How to Save Money While Living in the City

Over the last few months, I’ve received a bunch of emails about what I do to save money while living in the city. Life is expensive, and urban life is especially pricey. As someone who has lived in both Chicago and New York, I will say that saving in New York City was significantly more difficult—it required a lot more self-discipline and sacrifice. Restaurant bills and bar tabs were ridiculous, and rent was absurd. At one point, my husband and I paid $2,650 for a very small one-bedroom illegal sublet in the East Village, really far from the subway. And believe it or not, that was a deal. One-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood were going for $3,200 (and higher!) at the time.

Chicago is much more affordable (in comparison), making saving a bit easier, but creating a budget and sticking to it is easier said than done. So today, I’m sharing some tips and tricks on how my husband and I have saved—and continue to save—while living in the Windy City.

 

Make a budget.

What’s worked best for me is figuring out what I typically spend my money on, and then deciding how much I’m actually OK with spending on those items. I also give myself the freedom to move around—and roll over—funds. If, for example, I know there are several dinners I’d like to attend with friends in the month of November, I might move my ‘clothing’ or ‘home decor/furnishings’ funds to the ‘restaurant’ category, and forgo those accent pillows or pair of boots I’ve been eyeing. Or if I’d like to buy a new couch, I might roll over my ‘home decor/furnishing’ funds for several months in order to save up for it.

Before I started budgeting, I operated on “feelings” only: I feel like I’ve gone out to dinner too many times this month. I feel like I spent too much money on clothing this month. I feel like I shouldn’t have gone on that weekend getaway. Now, though, I know exactly how much I’m spending on each category. And it feels great. I use USAA’s app to budget, but there are lots of other amazing resources to track spending and keep your habits in line with your goals.

 

 

Walk and participate in free activities.

My husband Mitch and I spend a great deal of time walking around the city. It helps us get out, get exercise, meet new people, and get to know our city better. Walking doesn’t cost anything, and it gives us time to really talk. Some of our best conversations have occurred during our strolls around the city! We also keep a list of our favorite free activities and stay on top of upcoming free events, adding them to our shared Google Calendar so we don’t forget. (Thrillist has a really great list of free things to do in New York and in Chicago, and TimeOut keeps a list of daily activities in New York, Chicago and other cities. But seriously: Just Google it!) We’ve found that when we have a calendar full of free activities, we’re far less likely to go out to eat or run up expensive bar tabs.

My best advice would be to eat before you go (or bring food along), map out where you’re going before leaving, try to hit up new spots as often as possible, and attend as many street fairs as you can.

 

Picnic in the city’s most beautiful public spaces.

Some of my favorite—and cheapest—experiences in New York and Chicago have been sitting on blankets in the grass, taking it all in. My favorite spots to picnic in New York are Battery Park, Abingdon Square Park in the West Village, Sheep Meadow in Central Park (obviously), Pier 63 in Chelsea, Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park, and Bryant Park. In Chicago, Mitch and I frequent Trebes Park, Lincoln Park (the actual park), Belmont Harbor, Montrose Harbor, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and Montrose Dog Beach. (And we’re always looking for new suggestions!)

 

Bring coffee with you.

Coffee may seem like a small expense, but it adds up. Get yourself a coffee machine and some to-go cups. Bonus points for being environmentally friendly and carrying a reusable one! Just make sure to bring a plastic bag so you can tuck it into your tote once you’re done.

 

 

Live below your means.

I’ve learned that just because you can swing that nicer apartment in a nicer neighborhood doesn’t necessarily mean you should. I don’t recommend living in a dangerous area or in a complete hole to save money. (Cockroaches and rodents are NOT worth it.) But going a couple hundred dollars below your budget can really pad your savings account. Similarly, just because you have the money to splurge on something doesn’t mean you should. I think it’s important to treat yourself every once in a while, but really take the time to think about those purchases—don’t make them impulsively.

 

And live in a place you can afford.

For a long time, I was spending most of my income on rent, which is the reason I didn’t have a savings account until I was 25. (And even during years 25 and 26, its contents were pretty pathetic.) Looking back, it was reckless. Thankfully, I was never faced with a real emergency, save for the time I went to emergency room for strep throat. But I should have had a safety net, and I should have been contributing some money to a savings account—even if it was only $100 every month.

