The rent really is too damn high, at least in pricey coastal cities like San Francisco and New York City.
Problem is, pricey coastal cities have more than their fair share of jobs and opportunity. In early 2015, The New York Times’ exhaustive geographies of opportunity study found that it’s better to grow up, and stick around, in major metropolitan areas with generous social services, growing employment bases and great schools.
Big Coastal Cities Are Terrible for Working Folks, But...
Look closer, though, and big cities — particularly the expensive coastal variety — offer a seriously raw deal for average wage-earners. Actually, expensive cities offer a raw deal for just about everyone but the proverbial 1%. CityLab crunched the numbers and found that, despite lower-than-average transportation costs, San Francisco is exceedingly tough for people who don’t work at Google or make partner by age 30.
And yet, and yet: San Francisco draws young transplants like nobody’s business. So does New York City. So does Boston. So does Vancouver. So does D.C. It’s no secret why. Beyond jobs, opportunity and social services, pricey coastal cities are pricey in part because they’re fun. They’ve got energy. There’s always something new for stimulation-starved millennials to fix their Vine-shortened attention spans on.
I’d know: I moved to San Francisco a few years back, shortly after I graduated from college. I didn’t have a job lined up, and thanks to the recession, I wasn’t at all confident I’d find one anytime soon. I’m still not, actually, at least not the sort of job I expected when I first moved here.
But I’m getting by, and so are thousands of San Fran (and New York, and Boston, and Seattle, and…) transplants like me. I personally get by on about 30 grand a year (TMI? too late; no shame), and I live like royalty compared to some of my peers. In the past few years, I’ve learned a fair bit about living frugally in one of North America’s most expensive urban areas. If you’re moving to the big city and want to hit the ground running, or at least not crash and burn on arrival, do these four things — all of which, I should add, I wish I’d done sooner.
Find the Next Hot Neighborhood
Or, if you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person, “compromise on location.”
This isn’t a revolutionary tip, nor is it the product of years of painstaking research by the world’s foremost authorities on frugality. Penny-pinching urbanites have restlessly migrated
Remember, before New York’s SoHo was synonymous with Silicon Alley, it was a dirty euphemism for everything Middle America hated about New York City. Everything.
Today, you can practically set your watch by the pace of Brooklyn’s gentrification. Ditto for San Fran’s. In Boston, you can buy (real) designer clothes on streets you wouldn’t be caught dead on 15 years ago.
The trick is sorting the up-and-coming precincts from the also-rans. Even if you’re a renter (and you’re sure as hell going to be a renter on $30K a year), deciding where to live is like deciding where to invest. Look for a place with good transit connections, ample green space, distinctive building stock, a strong independent business base — really, anything to set it apart from run-of-the-mill parts of town.
Shack Up with a Friend (or Two)
That’s roommates. Plural.
For such a simple tip, this is a hard one to accept.
It’s no secret why. We all need personal space. Some need more than others. But when studio apartments start at $2,000 a month, as they do in my actually-pretty-affordable-by-SF-standards corner of San Francisco, it’s simply not realistic to ride the no-roommates roller coaster. Unless you don’t want to eat, that is.
Not to the bus stop, though surely you’ll be doing plenty of that too. No: if you want to survive on a monk’s wage in San Francisco, New York City, D.C., or any other pricey urban paradise, you need to think like a hustler.
The good news: thanks to the sharing economy, hustling is pretty easy in pricey coastal cities. All it takes is some spare time, spare capacity, an Internet connection and a can-do attitude.
Everyone’s hustle is different. (Not literally, but it feels that way.) If you’re fortunate enough to have a car, look into driving for a ridesharing app or delivery service. If you’re handy, become a TaskRabbit “tasker.” If you stay with your significant other most nights, sublet your room on Airbnb (local housing codes permitting).
And if you have to miss a few weekend nights out with your friends each month? You’ll have more cash on hand for next time — maybe enough to buy a round for once.
Trim Your Overhead
Painful as it sounds, the key to getting by on $30K a year in the big city lies in running your household (such as it is) as a business.
Don’t worry: no expense reports in sight. You do need a budgeting spreadsheet or two, probably. More importantly, you need to summon your inner Trump, or perhaps a less politically terrifying version of the hard-nosed negotiator you never knew you were.
About a year after I moved to San Francisco, I spent a weekend poring over my budget, itemizing my income and expenses. I came up with a few hunks of financial fat that seemed easy and relatively pain-free to cut:
With hindsight, I should have trimmed my overhead even sooner. If you’re in the same boat, why wait till you regret it?
So, that’s how the other 99% live. How are you scraping by in the city of your dreams?