It can be extremely discouraging when you're struggling just to survive in an expensive city. When I moved to San Francisco, you needed to make $62,046 a year to afford a one bedroom apartment. I made less than $50,000. Luckily, I found out you don't need to make your city's lofty average income to be happy — you just need to get creative and be willing to put in some effort.
Of course, the first thing you should ask yourself in this situation is: "do I really need to live here?" I couldn't, unfortunately, since I moved to San Francisco for work and the surrounding area is similarly expensive. Maybe you have family nearby and don't want to leave them. Whatever the reason, thriving in an expensive city isn't impossible — it just requires the right frame of mind.
I Learned That Most of My "Needs" Were Really Conveniences
The first thing I did was take a look at my current spending and lifestyle. I knew I would have to spend according to what I made, not what I wish I made, which made me accept some harsh truths about the things I considered necessities in life.
I expected to share an apartment with someone else, and luckily I had talked to a close friend about living together. Sharing with people you don't know is riskier, but it may be your only option. The lower you can get this expense, the more you have to cover other costs or to put into savings.
One of the biggest lessons I learned searching for an apartment in a highly competitive, expensive market is that you should make a list of your needs and wants for housing. Your needs will put restrictions on what is available to you (which helps cut down on listings to sift through) and your wants help you decide which place to pick.
We had to give up some of our ideal features — like living away from the more popular downtown neighbourhoods — because of our price cap on rent. This also means that we had longer commutes, but an extra 20 minutes on the bus saves us about $2000 in rent. Living just a few blocks from a major bus line hasn't cost us more, but it may in your city. In the end, you have to balance your housing wants with what you can reasonably pay.
Speaking of the bus, I chose not to have a car. I knew that insurance, car payments and parking would eat up a lot of my income. Public transport takes more time, which is inconvenient, but when you're low on cash, you have to let go of some conveniences, and a car is just that: a convenience. I use that time time to work towards other goals — like learning by listening to podcasts, reading more, or catching up on work emails. I also cut down on food costs by planning meals that are within my budget. I actually really enjoy cooking, which saves me a lot of money since I end up eating out only two or three times a month.
Courtney Carver, writing on Be More with Less, points out that you should divide the number of items you own by seven (for the seven days of the week) and get rid of (or sell) anything that goes beyond the number you need for a week. For example, you only need enough clothing to have outfits for seven days and the rest you can sell at consignment or thrift stores. I think it's even more important to apply it before buying something, so I always remember her formula.
I estimate how many times a week I would use an item and multiply it by 52, then divide the price by how many times I would use it. I end up with the price I pay each time I use the item for that year.
Say I'm considering buying a $40 blender. I'll use it around four times a week to make smoothies, sauces, or to cut up veggies. That means I'll use it 208 times a year. $40/208 means it costs me about 19 cents every time I use it. To me, that makes it worth buying. You can apply this method to almost anything, from clothing to electronics.
You might feel like every time you scroll through Facebook or Instagram, you see people in apartments with breathtaking views, eating out at the hottest restaurants, or getting front row seats at the best concerts. This can be discouraging when you're just squeaking by. Instead of pining after the lifestyle of others, think about how you can be happy within your budget. Also, remember: most people only show off their highlight reels, not what their day-to-day life is actually like. Many of these things have made my life less convenient, but I constantly remind myself of this mantra: Someday, I'll be better off, but right now, I just need to get by — even if it isn't ideal.
I Focused On What I Could Afford
When basics like rent, food and transport take up most of your income, you can't fathom extras that are important for your mental, emotional and physical health. Think about what you personally need to be happy now and find low-cost versions. Spend your energy focusing on what you can afford over what you can't.
Instead of focusing on how far away I live from all the top restaurants and bars (which are out of my price range anyways), I'm grateful for how close I live to beautiful (and free) walking trails and parks. I mean, I have an amazing view of the Golden Gate bridge less than a ten-minute walk from my front door — hard to beat!
