The only way I can describe myself when I discuss money with friends is frugal to a fault, and the main response I get is surprise and confusion. People seem to be caught off guard that I can spend so little on a regular basis — probably because I frequently cook and post Instagram stories of it, or maybe because I’m still out doing things and having fun on weekends. It makes sense that, in the culture we live in, people equate having fun with spending money. I also think it’s fair to say that people, especially those who live outside of New York, have the assumption that living in New York must be expensive. And when compared to other places, rent is more expensive, and a lot of activities are overpriced.
However, for most of the people I know who get sucked into the trap of frequently spending money, it’s because they get caught up in the convenience of things like eating and drinking out, or trying to do as much as possible. When I talk to people about what it actually costs to live here, my goal is always to dispel the myth that it has to be costly to the extent that you need to constantly shell out money to “experience” New York. But truthfully, more people could be enjoying much of what the city has to offer for free, if they can let go of some of their favorite bars and Seamless orders.
I’ll start with the numbers in my budget.
Monthly income: Ranges between $2,000 – $3,200 (after taxes)
Because I freelance, my monthly income is never the same. Additionally, I still haven’t even seen some paychecks from May and June. Unfortunately, rent never quits.
Fixed monthly expenses:
- Rent & Utilities: $1,200
- Student loan payments: $712
- Phone Bill: $84
- Transportation: $121
- Gym: $20
Other monthly expenses:
- Therapy: $150
- Groceries: $150
- Activities (including eating out): $130-$200
- Savings & Emergency savings: Whatever is left, if anything
I recognize that my budget looks different than a lot of people’s. Rent, utilities, my phone bill, and my student loans have to be the priority, so the amount I spend on groceries and activities fluctuates, but stays small. And sure, I would love to do more cool things, but when I hear from friends who frequently go out and spend money about how they’re stressed about not having savings, I feel pretty happy about being frugal.
How I still have fun and enjoy the city while sticking to my budget:
I frequently check the Skint and other similar websites to figure out what free events are going on around me. Some of the most fun I have in New York doesn’t cost me extra money. I love meal prepping and going for picnics at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Prospect Park, or on Governor’s Island. The parks have beautiful views and comfy spots to lounge in. They also have free activities like kayaking, dance classes, yoga, and movie screenings. I also go to farmer’s markets on weekends, and occasionally enjoy meals at restaurants. But for the most part, my spending doesn’t revolve around meals out or drinks and is based around small amounts.
I also can’t get enough of doing things like stay-in brunch with friends. Those usually consist of simple dishes with bagels, eggs, some fruit, and some champagne and orange juice for mimosas. When split between two or three people, that ends up costing about $10 or less, and it’s more intimate than going out to eat.
Most of the time, I do end up staying home or opting for cheaper “adventures” around my neighborhood — but that actually feels good, because if I’m already spending the money to live in my apartment and be in a certain area, I might as well enjoy the space and get real use out of it. This past week, I was gifted a TV for my living room, and I can already tell that I’m going to be having friends over for movie nights as much as possible.
At the end of the day, I still manage to live well without draining my wallet. I’m proud of that, especially because I come from poverty and a family that’s horrible with money. It does take a lot of self-control to pass by my favorite coffee shops without stopping in and go out less in general. But avoiding those kinds of costs has benefits. I spend a lot more time with friends and loved ones in intimate settings, I get to practice my cooking and make two or three really good meals per week. Ultimately, I don’t think I’d trade those things, even if I did have more money to spend.
Here are my takeaways and tips for people trying to live more frugally, especially in an expensive city like New York:
Budgeting is as much about how you spend your time as your money.
It’s easy to get caught in the mental trap that everything you could go to or experience that’s unique has to come with a price tag. Taking the time to bookmark and frequent websites that share free events is a great way to save money. So is taking an extra hour a week if you can it to meal prep or plan food out ahead of time so you don’t stress-order Seamless, binge-buy snacks, or eat out every day. As someone who sometimes ends up working 18 hours a day, I know how difficult that is. But during hectic weeks, I’ve always thanked myself for spending two hours pre-making food over a weekend and stopping myself from relying on bad habits.
Socializing and having fun with friends doesn’t have to revolve around drinking and eating out, and planning things out in advance helps a lot.
When I make plans with people, I generally keep other plans that I already have in mind, and then try to choose an activity or place to eat that lets me find balance. If I know I’m going out for dinner at a nice place with friends over the weekend, or doing something that’s going to cost me a lot, I’ll adjust the rest of my budget and plans for the month around that, and do as many cheap or free things as possible. Simply getting out of the mindset that being social has to mean spending money can help so much.
Break things into $5-$10 activities whenever possible.
Breaking your time down into less costly things makes it possible to stretch out your budget more — and actually do more with it. Living on a tight budget has forced me to focus on quality instead of quantity in terms of when and how I’m spending my money. If you can pace yourself and do smaller things with friends, like going out for coffee or doing free things several times a week, it’s truly worth it.
Using spreadsheets and writing expenses down in a journal can keep you accountable.
I track my spending frequently and adjust it based on what I see. Using the Google sheets yearly budgeting template has always been a lifesaver for me, and it allows me to look at everything in one place so that I can adjust different budget categories. I also have a section in my bullet journal for each month where I write down every single thing I spend money on so that I can see exactly where my money is going, and cut back in certain categories if I need to. I would highly recommend using tools like these to figure out how to spend your money in a way that works best for you.
Don’t live in the illusion that city life has to be glamorous and on-the-go at all times.
The most fulfilling things in life are also sometimes the most un-glamorous. Going to free literary events at bookstores, strolling through the park, volunteering, and going to free outdoor movies, discounted beer gardens, and classes at the library can be fun. None of these things are necessarily all that “worthy” of being fancy, braggadocious Instagram stories, but they work for me. Someday, I’ll probably have the means to spend more. But if being strict about budgeting has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t have to spend the world to experience it.
Elly is a New York-based writer and communications strategist who works very hard to feel worthy of eating lox bagels for breakfast. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here, or follow her on Twitter.
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