How-To Budget in NYC: Forget everything you know

How-To Budget in NYC: Forget everything you know


July 4th 2010 by Barry Yanowitz

Today is my one-year anniversary living in New York City.

While I had been working in Manhattan for several years before, the change in my budget since moving here is noticeable.

It is true, NYC is an expensive place to live…

but not in the ways you might think.

The Expensive


No coupons, no fliers, no sales/promotions, no generics, no selection, no bulk food.

Bodega by EssG

Your kitchen is small. Your apartment is small. You probably don’t have much storage space (some apartments don’t even have closets).

The market is small. Shopping carts are rare. Shelf space is limited. Everything is overpriced.

You don’t have a car, so you can only buy what you can carry home with you. Or spend even more money on a cab.


You pay for the neighborhood, not the apartment.

Brownstones by wallyg

You’ll need roommates to afford anything decent for $1K/mo or less in any borough.

The less there is to do in the neighborhood, the cheaper the rent. Even if the apartment was recently renovated, new appliances, etc.

There is little negotiation room since housing is always in high-demand.


Your apartment is too small to invite friends over for a ‘cheap’ night in.

by nayrb7

That frugal tip of watching a movie at home with friends instead of going out, doesn’t always work in nyc.

Most apartments have small living rooms, if there is one at all.

Even in six-pack form, beer is pretty expensive. Find a good bar happy hour and there’s not much of a difference.

Bars will often have viewing parties of popular tv shows & themed drink specials.

The Cheap


My total monthly commuting/living transportation costs are $104.

F train by Lab2112

The public transportation system in new york runs 24/7 and is reliable enough to not need a car.

No insurance, no car payments, no gas.

For $104/30 days, I can go anywhere within the five boroughs.

Even better, I can ride my bike anywhere for free.

Eating Out

Contrary to frugal practice, in nyc it is cheaper to eat out than to cook at home.

Dosa Foodcart Washington Sq Park by @superamit

Food carts, happy hours, pizza, noodles, china/korea town – so much of this is less than $10/meal and can possibly last you two meals.

(Note, I’m not going to say that cart food is amazingly healthy but my “eating out” does not include any fastfood chains.)

My lunch roster consists of a $6 dosa from a food cart, $3 bagel w/ cream cheese & tomato, $3 lamb burger, $5 worth of salad bar, and the most expensive lunch items I buy are an $8 noodle lunch special or an $8 banh mi sandwich.

I can eat out everyday for lunch and spend less than $25 total weekly.

(Note, clearly I don’t eat at fancy schmancy places.)


nyc offers a lot of free/cheap entertainment every night of the week.

sheena bizarre

Because of competition, very few bars charge a cover.

Many indie comedy shows, music concerts and other live performances are free.

Movies screened outside over the summer in various parks/rooftops are free.

There are many happy-hour deals, open bars, and events offering free booze.

Sign up on events lists and follow venues/bands on twitter to catch all the cheap/free things-to-do.

Going to the beach is always free.

Let’s go to the budget

Here is a direct comparison of my monthly income percentages between living in NJ and NYC.

Rent* 20% 35%
Transportation 12-25%** 4%
Groceries 6% 3%
Eating Out 3% 6%

*Both rents are with roommates. My current 1br in Brooklyn is 40% of my monthly income.
**Higher number includes commuting from NJ to Manhattan daily.

For my expenses, it is pretty clear that I am saving a lot of money in transportation, which is immediately discounted by the higher rent. In the end, the two even out.


Are there any atypical costs where you live?


10 Replies to “How-To Budget in NYC: Forget everything you know”

  1. Good article. As a New Yorker, I agree with most of your points. Rent is definitely a killer and transportation is a bargain in comparison to car/driving costs. I will challenge the notion that it’s cheaper to eat outside though. As you said, the cheap food you do find is not that healthy, and I would add that it’s not very tasty or fresh either. Sometimes it’s better to use a few extra bucks up front to prep at least some of your food at home. You end up saving money in the end.

    1. On the topic of fresh, I’ve found that food goes bad faster here than in other places I’ve lived. Maybe it’s not fresh at the market?

  2. Hmm… it depends, but you’re probably right. NYC doesn’t grow most of it’s food (if any), so everything is shipped/trucked in from afar, especially during cold months. The stuff that comes from upstate NY, Jersey and other neighboring states tends to be fresher. Also, maybe the fact that we live in a polluted city contributes to the food going bad a little quicker.

  3. I’ve lived in NYC all my life and would say the grocery situation definitely varies by neighborhood. In my neighborhood, there is a decent grocery store around the corner that has generics and sale items every week. A couple of blocks away, there is a bigger grocery store that also has generics, sales, etc. But in my best friend’s old neighborhood, the closest decent grocery stores were a bus ride away.

    I just found your site today, but I’m excited to find another blogger living in the city; it seems there aren’t many of us.

  4. Good points, but I also disagree with the eating out is cheaper than cooking yourself point. I used to think that when I first moved to the city, many years ago. But now that I batch cook a few dishes at the beginning of the week that I eat throughout, I’d say it’s not the case. Yes, the freshness of fruits and vegetables can vary – I happened to work close to several fruit stands and a health food store, so good produce is relatively easy to come by. I by most other things at Trader Joe’s, which I find to be both WAY cheaper and higher in quality than the other chain grocery stores in Queens (Key Food, C Town, Trade Fair, etc.). But other than that, a great list.

  5. It looks like the grocery situation really varies by neighborhood.

    For me, I have to go to multiple stores to buy all my groceries which is very different from living in the suburbs and buying from one giant supermarket. I’ve found produce to be extremely cheap near me but nothing else. I won’t buy produce from Trader Joe’s and can’t find much to buy there other than cereal, milk, and cheese; their meat seems to be on the expensive side.

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