All of that said, my best advice is to consider your priorities when deciding on an apartment. What’s most important to you? Is it the commute time? The square-footage? The neighborhood? The number of roommates you’ll need to live with? For me, it was always neighborhood, so I made sacrifices in the roommate and square-footage areas.

 

Avoid apartment broker fees.

Thankfully, broker fees really aren’t a thing in Chicago. But in New York, broker fees are astronomical, and often 20 percent of your yearly rent. Instead of going through a broker, Mitch and I used Craigslist, Backpage, and other similar sites to work around the fees. It’s way more work to find a place like this, but it’s way less expensive, too. There are also a handful of no-fee sites out there. Just be careful that the fees aren’t simply hidden in the monthly rent. Know the market! (FYI: Besides Craigslist and Backpage, I used Prince NYC Apartments and Eberhart Brothers to find apartments in NYC.)

 

 

Be prepared to move often until you settle down.

It sucks, but most landlords will hike up the rent as much as they’re legally allowed to every year. Of course, it’s important to take into account how much time a move requires, and how emotionally taxing it can be. And it’s crucial to weigh moving costs against the yearly increase. A $25 hike probably doesn’t necessitate a move, for example, as your move will likely cost more than $300. But a $200 hike means $2,400 more per year. Decisions, decisions.

 

Don’t invest in expensive furniture unless you’ve purchased a home.

Not because it isn’t worth it, but only because you’ll be devastated when it’s damaged during moves…and you’ll likely end up paying a ton in repairs and replacements. I’d suggest using magazines, Pinterest, catalogues, and blogs for inspiration, and then finding similar items from Ikea, Craigslist, thrift shops, Target, Wayfair, and the like.

 

Forgo cable.

Come on. You don’t need it. (And let’s be serious: You’re going to be more productive without it!) Basic channels and the internet are enough. Mitch and I love Apple TV, as it doesn’t require a subscription fee. It allows us to mirror what’s on our iPhones and laptop, and provides us with easy access to movies and television shows.

 

Create a timeline.

Living in Manhattan was extremely important to me when I was in my 20s. I knew that I belonged there from the time I was a young child (I blame my parents) and living there took precedence over, essentially, everything else for a very long time. And I have zero regrets. I was also broke for a long time, but I absolutely loved my time in New York, and I wouldn’t trade those years of my life for anything. However, I made a promise to myself that if I was still struggling financially by the age of 27 that I’d make a major change. So I did: Mitch and I moved across the river right before our 27th birthdays to save money for the future we wanted. (A more significant savings account and a home.) I cried on moving day—despite the fact that our new place was one stop away from Manhattan—but that tough decision is a big part of the reason we now own our dream home.

 

Ditch Uber, cabs, and cars—take public transportation.

It’s so much nicer to hop into a cab or Uber, but taking public transportation will save you boatloads of money. It just requires more planning. On a similar note, don’t own a car if you can get away with it. In Chicago, we definitely need one, as I drive home constantly. In New York, though, we went many years without, and it saved us so much. Insurance, maintenance, gas—it all adds up!

 

Travel smart.

Mitch and I use discount sites for hotels and flights—like Airfarewatchdog, Priceline, Kayak, Hotwire, Hotels.com, USAA, and Airbnb, just to name a few—and we’ve saved thousands of dollars on vacations because of it. We also volunteer our seats on flights whenever possible. If you have a flexible schedule, you can volunteer and bump yourself to the night flight in exchange for hundreds of dollars in flight vouchers. Mitch and I did this FOUR TIMES for our honeymoon flight, and ended up getting $2,800 in Delta flight vouchers. Needless to say, we flew for free for a long time. We only missed one day of our honeymoon!

And this totally contradicts my last tip, but if you travel a lot and have the flexibility (and own a car or can rent one for a reasonable price), drive. Of course, this tip comes with some limitations. For example, there’s really no way around flying if you’re traveling overseas. (Duh.) And if you’re going from the East Coast to the West Coast—well, that drive would be absurd. And sometimes flying can be cheaper than driving. And then there’s your schedule: If you only have four days, you probably don’t want to be allocating two full days to travel. But a six- to 12-hour drive if you have the days? You can totally handle it. I also highly recommend a fuel-efficient car. We have an old Prius, and that little guy can go forever on one tank of gas!

 

 

Don’t be afraid to tell guests you can’t afford their plans.

