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Financial Advice

Living in New York City on a Modest Budget

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Living in New York City on a Modest Budget
New York City can be one of the most expensive places in the United States to spend a day, let alone live. The price of nearly everything is higher than in the suburbs or in many other cities. But despite its high costs, there are ways to live here frugally if you plan ahead and think carefully. You can't avoid spending money when you live in New York, but you can always spend it with prudence.

Think First

Before moving to the Big Apple, be sure this is where you want to live. Many artists come here hoping to be inspired by the bright lights and bustle but quickly realize after arriving that the city is not a good fit for them. If possible, visit New York with family or friends, maybe take a summer internship here, before you move.

Once you have decided that New York will be your new home, save money for as long as possible. Graduation gifts, tips, cash tucked into a birthday card—any extra money you have should go into a savings account or a literal piggy bank (other animal-shaped banks are not as cute). Definitely do not come to New York without a bankroll.

Contact relatives, friends, acquaintances, relatives of acquaintances who live in the city, even if you haven't spoken to them in a very long time. Ask for their advice on living here and if you can briefly stay with them when you arrive. You'll want to rely on your social network as much as possible before and after you move to New York.

Matthew Cabbil, an actor who just arrived here last month after graduating from college, credits his social network "and the positive connections I made" for his finding an apartment. After spending two years as an acting intern at Virginia Stage Company, he made contacts with New York–based theater people. "As opposed to having to scramble to find a job or a place to live," he says, "I was able to stay with friends and use the money I had saved to go out to take those first couple of weeks to do auditions."

Discovering Your Dwelling

Finding an apartment in New York can be a grueling experience. Do not come expecting to find your ideal home. In fact, you're better off keeping your expectations as modest as possible.

Before you arrive with your luggage and dreams, find a cheap place to crash while you look for an apartment. A friend's or relative's couch is a wonderful thing in a situation like this. If you have no contacts in New York, then a hostel is a good option. Don't let the horror film "Hostel" scare you away from them. Search Hostels.com for a potential temporary place to stay. Once you're in New York, you'll need to find an apartment quickly.

You may want to hire a real estate broker. If you know which neighborhood you want to reside in, it's usually best to find a broker who's based there. At brokers' websites, you can see a list of available apartments, usually with photos and detailed descriptions. The advantage of using a broker is having someone on your side who knows New York, scouring the city and giving you options. The disadvantage is the broker's fee.

If a broker finds you an apartment, he or she will normally charge you 10 to 15 percent of the yearly rent. For example, if your apartment is $1,000 a month—which is a steal in New York—then the broker's fee will likely be $1,200 to $1,800. Keep in mind, that's on top of the security deposit and first month's rent. Some brokers are willing to negotiate the fee. Two large brokerage sites that are helpful are CitiHabitats.com and Corcoran.com, the latter for its calendar of open houses. 

Going It Alone

If you decide not to use a broker, then there is an old-school method to find an apartment: walking. It takes a tremendous amount of time, but strolling the streets of your desired neighborhood does work. Try talking to doormen and buzz every super (that's New York slang for "ring the doorbell of the building superintendent"). You may get some annoyed looks, but you may also get valuable information.

Then there's Craigslist. Does it work? Yes, the popular website has an abundance of listings of every type of shelter. If you want to avoid a broker's fee, then click the link for "all no-fee apartments." "No fee" means you will likely deal with the apartment's current tenant, the building's super, or a management company. You can also search for no-fee apartments on broker websites.

The downside of Craigslist is its plethora of fake listings and scams. Here is a crucial tip: Create a separate email address solely to receive information regarding apartments. Many listing sites, brokers, etc. require your contact info, so give them that new email address just in case it's a scam. If a listing seems too good to be true, it probably is. For instance, if an apartment on Central Park West (where John Lennon once lived) is listed as "a cozy $800 a month," it's likely fake—and "cozy" is code for "small." If you receive an email asking for your credit card information or Social Security number, just delete it.