I realised the other day that after dropping $100 on date night, we would have been just as happy hanging out at home, because what matters is spending uninterrupted time together. Do the same and think about what you truly enjoy the most when it comes to your favourite activities. If what you like most about dining out is being able to eat good food and catch up with friends, try hosting a potluck at your home. If you like belonging to a gym because it helps you stay fit, see if your apartment building has a gym — if not, your city may have classes or groups that work out together. Over time you may find that you actually like these lower cost alternatives more because you're saving money and you still get to do what you enjoy.
Be honest with yourself and others about the lifestyle you can afford. Money is often a taboo topic, so it can be tough to tell your friends that you can't afford to go out. People who care about you won't stop being your friend because you're acting with your financial health in mind. In fact, they may be in a similar situation and will be happy you brought it up. You can follow up with suggestions for free or low cost activities, like a game night or a hike.
When talking about money, I found it best to be transparent, but also sensitive to the other person. They may not want to discuss finances — and that's OK. Just stick to letting them know about your situation so they understand that you want to go out with them, but simply can't afford it. By being open with your friends, your social life will be less stressful because you won't have to try and keep up with everyone else.
I Used The City To My Advantage
I figure that since I'm paying for the high cost of living in a city, I need to take advantage of what it offers.
I've found so many entertainment options that are extremely affordable. Many cities, for example, have free street fairs and festivals during warmer months (you can check your city's website for an event calendar or just do a quick Google search). I belong to a large art museum and my annual membership pass gets me and a guest unlimited access to two different locations — and has paid for itself in a few visits. I've used this pass as a low cost way to hang out with friends or go on awesome dates. If museums aren't your style, there are loads of other places you can meet people while spending little or no money (running clubs, church, volunteering, etc.).
Probably the best thing I've done to help alleviate the costs of living in an expensive city is to secure a second source of income. While I don't need the money to cover basic things like rent or food, it does allow me to work towards my financial goals more quickly. Since you live in a city, chances are you can get a side gig in the service or tourist industry — such as at a restaurant, bar, hotel or tour guide service. Working in the food industry can help cut down your food costs since you usually get to eat one or two meals at the restaurant for free.
If these kind of standard part time jobs don't work with your schedule, seek out more unusual opportunities. I once went on a chartered sailboat and the skipper was using it as a side job to supplement his income from his full time job in construction project management. For even more flexibility, try task sites like TaskRabbit, Fancy Hands, Fivver, Postmates, Uber, or Airtasker.
Sometimes working a second job is tiring and stressful — there are days where I barely have a break for dinner — but the extra financial security is worth it (especially if you enjoy the work).
You can also use your city to your advantage and fill the demand for things that you already own. Besides selling stuff you don't need, you can rent out your belongings.
Lastly, be humble enough to ask for help when you need it. Personally, I have an Amazon wishlist that I send to people (mostly family) whenever they ask me what I want for my birthday or Christmas. I've filled it with items that improve my living situation — like a space heater since the heater in my apartment doesn't work very well. You could also let them know what stores or services you use so they can get you gift cards. This way they feel good about giving you something you'll use and you get something to help make life a little easier.
As you improve your situation, set financial goals for yourself. Even if you can hardly afford anything beyond a basic lifestyle, you can still have a goal to put any extra cash towards. I've found this to be a great source of motivation when it comes to making decisions about how I spend my money. I'm saving to buy a home, so every time I'm faced with the choice of taking a taxi or taking the bus, I opt for the bus as often as possible. Just taking a moment to think about what I could use that money instead stops me from spending it on something I can now afford.
By giving up some conveniences, I was able to life within my means while gaining a greater appreciation for what I already have. Remember my mantra from earlier? It's already coming true, I'll be able to meet two of my financial goals this year: building an emergency fund and being able to afford living alone. Realise that you, too, can get your situation under control and work towards the life you want.