How to Live in a Big City and Not Go Broke

Eddie Hall wanted to become an actor. So where did he go? Where else? After high school, he left his comfortable suburban Florida community and headed to New York City.

And the Big Apple promptly took an enormous bite out of his budget!

Despite sharing a Manhattan apartment with three friends — all prospective actors — Hall quickly learned that New York was a money pit, especially for someone who worked as a waiter between his all-too-infrequent theatre gigs.

Within four years, he was back home.

“I’m glad I did it,’’ Hall said. “New York is a great place to visit, especially on an expense account. It’s exciting and fun. But financially, it can be a tough place to live.’’

That lesson is learned every day across all major urban centers in America. Life’s necessities simply cost more in the big city. It requires sacrifice, guile and creativity to cope with day-to-day expenses.

An extremely high-paying job helps, too.

The Challenge of Living Comfortably in a Big City

According to a study by GOBankingRates, the mere act of living comfortably is a difficult task in the 50 most populous U.S. cities.

“Living comfortably’’ is defined by the 50-30-20 method of household budgeting — 50% of your income goes to fixed expenses (such as rent, food and utilities), 30% goes to discretionary spending (such as entertainment and clothing) and 20% goes to savings.

When comparing the amount of money needed to achieve that budget in each city to the city’s median household income (half above, half below), the survey revealed that 35 cities had a budget deficit, while only 15 had a budget surplus.

Miami led off as the most difficult city to live comfortably with the needed budget ($77,059) far outdistancing the median household income ($30,858), producing a deficit of $46,199.

It was followed by No. 2 San Francisco (needed $119,570, income $78,378, deficit $41,192); No. 3 New York (needed $87,446, income $52,737, deficit $34,709); No. 4 Boston (needed $84,422, income $54,485, deficit $29,937); and No. 5 Los Angeles (needed $74,377, income $49,682, deficit $24,689).

The most affordable city in the survey was Virginia Beach (needed $50,929, income $67,001, surplus $16,072).

“I don’t want to say you have to count your pennies, but you have to not waste money and take advantage of anything you see out there that might help the cause,’’ Hall said. “You just have to be smart.’’

The suburban neighborhoods — houses with big porches and white-picket fences — might be just fine for many people.

Others are drawn to big cities for the job market, the diverse population, culture, an urban vibe and maybe proximity to family. All those reasons can outweigh a greater cost of living.

How to Cut the Cost of City Living

  • Get A Roommate: It’s an easy to way to cut expenses in half, or even in thirds. If it’s feasible, two or three roommates work even better. Of course, that’s a matter of personal preference and comfort level. According to a SmartAsset analysis, a renter who shares a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate realizes savings of more than $800 per month compared to someone who lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment. Even beyond rent, you can split the cost of utilities, Internet, cable and energy.
  • Save on Transportation Costs: One of the potential advantages to living in a big city is the access to affordable public transportation. In some cases, it doesn’t even make sense to own a car, which means no spending on gas, parking and insurance. But ditching the car can be an adjustment. And it also helps to be an educated transportation consumer. In San Francisco, the bus costs $2.25, much better than the $7 for a cable car (more of a tourist attraction). In Boston, it’s $2.25 a trip for the bus and subway, but unlimited travel for $84.50 per month. In New York, the subway is $3 for each ride, but there’s a 25-cent discount for multiple rides and an 11% bonus for every $5.50 purchased. Think of it like a discount supermarket. Sometimes, it’s best to buy in bulk. Another idea: Get a bicycle.
  • Save Money on Food: This is always good advice anywhere you live, particularly in the big cities. Restaurant prices rose nearly 3% from 2015 to 2016. No need to go cold turkey — at least immediately — but it’s helpful to mix in some home-cooked meals, along with brewing your own coffee. You could also look into supper clubs, increasingly popular in big cities, where people takes turns hosting dinner parties.
  • Negotiate The Rent: Everything’s negotiable, right? When looking for a place, research the area and comparable properties through Web sites such as Zillow and Trulia. If there’s a similar unit nearby for less, you might have some bargaining power. It helps to have a good rental history and credit scores. If you’re known for paying on time, taking care of the property and being respectful of other tenants, those are favorable qualities. If the monthly rent can’t come down, see if you can secure a longer lease, so the landlord can’t raise the rent after 12 months.
  • Find Free Stuff: You know what could be fun? People watching. OK, not enough? Big cities have nice parks, beaches and free movie screenings. It could have the same value to you as pricey concerts and sporting events. And sometimes, you can get access to live events by volunteering, maybe selling tickets, passing out flyers or running an information booth. Volunteers usually work in shifts and get unhindered time to enjoy the event.

Sources:

Currid-Halkett, E., (2014, 13 December), What People Buy Where. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/14/opinion/sunday/what-people-buy-where.html

Bright, M., (2016, 19 April), The Real Cost of Living In These Major U.S. Cities. Retrieved from: http://www.refinery29.com/2016/04/108734/cost-of-living-us-cities

Joey Johnston
jjohnston@incharge.org

Joey Johnston has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist with the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times. He has won a dozen national writing awards and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and People Magazine. He started writing for InCharge Debt Solutions in 2016.