Though it's renowned, Craigslist is not the only game in town. NYBits.com, NoFeeRentals.com, and StreetEasy.com are free listing services with plenty of no-fee apartments. When you find an apartment you like, check the address online to make sure it's real. Then contact whoever posted the listing and set up a time to see the apartment as soon as you can. Always see it in person and bring a checkbook with you in case you decide to rent it. Ask whether heat and electricity are included in the rent. If not, you'll have to add them to your monthly budget—or buy a sweater and learn to love the dark.

Do not shy away from the outer boroughs. Manhattan is the city's showbiz capital, but it's incredibly expensive. Roommates can help defray the cost of living, and there are services to match you up with them. Most of the actors interviewed for this story live with roommates in the outer boroughs, and their share of the monthly rent averages $1,000.

Day by Day

After finding an apartment, you have to begin planning how to actually live in New York without draining your or your parents' bank account. First, find a job as soon as you can. It doesn't have to be full time with salary and benefits. Taking on two or three part-time jobs is fairly common among artists in New York. In addition to apartments, Craigslist has job listings, as do websites like Monster.com and publications such as The Village Voice.

Maddie McClouskey, a 19-year-old actor from San Francisco, moved to New York about four months ago. She supports herself financially as a nanny, working 20 to 30 hours per week for a couple of families. McClouskey recommends Sittercity.com for those looking for similar work. "I'm getting by. I try to plan ahead a lot," she says. "Work does come first.... I'm not auditioning a ton, but I think that helps me be more discerning about it."

Though it may be time-consuming, you might try walking into stores throughout the city and asking if they need a part-time employee. You may want to bring your résumé or a business card with you.

Mallory Campbell, an actor who moved here from Pittsburgh four months ago, explains how taking just such a stroll led to her becoming a sales representative at Limelight Marketplace: "I was walking by and I stumbled into one store that looked like Wonderland. It was beautiful. I randomly asked if they were hiring, and they said they were. I happened to have my résumé on me. It was just really good timing." She adds, "I'm really lucky to have a job where people are nice…. That's all I really wanted."

Humans need food to live, but what kind of food is best is up for debate. Keep in mind that the cheapest food is not always the healthiest. 2 Bros Pizza, for example, sells slices for only a dollar (and they taste the same at every location), but it's not a great idea to have pizza every day. New York magazine and Time Out New York publish informative issues every year devoted to living and eating cheaply in the city.

The most economical meals are those you make yourself. Eating at home is much cheaper than eating out every night. Ask your parents and friends for simple, inexpensive recipes. CheapCooking.com is a great resource. Though it has few locations in the city, Costco lets you buy in bulk at reasonable prices, but there is a membership fee. If you love coffee, forgo Starbucks and learn to brew.

Water should be your drink of choice in any setting. Eric Frazier, a 22-year-old actor from Los Angeles, recommends hydrating before leaving your apartment: "Bottled water is not cheap, upwards from $1.50 to $3.00…. I drink more fluids before leaving home, therefore eliminating one expense in my day-to-day activities running around from one playhouse to another." Frazier, who works as a fashion design assistant during the day and a dishwasher at night, also suggests spreading out your meals, "saving nuggets from McDonald's for the next morning."

Sales are your best friend. Look for coupons and discounts anywhere you can. You may not always be able to afford new clothes. The Salvation Army and vintage shops are valuable alternatives for designer labels. Thrift stores often have half-off days. Be sure to clean any clothes or furniture after you purchase them. And generic items tend to be cheaper than brand names, even when it comes to medications (generic ibuprofen will cost you less than Advil).

Professional Endeavors

Obviously, headshots, reels, acting classes, and everything else you need for your career costs money. Unfortunately, you often get what you pay for. Cheap headshots may not look the best, though deals on high-quality photos are out there. Says Campbell, "You have to shop around. I just bought new headshots—they're going to be about $900. I'm going to put it all on my credit card and use a check my aunt wrote me to pay it off. Then, instead of paying interest on the credit card, I'm going to pay her back."

Though they're pricey, career-related expenses are necessary and you shouldn't stint on them. For your profession, you can sacrifice frugality yet maintain good judgment. Cabbil, who brought his car to New York, recounts auditioning recently for his first TV pilot: "I spent almost $60 in gas and toll bridges. But I landed my first callback. It'll be ramen and cereal for the next few days, but it's totally worth it."

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