Can You Afford To Move To NYC?

My first job out of college was at an investment bank just outside of NYC.

{I’ll pause here for a minute to let you absorb this ridiculous fact.}

After a few weeks of commuting two hours each way from my parents’ house in Bumblef-ck, CT to my office in Stamford, it was clear my life had been reduced to a (sometimes literal) snoozefest. How did I get here?, I wondered in disbelief. I may have been a clueless Cornell grad at the time, but this much I knew: I wanted my life to be awesome. I had to make a change.

So I decided to transfer offices and move to New York City!

Imagine, Central Park

Then, being the hyper-rational human being that I am, my immediate thought was: Can I even afford to live in NYC?

I tried my hand at putting together a budget, crunching numbers in hopes that they would spit out a YES or NO and either reinforce my decision or talk me out of it. Needless to say, they didn’t really do either. The truth is, if you live frugally, you can afford to move to NYC.

If you cut costs as much as you can – share an apartment with roommates, hit up more affordable establishments, and take advantage of all the free stuff to do in New York – your money will stretch far enough for you to make it here. Let me show you how!

Street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

How To Find A Cheap Apartment in NYC

Real talk: You can’t. No less than 9 out of 10 of those ‘Most Expensive Cities In The US’ reports in the past 5 years have declared Manhattan and Brooklyn the #1 and #2 cities on the list. Why? Because the rent is too damn high. It will far and away be your greatest expense while living in NYC, so you’ve got to go into this expecting to spend a painfully large percentage of your income on your apartment.

So, you may not find a cheap apartment in NYC, but you can save a bit of money if you follow these tips:

Tips for finding a cheap NYC apartment

  • Live in a more affordable neighborhood – Rule of thumb: if it’s conveniently located or where celebrities live, it’s likely not an affordable neighborhood. So avoid Midtown, the Village, and the Brooklyn waterfront. Instead, look into apartments in other hoods that are slightly less popular, yet safe and desirable: for example in far uptown Manhattan (125th St and above), the eastern half of the Upper East Side, East Williamsburg and Crown Heights/Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, or Astoria in Queens.
  • Live with roommates – The average rent for a Manhattan studio is around $2000. You don’t need me to tell you what a downright ridiculous amount of money that is to be throwing at a teeny-tiny living space. You can easily spend less than half of that if you share an apartment with roommates. In general, the more bedrooms it has, the cheaper the apartment will be per person. Craigslist is the best resource to find roommates.
  • Avoid the broker’s fee – The unfortunate reality is that these days, the NYC housing market is dominated by apartments strapped with broker’s fees. The upside is that working with a broker simplifies the process as they do most of the legwork for you; the downside is that you’ll pay at least a month’s rent worth in fees for the convenience. Instead, look for a “no-fee” apartment where you rent directly from the landlord.
  • Buy used furniture – In addition to hosting apartment listings, Craigslist houses a great variety of “for sale” listings, from furniture and appliances to electronics and other household goods. On a smaller scale, Freecycle lists any free “recycled” items available in your city that the owner would otherwise donate or leave on the curb. If you’re willing to put in the time to search through listings and coordinate with item owners a time to go see and potentially procure it, you can easily save hundreds of dollars furnishing your apartment.

NYC apartment

One other note on finding a NYC apartment:

While saving your hard-earned cash is top priority, you should never skimp at the expense of your health and safety. Check the crime records and bed bug history of your potential future ‘hood to ensure you’re not about to move into a dangerous and/or infested area.

And while you’re at it: get renters insurance. It is WAY too cheap not to. Best of all, it should cover damage and loss to your luggage while you’re traveling (except for expensive electronics, which would require an additional policy) – like the time my insurance company reimbursed me for everything when my suitcase was stolen off the baggage carousel at Newark Airport.

NY apartments

Cheap Food in NYC

One common misconception about New York is that eating here is so expensive. Sure, it CAN be – but it’s also doable to grab dinner with a friend and spend less than $20 each on a simple meal.

For eating out, Yelp is a great resource to find highly rated restaurants at varying price points, in every neighborhood in the city. I’ve also played with the Scoutmob iPhone app, which lists local restaurants offering 50% off meals (usually just on weeknights). It’s been a fun way to try out new restaurants that I might not have otherwise!

