there are other awesome places to move that are cheaper, just as fun, and probably don’t have soul-crushing winters. Really do your research before relocating to a pricey city. Write a pros and cons list. Will the additional costs provide you greater personal fulfillment? If yes, then by all means, rent that 100 square foot apartment in Brooklyn.

You don’t have to make a million dollars to live in an expensive city, you just have to get creative!

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