What Living in New York City Cost Me

Sarah Blake 2019

Sarah Blake 2019

I’m so grateful that people have started to share their money stories online. Getting a glimpse into the everyday money management of regular people through blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos has been instrumental in improving my own financial literacy and habits. This is great because my generation has a lot of money questions — about how much we should be earning, saving, living on, etc. Most of us grew up not knowing what our parents made. We weren’t taught what a “good” salary or “enough” savings looked like. It’s as if we expected some secret knowledge to be shared one day, and it just never was.

Thankfully, we can now get our information from other sources. I’ve become a big fan of stripping away the smoke and mirrors that surround wealth or lack thereof. I’m not suggesting we start posting our paystubs on Instagram, but we can all benefit from the trend toward greater financial transparency. In the spirit of sharing, since several people have asked me how expensive it was to live in New York City…

Here’s a breakdown of my monthly income and spending in NYC

Income: $1600

As an international student, I could work a maximum of twenty hours a week. I had two jobs at the university I attended, and once I was working my max hours, my biweekly paycheques were around $800. This translates to an annual income of $19 200.

Taxes: $0

Because of the US-Canadian tax treaty, I didn’t have to pay American taxes. Since I received tax credits for the cost of tuition, I didn’t have to pay taxes when I got back to Canada either. All the money I made in New York was mine to keep, which was a bonus!

Savings: $0

I saved virtually none of the money I made because I did not have an American savings account. (I have a Canadian savings account, of course.) For my time in New York, my goal was to live on my small income and make sure I was covered, rather than transferring money to Canadian banks for long-term savings. Although this is not my typical savings philosophy or practice, this is what I decided to do for the short term.

Rent: $975

I lived in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Williamsburg with two other roommates. It was a surprisingly spacious place in a convenient area, and it only took me about a half hour to get to school and work. Plus it had a pretty sweet rooftop. Even though this amount might seem ridiculous to non-New Yorkers, it was actually on the cheaper end of the rent spectrum among my friends.

Utilities: $70

The cost of utilities varied by the seasons, but this was a fair average and covered internet, gas, and electricity, after being split three ways. 

Cell Phone: $50

I had a student plan with AT&T, which included calling to and from Canada.

Transit: $130

Because I commuted to Manhattan for school five to six days a week, the monthly Metrocard was my pal. I’m rounding up the price just for the sake of addition. 

Groceries: $200

I cooked almost all of my own food and rarely ate out. On busy days, this meant bringing both lunch and dinner to school and storing one of the meals in the fridge at my office. This required planning, but as a part-time worker, I figured I had no excuse.

Everything Else: $175

There’s a lot to do, see, eat, and drink in New York, but when you’re living there, you have to pace yourself. I didn’t have a ton of room for discretionary spending, but I still enjoyed myself! This amount allowed me to go for drinks once in a while and to visit museums and exhibits when they struck my fancy.

Overall, most of the activities I chose weren’t that expensive. My school offered several free events. My friends and I watched movies at each other’s apartments and threw house parties. I went on lots of walks to explore, and I borrowed most of my books from the library.

The New York Lifestyle

For the average person who wants a long-term budgeting model, this probably looks a bit scary. And well it should! My NYC money situation wasn’t sustainable — I mean, over half my income was spent on rent! — but it was manageable for this particular phase of my life. 

The truth is: the New York lifestyle is whatever you want it to be. It can include happy hours and Broadway shows or park picnics and student theatre. I seriously believe that city living can be adapted to a range of incomes and priorities. It requires getting creative with how you spend your free time and what you choose to spend on, as well as getting over FOMO when something’s not in your budget. I view my NYC experience holistically. I couldn’t do everything every week, but I managed to do a whole lot over two years.