Restaurant iPhone Apps 

For a quick bite ($5 or less), you can’t go wrong in the land of pizza and bagels – neither New York staple will set you back more than $1-2 apiece. For $3.50, you can enjoy Mamoun’s legendary falafel sandwich or Bao Haus’ taro fries – both of which are delicious, filling, and somewhat healthy. And for a little splurge re: both money and calories, $4.50 gets you the famous Shake Shack burger.

For delivery, I wait until I see a coupon in my email from Seamless (15% off is common on one random weekday each month) or ($8 off on most weekends) and usually that inspires me to order food to be delivered from a nearby restaurant. With delivery fees and minimum order amounts, sometimes it’s not economical to order a meal just for one person – but with these deals, it’s often cheaper to order food than buy ingredients to cook a meal for yourself.

Caracas Arepas in Brooklyn
Caracas Arepas in Brooklyn

Cheap Shopping in NYC

With retail stores lining 5th Avenue for quite literally its entire length south of Central Park, shopping is a very real temptation in NYC. But if you can resist it, you can save yourself a lot of money.

For basic clothes, check out H&M and Target. Their $5 tees and $8 leggings cannot be beat! I’m also a fan of the jeans at American Eagle: not only do their jeggings fit me like a glove, but if you can hit one of their buy one, get one half off sales AND throw a coupon at it, you could walk away with two pairs of sub-$25 jeans.

For “nicer” clothes, hit up the sales racks at some of the name-brand stores. My favorite Treat Yo’ Self shopping outing includes browsing the clearance rooms at Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, where I’ve snagged really nice $20 skirts and $30 dresses in the past. But here’s the key: you must go STRAIGHT to the sales racks at these stores and NOT look at anything else, lest you be tempted to purchase something at full price.

For groceries, do your weekly shopping at Trader Joe’s. They have the best value groceries in all of NYC, with a few locations spread throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. TJs is my go-to for items I can’t find in my neighborhood supermarket: very cheap nuts and almond butter, massive tubs of their branded hummus, and turkey burgers. If you’ve got extra space in your apartment and don’t mind trekking up to Harlem, consider signing up for a membership at Costco, where you can buy all sorts of food and household items in bulk at their warehouse for dirt cheap.

For additional savings, always search google for coupons and discount codes before you buy! When you google “{storename} coupon”, Retailmenot is usually the first source that pops up, which aggregates various coupon codes found across the web and allows users to rate the code based on whether it worked for them or not. You may also find printable coupons directly from the store’s website (pro tip: There is ALWAYS a 20% off code for Bed Bath & Beyond floating around).

And finally, if you’re of the female persuasion, do yourself a favor and sign up immediately for the Victoria’s Secret mailings. It seems like once a month they mail me a coupon for a free pair of undies and $20 off a bra. I am not exaggerating when I say that my entire underwear collection is comprised of free VS garb.

NYC street

Free & Cheap Things To Do In NYC

One of my favorite things about NYC is summer and all the free outdoor activities that happen during it. There are all sorts of things happening here year-round including street fairs, markets, concerts, Christmas tree lightings, holiday parades, and gallery openings.

For deeply discounted shows, activities, and other attractions, browse the deals on Groupon and Living Social. I’ve purchased vouchers for pilates classes, manicures, and a wine tour – things I normally consider a splurge – at just a fraction of their normal cost through these channels.

For free events in NYC, stay in the loop by following local blogs and subscribing to mailing lists. Every week you’ll be informed of all sorts of local events around NYC, many of which won’t cost you a penny to attend. My go-to sources are Brokelyn, Brooklyn Based, Time Out New York, and NonsenseNYC.

NYC street far

Street Fair in Park Slope, Brooklyn
Be sure to check out my other posts on free and cheap things to do in NYC:

NYC Mermaid Parade

From the 2012 Mermaid Parade at Coney Island

Can You Afford To Move To NYC?

Given the running theme throughout this blog, I think you know the answer to this question. HELL YES YOU CAN. You can afford to live in NYC, and to travel the world, if you have the drive and discipline to be frugal. Save your money, cut costs wherever possible, stop the impulse buying – and make it a habit. You can even live in NYC while paying off your student loans – because money should never be something that keeps you from going after your dreams.

New York can be as effortlessly expensive or as deliberately cheap as you will it to be. Find the right balance for you on this scale and make the effort to keep it there.

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Can you afford to move to NYC?