How to contend with the high cost of city living
Many sirens lure people to a big city. Maybe you’re joining a wave of young people flocking to New York as the pandemic wanes, or eyeing an exciting job opportunity, or closing the gap on a long-distance relationship. Perhaps you dream of seeing your name in lights—or, not to get all Springsteen on you, you’re just craving a personal reinvention after growing up in a small town where everyone knows your name (and history).
There is, however, one inevitable downside to living out your metropolitan dreams: Life will likely become more expensive. Going in with your eyes open—and with a solid financial plan—is key to achieving escape velocity from Smalltown, USA (and avoiding the dreaded “move back home” ending). Here are some added costs to keep in mind—and some tips on how to keep them under control—to prepare you for your new big city financial life.
Your rent will likely be more than a mortgage payment back home
The median monthly mortgage payment for all U.S. homeowners is just over $1,000, according to the most recent available data from the Census Bureau. And that’s for an actual house with multiple bedrooms. In Chicago, you’ll pay that much just to rent a one-bedroom apartment. In inflated markets like New York City or San Francisco, you’re likely to pay triple that. This jump in housing costs will obviously have a significant impact on your overall budget.
While I usually recommend spending no more than 30% of your salary on rent, you’ll need to take stock of your unique financial situation—including debt, savings goals, and expenses—to determine what you can afford. To keep costs down, consider sharing space with a roommate (or two, or three). If you do, make sure your cohabitation is financially sound. Have a plan for sharing household costs, and get everyone’s name on the lease, so the responsibility doesn’t fall on one person (you) if things go south.
…and everything else will be more expensive, too
Expensive real estate drives up the price of goods and services at local businesses that are also contending with sky-high rents. Denizens of Manhattan (which, though technically a borough of NYC, was designated as Kiplinger’s most expensive city in 2020) pay a 40% premium on groceries and a whopping 60% on movie tickets. The New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco metro areas all hit their residents with an upcharge of 20% or more on costs of living compared to the national average. But that doesn’t mean you have to pay top dollar for everything. Be smart about your grocery budget by planning ahead and shopping where you know you can get cheap staples (hello, Trader Joe’s and Chinatown produce markets). Check sites like Groupon for deals on everything from manicures to yoga. If you work full-time, you may get deals through your HR department on movie and theater tickets.
Get used to getting around without a car
Accustomed to big parking lots, two-car garages, and shooting over to Costco to stock up on those sweet Kirkland Signature essentials? If you’re bringing your car to your new city, you may be in for a rude awakening. You’ll face higher costs for auto maintenance and insurance. Then there’s the logistical nightmare of navigating variables like street cleaning and alternate side parking rules. (Indoor private parking in a big city can cost up to 30 times more than back home.) Add it all up, and you might just want to throw your keys into the Hudson (or the Charles or the Potomac).
In cities with decent public transportation, trading vehicular autonomy for low-cost buses and trains will make your life easier and less expensive. (Your workplace may even offer a commuter benefits program, allowing you to pay for transit with your pretax income.) Or swap four wheels for two. But if you’re going to bike in a city, consider joining the local bike share program to save on maintenance costs, make sure you have health insurance (you do, right?), and always, always wear a helmet.
Talking about money can leave you tongue-tied. My weekly newsletter is full of financial conversation starters.
The price of friendship
Socializing comes at a premium, too. Back home, inviting friends over to your place for beers or a dinner party was a no-brainer. That option is eliminated when you’re living in a studio apartment (or in a sublet with five roommates). Instead, most city social life takes place at the many (very awesome) restaurants, bars (hello, $14 cocktails!), concert venues, cafes, theaters, museums, and so on that are happy to take your hard-earned dollars in exchange for a place to hang out.
All those after-work happy hours, ramen pop-ups, and Broadway shows can easily make their way onto your credit card statement—and never leave. Fight this with a plan: Think about setting spending boundaries. Permit yourself to stay in one night a week when everyone else is going out. (Yes, even on the weekend.) With time, you’ll also get savvier about finding free and low-cost fun in your new city. Before you know it, you and your friends will be rattling off your favorite hole-in-the-wall cheap eats, public beach, and bar where you can get free pizza.
That’s when you’ll know that you’ve gone from big-city newcomer to local.