I love having friends and family come to stay. But guests can be expensive! When we lived in New York, we constantly had visitors, and they nearly always wanted to do it up during their one big weekend in the Big Apple. Totally understandable for them, but Mitch and I struggled to keep up financially weekend after weekend. Eventually, we realized that we shouldn’t feel guilty for telling our guests that we couldn’t accompany them to expensive experiences, bars, and restaurants. And everyone completely understood. We simply met up with them afterwards!

 

Find out about bar and restaurant deals and specials.

If Mitch and I walk past or hear about an establishment we’d like to visit, we always ask whether they have daily specials. The restaurant might have a great deal on burgers on Monday nights, for example, or discounted drinks on Wednesday nights. We keep track of them in our phones, and sometimes use sites like Small Tabs when we need help finding deals.

 

Party at your apartment—and at your friends’ apartments.

I’m not saying you should never go out and experience the city’s nightlife scene. But hey: Put those high rents to good use! I’ve had some pretty great nights at friends’ drinking Trader Joe’s wine and eating Two Bros. Pizza. Total bill? Like, $10.

 

Exercise outside.

Granted, exercising outside sometimes becomes impossible in the winter, but gym memberships can be ridiculously expensive in the city. In the past, I exercised outside from April until November…and then bought yoga packages for the months of December, January, February, and March. It ended up being way less expensive than a yearlong gym membership!

 

Source: Syvende

 

If you work from home, work from home.

As an experiment, I worked from coffee shops exclusively for a week last year. It cost me roughly $7 to $10 per day, as I usually bought a coffee and a snack. That’s $35 to $50 per week in savings! Don’t become a hermit, though. It’s important to get out every so often. These days, when I’m looking for a change of scenery, I work at a friend’s apartment, and treat myself to one day per week in a coffee shop.

 

Pick up inexpensive hobbies.

Mitch’s favorite inexpensive hobbies are biking and reading…and mine are writing, playing the guitar (poorly), and photography. (Equipment is expensive upfront, but the act of taking pictures costs nothing! I spend a few hours every weekend shooting for fun, and I love it.) Our hobbies bring us great joy, yet typically cost us very little.

 

Buy in bulk from eBay or Amazon.

This might sound silly, but Mitch and I buy products like plastic baggies, dog treats, and garbage bags in bulk, and our bills are a lower as a result. It goes without saying that you need storage space to buy in bulk, but if you have it, use it.

 

Shop online.

It might be more fun to shop in person, but online shoppers typically find better deals, and are less likely to make impulsive decisions.

 

Shop at discount food stores.

We only shop at Aldi and Trader Joe’s, and oh my goodness, guys. Our grocery bills are a third of what they would be if we shopped at trendier stores. Also, avoid bodegas. Seven bucks for a jar of peanut butter or tube of toothpaste? Please. Instacart, AmazonFresh, and Peapod (and the like) for the win.

 

 

Invest in wardrobe staples, not trends.

On the wardrobe front, I’m a firm believer in quality over quantity. I try my best to only buy pieces that I’ll know I’ll be able to wear again and again, and that I can pair with the rest of my stuff. When I do fall completely in love with a trend, though, I make sure to sell another piece to make up for some of its cost.

 

Sell your stuff.

Probably my favorite tip of all. Guys, I can’t even tell you how much stuff Mitch and I sell on Craigslist and eBay. Old furniture, old technology, old clothing—you name it and we sell it. It takes a lot of time, but it’s completely worth it. I mean, this month alone, we made more than $800 on Craigslist sales! Simply set aside a couple of Sundays per month, and make it fun. Turn on a movie, pump the music, pour yourself a glass (or two) of wine, and have at it. And be sure to read my Everygirl article about how to sell your stuff on eBay!

 

What tips do you use to save in the city? Comment below!

 

This article was originally published on Kelly in the City. Kelly lives in Chicago with her husband Mitch.

  • this article has so many great tips, many of which i use even though i no longer live within the city limits. so much of this is great advice no matter where you live 🙂

  • Courtney

    Thanks for such a meaty, informative post! I had never thought to keep a running tally of free events and special restaurant pricing before– very smart.

    I live in Melbourne, Australia, and it seems like there are four new places to eat and at least a dozen events to get to every weekend. It gets overwhelming, but it’s great to be so spoiled for choice.

    -Courtney
    unsettledlife.com

  • I don’t live in the city, but most of these are true for where I am as well! The only one I struggle with is cheap hobbies… I got into horseback, and though I do it as inexpensive as possible, it’s still expensive.

