There must be something between the rat-infested subway platforms and three-star restaurants in New York that make people believe it’s impossible to save money in NYC.
We graduated with liberal and fine art degrees, so naturally, we thought it was a good idea to move to one of the most expensive cities in the world. We’re not alone! A countless number of our peers flocked to The Big Apple to pursue their dreams.
Most of these millennials are astonished that we were able to save enough money to travel the world while living in this world metropolis on entry-level incomes. Both of us had entry-level jobs, but we managed to add $50,000 to our savings accounts before saying goodbye to Manhattan. We did so by living cheap in NYC, well below our means. It’s an attainable goal once you set your own NYC living expense budget.
It was enough money to stash some bucks in our 401ks, start our own business, and kick off our travels around the world. So how much did it cost us to live in New York City, and where is the cheapest place to live in NYC?
How to Live in NYC on a Budget
You heard that right! In 18 months, we were able to put away more than $50,000 into our savings accounts. Why so short? Well, that is just about how long it took for us to realize that living in New York City is one giant sham. Yes, it’s a beautiful sham, but nonetheless a money-grabbing, an egotistical sham. We still love you, New York!
I moved to New York City thinking I would take cabs and drink cosmopolitans with Carrie Bradshaw. This was, of course, a young and naive white girl mentality with too many nights of watching countless Hollywood movies under her belt.
We spent the first few months spending our nights at the hip concerts, wandering into art galleries, and dining in restaurants. We were enjoying what New York does best, escapism.
It was all fun, and that’s what we love about New York. There is always something to do and see. It is iconic, a cultural hub, and arguably the greatest city on earth. I love New York City. However, we weren’t saving anything more than a $100 or so a month between our living expenses and new social life. While that may seem like a lot to some, it was far from our financial goals.
We decided it was time to start living in NYC on a budget.
We reevaluated our living expenses, moved apartments, and learned to love home-cooked meals. This is where the year of saving started. New York is an expensive city, but we were able to make it slightly more affordable. Here is how much it cost us to live in NYC on a budget while still living more than comfortably.
What Does it Cost to Live in NYC (Cheap Living Edition)
Cost of rent in NYC
In New York, your primary expense will be housing, and you can’t get out of this one. We simply had to put a roof over our heads. Anyone that has lived in NYC knows how ridiculous the housing market can be.
Desirable apartments can disappear in minutes, and a good broker can be the difference between the bachelor pad in American Psycho and that shabby place Robert De Niro called home in Taxi Driver.
Cameron and I decided we were past the age of roommates. We would be living alone in either a one-bedroom or a studio. We landed on a one-bedroom, newly renovated apartment in the Bronx. Yes, the Bronx.
However, we chose to live in Riverdale, an upper-middle-class neighborhood right over the bridge well known for its Jewish population. Riverdale has the lowest crime rate in the Bronx and the second-lowest crime rate in New York City. So no, it wasn’t all “Jenny from the Bronx” there, and we don’t get any street cred for living in the Bronx.
We loved our 800 sq ft apartment. It had a new kitchen, spacious rooms, and massive open windows with a fantastic view over Van Cortlandt Park. We paid $1800/month total for this little piece of heaven with no broker fees attached. Or $900 each with heat and gas included. Believe me, this was a ridiculous price for us non-New Yorkers to pay, but anything under $1000 a person in NYC is considered a pretty good deal we came to learn. However, definitely not the cheapest place to live in NYC.
Forget that it took me an hour’s ride on the subway to get to work every day. I had my own place, a kitty cat, and massive windows in one of the safest neighborhoods in New York City.
Our biggest tip here would be to get creative with where you live. You don’t need to live in hip neighborhoods, especially as rent prices in Brooklyn have surged in the last decade.
How to Find an Apartment in New York?
There are several ways that you can make searching for an apartment in New York easier. Websites, search engines, and even the right mailing list can help with your New York apartment hunt. We suggest PadMapper which is actually how we found our apartment in Riverdale. Two other great online resources that we have used in our apartment search are Zumper and StreetEasy.
Then for those looking to live “dangerous,” there is always Craigslist. Which, is a bit like playing Russian roulette with housing. If you’re seeking a place in Brooklyn, we’d also recommend signing up for The Listings Project. It’s a safe way to find shared apartments, as in people looking for a sane roommate.
City Transportation Costs
Be it the subway, taxi, bicycle, or personal car, we had to have transport to lower Manhatten every day. We sold our cars long ago, so no private car rides for us. A taxi from midtown Manhattan to Riverdale was approximate $60…yes, that’s the cost for a 10-mile cab ride across bridges in NYC. Cameron rode his bike 13 miles to work some days, but it was not an everyday option on humid summer days or the icy winter.
That leaves the subway – the most affordable and certainly most entertaining option there is. A month unlimited pass on the MTA will run you $116.50, or $2.75 if you prefer to pay per one way. No one said living in New York on a shoestring budget would be easy.
Utilities in NYC
There is no way I’m getting by without the internet in my apartment in today’s day and age. Tack $50 on for the total household bill, or $25 per person to stay connected to my favorites like The Office, House of Cards, and Parks & Rec on Netflix. We got this price by shopping around for specials in the area, which you can often find as a new resident.
