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How to Save When You Live in a Big City

Meghann Foye

Research most smart and sane budgeting wisdom and you’ll likely find variations around the 50/20/30 rule—i.e. you should be spending your take-home salary using the following method: 50 percent on fixed costs, 20 percent on savings and 30 percent on discretionary income.

However, as any city dweller who’s just realized they could have bought Hamilton tickets for the amount they spent on monthly takeout comes to realize, living near or around a big city, especially if you’ve got a growing family, can really eat away at any attempt to save.

So, to make another Hamilton reference, how can you not throw away your shot?

We talked to Stefanie O’Connell, author of The Broke and Beautiful Life: Small Town Budget, Big City Dream, for some ways to hack the top five biggest expenses to city living (besides childcare) and start living within your means.

“I’ll concede that some city savings are easier implemented than others, but just because the big city can be expensive doesn’t mean it has to be.”

1. Save on housing

This is going to be your biggest cost, so it pays to be conscious.

“Often, we get our heart set on a certain neighborhood, then try to shoehorn ourselves in to a higher rent,” says O’Connell. “Instead, figure out what you can afford and then make it a challenge to find your ideal home, if not your ideal neighborhood.”

If you’re iffy, O’Connell suggests subletting or renting an Airbnb apartment in neighborhoods you wouldn’t have considered and see how it feels. Here’s another thing to consider to boost the case for moving: people spending less than 50 percent on fixed costs tend to feel abundant, but any more, and you start to feel stretched.

Potential savings

$6,000/year, if you swap neighborhoods to shave $500 off monthly rent/mortgage.

2. Save on transportation

Consider going carless for at least a year, says O’Connell.

“Public transit is the great leveler in big city cost of living calculations. Sure, we big-city dwellers may have inflated housing prices to contend with (even with all the savvy saving strategies mentioned above), but we regain some of that ground by giving up our wheels.

Potential savings

$9,122 (average, based on 15,000 miles of yearly driving)

3. Save on food

According to budgeting tool Mint via Style Caster city dwellers in Los Angeles spent more than $170 million eating out in 2014, while New Yorkers and San Franciscans forked over $300 million in restaurants.

The painful but necessary fix? Disable your Seamless account, Dominos app, and other apps that make it too easy to order out, and instead, set a food budget. Try to automate weekly meal planning and cooking as much as possible, with, for example, a standard order at Trader Joes, supplemented by a three-times-per-week meal box kit, such as Blue Apron or Hello Fresh.

Potential savings

$4,800, if you’re averaging $200 a week on food, and you bring it down to $100.

4. Save on entertainment

Here’s where living in cities really pays off, says O’Connell.

Those Hamilton tix notwithstanding, “big cities are hot spots for free entertainment, classes and events—check your public library and parks and recreation event calendars to score everything from free concerts by A-list pop stars to free yoga classes.”

And these days, subscription cable is a luxury most people really don’t need. Consider getting a Smart TV, Apple TV, Roku or another streaming service to get on-demand shows you do want to watch.

Potential Savings

$840 per year if you cut bells-and-whistles cable (approx. $170 a month) and switch to a basic package with wifi (approx. $100 per month).

5. Save on wellness

With boutique fitness gyms charging upwards of $35 a class, and massage and other wellness services in abundance in big cities, it’s totally possible to spend upwards of $500 a month if you’re not careful.

While most people might not think of linking both physical and emotional wellness, giving yourself a comprehensive #selfcare fund for the month can help you figure out what’s truly working and what’s not. After a few months, make a list of what’s brought you the biggest results so you aren’t tempted to splurge on the latest juice fast on promo in your social feed.

You may just find that sitting alone and reading in a small local coffee shop for an hour might bring you just as much joy as a $100 therapy session, and it costs $5.

Potential Savings

$1,200 to $2,400 a year.

So, at the end of the day, when you add up the savings from all 5 hacks, how much could you be saving? Drumroll please!

Total Annual Savings


All of a sudden those Hamilton tickets are looking mighty affordable. 😉

Saving now is important, but so is preparing for the unexpected.

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Meghann Foye is a NYC-based writer covering personal finance, home and lifestyle topics. Her articles have appeared in Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Parents and Refinery29.com, among others.

Fabric Insurance Agency, LLC offers a mobile experience for people on-the-go who want an easy and fast way to purchase life insurance.

Meghann Foye

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