  • AmandaBo

    Oh my goodness! I’m right there with you about Aldi’s! Massive fan. About a year ago I switched from Whole Foods to Aldi’s and it has made a world of difference. But I won’t deny that sometimes my fiancé and I like to have date night at the LP location, grab a beer and a glass of wine on a Friday night and do some shopping 😉

  • Anita Lebrun

    thank your for all these tips. it’s one of my favourite article !

  • Ashley

    Auckland isn’t exactly New York, but it’s still quite pricey (think $1600 a month for a 26sqm studio that my partner and I share), and there’s some really great advice here. What’s crap about Auckland is that New Zealand is quite far away from the rest of the world, so things are quite a lot more expensive IF you can even find them. Most of your advice still holds up here, though, and we make the best of what we have!

  • These are all SO GOOD. I live in Silicon Valley (a.k.a. San Jose area) and everything is stupid expensive, but I love living near all the great food and entertainment, so we find other ways to cost cuts (like canceling cable and taking public transit!) so we can enjoy where we live. 🙂 Great post!

  • Bobbi Jo Hummel

    Is that the Fullerton station?!

  • This may be the best post I’ve ever read about saving money! Thank you for sharing, especially with ways to save in Chicago. I’ve been living here six years, the first five were for school and now I work. I have been learning so much about saving money this past year =o) I set up an excel spread sheet I use and track what I spend, this is so helpful to see where all my money was going and now I am more aware. Really great read, thank you =o)

    http://www.dreamofadventures.com/

  • Sarah Katherine

    This was great! I live in Nashville, TN and although it’s very different from NYC or Chicago, it’s becoming quite pricey and these translate over well! I do have a question about the budgeting app you use—why the USAA one? Can anyone use this if that’s not their banker?

  • Alice

    Love this article! It’s so well-written and there are so many good tips here. I think this is one of the most helpful articles I’ve ever read on saving money!

  • Holly

    This article has wonderful tips! I live in Washington, DC; and can attest to the part about rent in the area you’d like for safety. I love DC and always knew I wanted to live IN the city, but I’m currently looking at places in Maryland and Virginia (right outside the beltway) for cheaper rent.

  • I’m 30 and live in NYC … After winging it with money for the last decade I recently implemented alot of these strategies. Oh boy do they make a difference!! Ditching taxis, Starbucks and whole foods have allowed me to pay off credit cards and fill up my emergency account.

  • Thank you for this!

    One piece of advice that has helped me is to actually SAVE the money you aren’t spending. As in: when I walk to or from work I move the bus fare into my savings account.
    Making coffee at work or home? Move those few dollars into your savings account, otherwise you will just spend it on something else!

  • This is so important and accurate! Great advice that I’ll definitely keep in mind.

    Hugs,
    Hannie from Missing Wanderer

  • Giovana Bier

    So true! I currently live in NYC with my husband – and 2 cats – and it’s nearly impossible to save money. Renting is absurd – specially when you live in a nice area. We’re able to save some by cooking a lot. We also have a clear deadline of when life in the city will be enough 😉 Thank you for sharing your experience!

  • I totally agree with each tip in this article EXCEPT the tip about apartment brokers. If you’re moving to New York, I would just recommend finding a broker and sticking with that. It minimizes the number of times you have to give out your financial information (buh-bye, identity theft!) and severely cuts down personal stress. Besides that, a lot of “no fee” apartment websites will have apartments on there that require you pay broker’s fees anyway. Totally not worth the hassle, especially if you’re on a tight timeline.

    x, Tyler | http://tinymisstyler.com

  • Jen

    Such a great article! Piggy backing on the idea of food shopping at TJ’s and more inexpensive stores, I think meal planning is so important and has helped us make our food last so much longer without waste. I also love the app digit that studies your spending habits, and then saves extra money for you here and there by transfering small amounts of money into an extra savings account. I’m pretty obsessed with it. Since I started using it a year ago, it has helped me save over $2000 that I know I would have spent frivolously.

