Living on a tight budget can be a challenge anywhere, but in a big urban metropolis like Manhattan it can seem impossible. Sure, it would be easier if I moved elsewhere – but that is not a viable option. My husband and I are both graduate students and living next to campus is a prerequisite to our programs.
Yet that’s no excuse for going into debt or overspending. I still have to focus on making the here and now as affordable as possible and not going into debt. It’s tough, but it can be done. Here’s how I manage it.
1. Get Creative
This applies to a lot of things. We don’t have a car because public transit is pretty convenient. When we really do need a car we get creative and use zipcar, a service that allows you to rent cars by the hour for a very reduced price if you have a membership. While membership is a good deal in and of itself, we saved even more by waiting until a good discount was being offered.
Stores around here do not accept coupons (forget double or triple coupons) and they never have loss leaders or sales that even come close to regular pricing elsewhere. This means we have to find alternate sources of shopping whenever possible.
Half of the year I get my vegetables through community sponsored agriculture. I pay upfront for a share of the produce of a farm in upstate NY. It’s organic, bountiful and cheaper than the supermarket because we cut out the middleman! But it means I need to be creative in terms of cooking and preserving because I don’t control what I’m getting each week. That’s up to the farmers planting season and the weather.
2. Shop National
While city stores tend to have large rents, and correspondingly large prices, national chains do not. Drugstores are my best friends because their sales are national and thus I am not charged a surcharge for living in an urban area.
The same goes for Internet shopping and sales. This is why I am so active in finding great Internet sales and coupons. When a store puts clearance up on the web they don’t charge me more because I live in NY. Plus I can get free shipping and returns.
3. Make it Yourself
Often raw ingredients are cheaper than finished products. The question is if the savings justify time investment. If Challah costs $2.50 a loaf at your store it may not be worth it for you to bake it yourself. But here it goes for about $6.00, and the stores run out! I learned how to make many things, including challah, by myself.
Since I don’t have all that much spare time, I became pretty good at finding fast, no fuss recipes as well as methods for cooking in bulk and storing for later use. I also grow my own herbs on my windowsill.
Producing things for yourself is actually a very rewarding and enjoyable task. I never thought I’d make my own lasagna noodles or yogurt. But I am having so much fun doing it, I am glad I got started.
4. Use Your Storage (Creatively)
When a great sale or deal pops up, you want to be able to use it to its fullest. This means buying multiples and storing them. When stores hold their annual baking week near the holidays I buy enough flour to last me sixth months because I never get a better price. Only with proper storage can things be kept fresh and usable.
When I travel to other areas to buy lower priced Kosher meats and cheeses I need to buy in bulk to make the trip worth it. This means I need an extra freezer (I do not pay electric, making this even more worth it).
In a small apartment, clearly not designed for someone with two sets of pots and dishes, this means going back to “getting creative” and finding interesting places to store things. I gave up my coat closet to have a pantry. I have a mini freezer where most women would put a shoe collection.
Eliminating excess clutter is key. It’s also profitable. If I had not been forced by the size of my apartment to periodically remove unneeded items, old textbooks would have sat around for years unused. Instead I found ways to sell them and make a profit.
5. Tap Into City Resources
I am not referring to government assistance programs. I am talking about the perks of living in a big city including free cultural events. New York is full of free entertainment that people across America would pay lots of money for. We also have great parks, thrift stores and flea markets.
But you have to be tapped in and looking for these opportunities to seize them. Get to know your city and use it to its fullest! We go out with our friends and family all the time to see world class cultural events like Shakespeare in the Park, or to wonderful free activities like bike riding on governor’s island.
Cities also breed discounts in unusual ways – daily deal sites use the power of numbers to get goods and services at a discount price. Some are better than others, but I have found that combing through them is worth my time.
6. Increase Income
Numbers do not lie. While I can try to trim and cut spending on many areas, there are certain things that remain fixed budget items. These are non-negotiable, like rent and child care. Until I move there is no possible way to get these things for less.
I live in student housing, it’s not getting any cheaper than that. Yet my small apartment costs more than many of my friends’ larger apartments in the suburbs.
It takes a large chunk of my budget, so if I want more to spend, I need to increase income. In addition, I am a big believer in saving. The time to put away money for retirement, that dental emergency or future expenses is now!
Since I want to save as much as possible, I look for ways to increase my income. I cannot take a regular job with my graduate work – it’s full time and they pay me a stipend because of this, but I can take on flexible freelance jobs. This I do with great enthusiasm and yes those paychecks do add up!
You can do this too. Your talents can become a source of side income for you. This is the part of budgeting that so many people forget about, yet it is so crucial and simple. If you need money, then find a way to earn it.
7. Know Yourself
Finding the right budget is about knowing yourself and not letting others pressure you. A friend who keeps dragging you to the fanciest place in town and making you split the bill despite your numerous protests and suggestions to go someplace you can afford, is not a very good friend.
Neither is one who makes you feel bad about you current financial situation. We all make choices in life and you need to do what is right for you, not what is right for someone else.
Using these strategies I have been avoiding student debt and managing to squirrel away savings towards retirement, children’s needs and emergencies. It’s about being smart, knowing yourself and your finances and making wise choices.