Living Cheap in a Big City: How to Keep Rent from Devouring your Life

Shannon McNay, the author of this post, is a transplanted Midwesterner living and writing in New York City.  You can follow her on Twitter at @shannonmcnay.

Living cheap in a big city

“How can I live in a big city despite having a relatively low income?”

I found myself asking that question when I was in my early 20’s and was trying to figure out how to live in New York City.

It is a question many people find themselves asking these days, especially recent college graduates and young professionals who are drawn to the vitality of a large city but who don’t always have the money to afford the higher cost of living in one.

So what’s a would-be city dweller to do?  It turns out, those who choose to live in a place like New York City usually have to decide what they will sacrifice in order to make their finances work.

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That’s certainly what I had to do.

But there’s good news if you’re currently looking for an answer to this question.  I can share my experiences and lessons I learned in order to help you make wise decisions and possibly avoid some of the mistakes that I had to make.

Several years ago I was a recent college graduate hoping to move out of my parents’ apartment.  I’d been told that people should not spend more than 25-35% of their income on rent.  Since I was making a meager hourly wage while paying off student loans and trying to find a job where I could make use of my degree, I felt I had no choice but to live with my parents at that time.  However, several years later, after I had gotten a job that better fit my qualifications, with a better salary, I was renting a room and paying about 23% of my income toward the monthly rent.  Pretty good, right?  But I still had to go through trial by fire to figure out how to make ends meet while living in the city.

What I found is that you have to choose which of the following factors you want to maximize and which you’re willing to sacrifice on:  convenience (i.e. proximity to restaurants, entertainment, and work), atmosphere (i.e. residential, artsy, etc.), roommates, and of course, total cost.

Here’s a detailed look at some of the lessons I learned:

1. Start by Thinking About Your Rent as a Percentage of Income
As I mentioned above, conventional wisdom says not to pay more than 25-35 percent of your gross monthly income on rent.  Let’s say you make $20 an hour working 40 hours a week which equals $41,600 year (plus or minus other considerations like health insurance and bonuses) and after tax you take home $29,120, which equals $560 per week.  In this case we’ll be conservative and go for 25%, which would equal no more than $10,400 a year or $867 a month.  One look at this and you can think that you have to take whatever you can find for the price, but taking a closer look at other variables will show that this isn’t necessarily true.  However, it’s important to do this calculation first to know where you stand.

2. Decide Whether You Play Well With Others
Now that you have your rent calculation figured out, the next step is to consider whether you can stand having roommates (and whether you have any choice about it).  Let’s say you are the kind of person that likes to go home from work and have total control over your surroundings, like my loveable, curmudgeonly boyfriend.  He doesn’t want to come home and see someone cooking in the kitchen, lounging in front of the TV, or making a mess in the living room (despite the fact that you just had three roommate meetings that month about keeping the place clean and were hoping to have someone over later that night… but sorry, I digress).  If this is you, then you should probably consider a studio or one bedroom, while keeping in mind that you will have to make up for this with sacrifices in other areas.

3. If You Like Living with Others, Use That to Your Advantage
Some people actually don’t mind (or even enjoy) living with others.  If that’s true for you, then be strategic about finding a place with roommates who will help offset the cost of your apartment or house.  For example, I’m okay with having roommates because I’m rarely ever home – as long as I like my neighborhood.  When I was living in the Upper East Side in Manhattan, I found there wasn’t much to do, so I stayed home a lot more but was lucky to feel very close with my roommates.  Ultimately, though, I found that the closeness did not supersede my need to live in a livelier place, which brings me to…

4. Know (and Love) Your Neighborhood
You’ll need to be at least somewhat comfortable with the neighborhood you plan to live in.  If you feel like you will not be safe in that area, then you might need to find another aspect of this decision on which you’re willing to sacrifice, because if possible it’s always best to avoid living in a neighborhood where you’ll be in danger (as if that needs saying!).  More importantly, you want to live in a neighborhood where you actually enjoy the sights and sounds (and people).  If you can find a place where this is true, given the constraints you’re operating under, then you will have hit the jackpot.