  • Jennifer Pittam

    Brilliant article – and even though I live all the way in Britain, across the pond, I gained some good tips. Living below your means is a great one – even if you just try and leave $50 in your account at the end of the month. It changes your attitude permanently and provides a great safety net, beside your savings, for unexpected emergencies such as being marooned when public transportation’s playing up. Thanks, Everygirl.

    https://jenniferpittam.blogspot.com

  • Katy Hope

    This was a great read. I would add meal plan, make a grocery shopping list and stick to it. I find when I don’t do this, we end up with all this extra food that ends up going bad before we can eat it. Look at your schedule for the week, figure out how many nights you are eating in and buy food just for those meals. And I always leave one night “unpurchased” we usually end up having leftovers or our plans change and we go out. It wastes so much less food and $$. ALSO, I put together the best fun FREE things to do in SF with kids, check it out at: https://hopepostkidsdotcom.wordpress.com/2016/10/18/freesf/

  • Miss Pippi

    I have been working for the last 9 years and I can only remember 2 months when I did not save. Yet it always gives a big boost to read helpful articles like these. Thanks.

    http://theeverygirl.com/how-to-save-money-while-living-in-the-city

  • Great common-sense tips! I read them thinking, “I know these things… yet it is so hard for me to stick to them, like, ever!” 🙂 It’s good to have the reminder that saving money on the little things can add up big time… Starbucks and Uber in particular. Great motivational read!

    Cheers,

    Marissa (lifeasmarissa.com)

  • So many great tips! My dream one day is to live in New York City and I do worry about the expense city living carries with it. I think I need to bookmark this page for future me!

  • Natalie Redman

    Great tips! I can totally relate to the cost of guests coming to visit as myself and partner currently live in London and as the capital, it’s very expensive!

    http://www.upyourvlog.com

  • I have lived in New York for 5 years and still feel sticker shock all the time at the prices. To start saving money, I wrote down everything I spent. It was really eye opening. Then I cut down on some of the biggest money drains, primarily: coffee, booze, and seamless.

    Seconding the furniture spending piece. Craigslist in urban areas is a goldmine. In New York, so many wealthy people get rid of their high-end furniture for next to nothing. It’s amazing.

    http://cityambition.com

  • Living in the city is so expensive! That’s why I’m out in the suburbs, it’s cheaper but not by much.

  • It’s always stressing me out about moving – because the hectic of it and also the cost of moving in the city that I currently live in. And you’re so right about moving often. Great tips.

  • Marty M.

    Great post … and, I really love your two-tone bucket bag. Can you share where you got it?

  • Thanks so much for your great tips about saving money! So helpful and inspirational for city living!

    Allegra xx

    http://www.allegraghiloni.com

  • Diana

    These are amazing tips! I was expecting just 3/4 but you really blew it out of the water! One consistent theme is to plan ahead and to put some work in…. go online (I mean, we’re on the computer all day anyways) so you might as well search for free things to do

    https://thedianaediton.com

  • This is my second year living in St Paul and honestly, I love it so much more than Minneapolis just across the river. There’s hardly any kind of nightlife to speak of and it’s got a very chill and relaxed vibe about it – so there’s no real push to party it up and most liquor stores even close around 9 pm.

    I’m also really lucky that I only pay $750 for rent, but I had to sacrifice a bit of security to do it – our neighborhood isn’t the best, but it’s less crime-ridden than it was a decade ago according other residents and while the building has some curious electrical anomalies, it’s all up to code and safe. Quirky, I suppose.

    Transit….this one is a gamble. If you’re taking it to and from work each day, you’re probably fine. But if you’re out visiting friends at night and need to head home alone in the dark, be safe and call an Uber/Lyft. Otherwise, always be polite and courteous to your drivers – they’ll look out for you, especially if you’re a regular.

    https://on-th3-cusp.blogspot.com/

  • Chanel

    Another great cheap thing to do is use your local library. I live in Chicago and I can rent almost every dvd, cd, or book since the Chicago Public Library system is large. Also, lots of big cities have resident free days at museums since part of our taxes help pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the buildings. I’ve been to almost every museum in Chicago for free when I show my ID.

  • While living in Chicago I tried to use public transportation as often as I could, that helped me save a lot of money and also running along the lake when it was warm instead of joining a gym =o)

    https://dreamofadventures.com/

  • Just Here to Say Hi

    I definitely like spending my money on stock if I feel an itch to dump some money off. That way, I get the satisfaction of buying something, but my money is still there. Other than that, very informative and beautiful article!

  • Lindsey Sterczek

    I’m a big fan of Ebates/Rakutan! They offer a small percentage of “Cash Back” for just about every online retailer. I’ve gotten almost $900 in Cash Back since I started using it 2.5ish years ago. Worth it if you online shop a lot, even groceries and car rentals.

  • LOVED this post!