We also specifically sought out a building that included hot water and heat. While it may seem like a small detail, the cost of keeping your apartment warm and constantly running a hot water here can run up utility costs quickly.
We can’t avoid this one either unless we are bats. This cost us anywhere from $50 in the winter months to $150 in the summer when we had to blast our little AC unit in the miserable NYC heat.
Most buildings, asides pricey modern ones, do not have central air conditioning. So many have to run a less efficient window unit. Then there are the buildings that run outdated and inefficient systems.
This is something to note when searching for apartments in NYC; we had friends who would shell out hundreds of dollars in utilities because their building did not include hot water and they had large old A/C units in the apartments. Pick the wrong apartment, and it could quickly eat out of your daily living budget in New York.
I just realized this was coming after the internet, but I guess that is the day and age we live in now. Food is another necessity and one we rarely went luxurious on. Besides going for sushi once a week, we kept food expenses to an absolute minimum and always cooked in.
I was fortunate because I had breakfast and lunches covered at my job and only had to account for dinner. Cameron was responsible for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and that’s where frozen Trader Joe’s meals come in handy. On average, we spent between $75-$130 on food each week. Cameron is on the higher end at $100 because of his breakfast and lunch.
We love coffee! Cold brews, cappuccinos, and lattes are delicious, and New York is filled with wonderful independent coffee shops. However, at around $5 a coffee, they are an absolute budget killer.
If you have a cup of coffee every morning on your way to work, that is $25 a week, $100 a month, and $1,200 a year! If you’re adding food like a bagel or breakfast, on top of that, the cost skyrockets. Working on an entry-level salary that could destroy your savings goals and severely hinder your income.
That doesn’t mean you have to live without coffee! We bought a french press and grounds for our mornings at home. While at work, we were both fortunate to have offices with coffee so we drank that and bought green tea bags as a coffee substitute. Another great idea is to buy a stainless steel thermos and bring your own coffee.
Join a Gym
We were part of the semi-early days of the phenomenon called Classpass. A gym subscription service that at the time cost $100/month for unlimited classes at different studios around the city. Though $100/month for a gym membership seems steep (and it is), in New York, this was considered a pretty good deal.
This is one of the main things I miss about living in New York City. I got to go to some fantastic gyms, meet great people, and get in shape through many different ways. In a single month, I tried Bollywood dancing, to Ballerina fitness, to Marine Boot Camp, all while taking showers in some of the most pristine Manhattan fitness clubs.
Splurging on my gym membership made living in NYC on a tight budget more bearable. However, from my understanding, the price has drastically risen since we lived in New York, making it a less fantabulous deal. Either way, one of the best ways to stay on budget while living in New York is to pick productive and cheap hobbies; the gym is the perfect example.
Okay, we did have some fun, but in New York, fun is expensive. More importantly, fun is time-consuming. When you’re working 10-12 hour days 6 days a week, the last thing I want to do is meet someone for drinks after work – I want to sit in my pajamas with my cat while watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
However, we still went to the movies every once in a while ($16.50 a ticket in the Upper West Side), saw numerous ballets, visited the museums (ticket prices are a suggested donation!), and operas at the Lincoln Center. Oh, and did I mention sushi!? Throw in about $200 a month for fun.
What is the Total Cost to Live in NYC?
We lived in the Bronx, commuted an hour to and from work each day, cooked all our food, and got most of our entertainment from different fitness classes around the city. Living this kind of lifestyle wasn’t exactly the most exciting, but it did only cost us about $1350-$1500 each while living in NYC.
Could we have done it cheaper? Of course, we were living far from the cheapest place to live in NYC, but this should give you an idea of what to expect when you try and live on a budget in the city.
Could we have splurged a bit more? Oh hell yes. Spending $1350 a month was pretty bare bones for the type of life we were living in New York; considering my paycheck wasn’t even double that (without my second waitressing job), it was quite hard to save money at times. However, we managed to save, and save, and save. It took some determination, but it can be done.
Living in New York doesn’t have to involve a cab ride to dog sit your best friend’s Yorkie, a $75 all-you-can-eat pasta dinner (yes, this exists), or a $15 martini so you can desperately search for the love of your life. With some patience and determination, living in NYC can be quite comfortable and even allow you to put away some money in the bank so you can escape the city!
Bare minimum expenses in New York came to about $1400/month for us, and realistically I could have cut out $150 more of this if I wanted to live like a hermit.
It’s still worth noting that Cameron and I both traveled the world on less than $1500 each per month when we first started this website. In some places like Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, we can even get by comfortably on $700-$900. So yes, we lived in NYC on the cheap end, working six days a week with minimal fun for $1400. Now, we see unique places in the world and work on our laptops for the same price in some places in the world.
Learn More About Our Finances
- Travel Banking Breakdown: How to Save and Protect Your Money
- How Much Does it Cost to Travel the World?
- How Much Does Backpacking Europe Cost?
- 25 Smart Ways to Save Money for Travel
Where is the Cheapest Place to Live in NYC?
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a good deal almost anywhere below 180th street in Manhattan, so we moved to the Bronx. More affordable places to live in NYC are Inwood, Sunnyside, Bedford Park, Washington Heights, Flatlands, Jamaica Hills, and almost anywhere on Staten Island.