When I moved to the East Village in NYC, I actually increased my rent from $700 a month to $900 because it was worth it to me to be able to walk to my favorite brunch spots, coffee shops, and restaurants.  I traded in two roommates for four, but this time I had my own room (in the Upper East Side I had been sharing a bedroom, which is not as uncommon in NYC as it may seem).  Now I have a much smaller bedroom, and tons of roommates, but the bedroom is all my own and I love the area.  So basically I upgraded my location and private living space but had to sacrifice on cost and the number of people in the apartment.  On the other hand, if being walking distance from your favorite spots isn’t as important to you, you’re in luck because those areas tend to be a bit cheaper to live in.

5. Remember – Convenience, Convenience, Convenience
While the old cliche about housing is that the three most important factors are “location, location, location,” we might specify that convenience is a very important variable when choosing a neighborhood to live in.  Going back to the example above, in which you have $867 a month to spend on rent, and assuming for a moment that you want a place all to yourself, living in New York City is going to be difficult (trust me, I know from experience!).  However, a quick Craigslist search in this price range shows that it is possible.  In Manhattan you’d have to be willing to live in Harlem, in Brooklyn you’d be mostly looking at Brighton Beach, and in Queens there are just a handful of options.  Any of these options could give you your own apartment that fits your budget, but you’ll also have to consider the amount of time it will take to commute.  Weighing your personal pain threshold when it comes to a potentially long commute is necessary before making a final decision.

6. Get A Little Help from Your Friends
Okay, so now let’s say you like having roommates, and it’s much more important to you to live with people you trust.  You want to live in a fun neighborhood, but it doesn’t have to be a specific one (not like me who had to live in the East Village no matter what).  You can opt out of the normal Craigslist path and go through another avenue to make sure you feel at home with your roommates.  You can ask around amongst your friends, post a message on Facebook to get connected with friends of friends or find someone through your extra curricular activities.

Take my friend’s experience, for example.  Space was not an issue for her since she came to the city with next to nothing and wanted to live in a neighborhood that was convenient but that also felt homey.  Her number one priority was to not live with strangers.  So she went through her church and found two girls she really liked, and is now paying $500 a month to share a bedroom (and a bunk bed) with one, while the other has her own room.  She can come home as often as she likes because they all enjoy each other’s company and help out around the apartment, and she doesn’t mind sharing a room with someone who shares a similar schedule to her.  Their biggest priority is to make the situation work so they do all they can to respect each other’s needs.


As you can see there are many ways to make living in a big city feasible, as long as you know how to weigh your priorities.  There are a lot of compromises I’ve had to make but the advantage is that I’ve gotten to enjoy living in New York City.  Not a bad trade-off for those who truly love the city.  As long as you think long and hard about your needs, then you can find a place that gives you what you’re looking for while keeping rent from taking over your budget.  And there are lot of tools out there to help:  you can find apartments and roommates, you can figure out how long your commute will be, and you can see if your potential neighborhood is safe.

If you’re getting ready to move to a big city, we wish you the best of luck and hope that you’ll weigh all the important factors outlined here before deciding where to live!

Image 1 credit: dmguz

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  • mary mcnay

    I love this blog site. It’s great info that looks like a nice assist for any contemplating a move to the Big Apple.

  • jlittner

    Excellent article, Shannon . . . lots of good advice for anyone wanting to broaden their horizons but not sure how to go about it.  Thanks for sharing your experience–always the best teacher!

  • Kennhare5

    Awesome story. You make New York not seem so big and unfriendly as urban legends say it is!! Thanks

  • Ewperazzo

    Great article!  Personal experience is always the best advice.  I will pass this on to my children.  Although none of them are moving to NY right now, it’s still good advice for any city.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment, glad you liked the article. Please let us know if there’s anything else that you’d like us to write about. We’re always looking for suggestions

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  • Freddy

    Great post Shannon although I thought you overemphasized on living with roommates. Personally, I enjoy my own space – kitchen, living, bath and bedroom – so living with another person can be a challenge. I know you should dream big and leave in nice places, but if your pay check cannot allow it, it’s better to get a rental plan you can manage and work your way up…or get a million and one roommates as you said. Great tips though 😉