Alamy The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. The Capital of the World. There are lots of ways to describe New York City, but “inexpensive” isn’t one. So moving to Manhattan fresh out of college while trying to tackle student loan debt might seem like a counterintuitive move. But that’s what my wife, Joanna, and I did.
Just months after getting our diplomas framed, Joanna and I sat down and got serious about our finances and attacking our $20,000+ in student loan debt. While interest rates were favorable and our cumulative debt was lower than many graduates, we couldn’t stand the feeling of owing anything to anyone. Imagine our conundrum when I got my dream job offer from a storied advertising agency in New York — the most expensive city in America.
Despite a cost of living that’s 125 percent higher than the U.S. average, we were committed to paying off our debt in two years. And the craziest part of it all? We did it. (We were in Manhattan for a year and a half, and then we moved to Boston for a year.)
Here’s how we slew our debt while living large (and by large, I mean small) in New York.
Budget and Expense Tracking
Instead of first budgeting out typical expense categories (food, transportation, tourist activities, etc.), we figured out how much we wanted to put toward paying down our debt each month. After subtracting that from our monthly income, we knew how much money we had remaining for all of our discretionary and leisure spending.
We created an itemized budget and then tracked our expenses like accountants from the Internal Revenue Service. Every penny of every expense was accounted for throughout each month. If we noticed that our $350 food budget was running low halfway through the month, we knew to cut back or face the wrath of beans, rice and ramen for the duration. This tracking helped ensure that our get-out-of-debt goals were walking the walk.
When we first moved to the city, we received tons of must-see and must-do tips from friends. The only problem was that most of those sights and sounds were well outside our price range. I think we’re the only people who lived in Manhattan and never saw a show on Broadway. Instead, we focused on the city’s countless free sights and activities, including the Met on free admission days or a live recording of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” We would occasionally splurge on a bucket list item, but we made sure to space them out throughout the year.
Groceries and Food
Food isn’t cheap in the Big Apple. We learned early on that certain suburban indulgences would have to be tabled, like ice cream (which ran $5 a quart — just typing that makes me shudder all over again). We set a tight $250 grocery budget and an even tighter $100 eating-out budget.
For most groceries and household goods, we would catch a bus to Costco once a month, where milk was half the price of the local grocers’. We’d load up 30 to 50 pounds of loot in duffel bags and backpacks and make the 45-minute trek home. These trips helped us justify forgoing the exorbitant costs of joining a gym. And in order to keep our eating-out budget in check, we’d oftentimes meet friends for dessert after they’d gone out to eat at a pricey (to us) sit-down restaurant.
In our almost two years of city living, we hailed two taxis. We had our youth, our legs and stubborn monthly debt goals steering us clear of the convenient, albeit somewhat terrifying cabs. We loved walking around the city — there’s always something new to see. On the rare occasion that we couldn’t walk to our destination, we used public transportation. My employer subsidized monthly unlimited metro passes, and Joanna would refill her card $100 at a time to access more inexpensive per ride rates. And when the opportunity presented itself, I’d swipe my unlimited card for Joanna, to cut down on costs even more.
Frank Sinatra summed up life in Gotham the best when he sang “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York … New York, New York!” And since we made budgeting and paying off debt a reality while we lived there, we know we can make our finances happen anywhere.
Joanna and Johnny are the writing duo behind OurFreakingBudget.com, a personal finance blog documenting the joys, pains and realities of living on a budget.
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