Ask Katy — Living Cheap in the Big Apple

by Katy on July 16, 2012 · 25 comments

I received this Ask Katy letter in my inbox about how to find the cheap in New York City. I lived in NYC from 1988 – 1990, and although a few years have passed, much has remained the same.

First off, here’s the letter:

Dear Katy,

I have just discovered your blog and I love it!  Just like you, I feel that being a frugalista is about being creative while directly benefitting from it.

While I love reading your blog, I live in New York City.  While I’m sure that Portland isn’t cheap, I’m sure that it isn’t New York in terms of the cost of living.  A lot of your advice seems to apply to people that live in smaller cities, in rural areas or the suburbs.

One thing that New York does offer that is free or very cheap are great entertainment opportunities.  Beside that, there doesn’t seem to be anything else that is cheap or free here.  I was wondering if you or your audience is aware of anything else that is cheap or free here and could maybe enlighten me about them?  I would greatly appreciate it.


Well Tonica, first of all I complete agree about the cheap and free entertainment available to one and all in New York. I don’t remember paying more than a few bucks for any entertainment when I lived there. And although I wasn’t officially frugal at the time, I almost always brought my lunch to work with me, hunted down cheap places for my haircuts and walked instead of taking the subway if it was less than a few miles. Cabs? Fuggedaboutit.

New York is unique, as the real estate prices are insane, but you really don’t need to own a car. You walk everywhere, so you don’t need to belong to a gym. The pressure to dress well is heavy, and consumer temptation is everywhere.

Working as a receptionist in a marketing office, I only made $18,000 a year, but at the time I felt like a millionaire. It felt like so much money! I even automated my savings because I always had money leftover!

My boyfriend and I had friends who liked to go out all the time, which we joined in on. However, I had my tricks to keep it cheap. When we went to a particular Mexican restaurant, I would always order rice, beans and tortillas instead of anything off the menu. And instead of downing margaritas all night, I would slowly nurse a single drink. It may sound dull, but I assure you that it wasn’t.

For Tonica I would recommend that she make sure to eat a little something before leaving her apartment, examine where her money is going, (daily coffee habits, etc.) and resist trying to have an expensively styled apartment. Also to take a close look at how she spends money while socializing. Also, keep possessions to a minimum so she’s not having to rent a bigger apartment than necessary.

But what advice so you have for Tonica? Have you lived in NYC or any other big city? Please share your tips and ideas in the comments section below.

By the way, the above photo is of my sister, a friend and I walking at night in New York City, circa 1989. You can see the World Trade Centers in the background.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

kariann deno July 16, 2012 at 10:30 am

Great photo Katy!


Jennifer July 16, 2012 at 11:54 am

I think one of the major benefits of city living are the ethnic neighborhoods and their markets. There are many a bargain to be had in those little shops and you get a chance to try interesting ingredients and products.


Angela July 16, 2012 at 12:01 pm

NYC is my favorite place in the world! If money were no issue I would live at the Plaza Hotel overlooking Central Park. I would walk everywhere, eat pizza and enjoy the amazing architecture, history and especially….the library 😉 I so cannot wait to go back again.


Greta July 16, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I have found that regular visits to the local farmer’s market and the addition of a crock pot to my small kitchen arsenal has been essential to frugal, healthy NYC living. Crock pot cooking has helped make my office culture much more cozy and creative as well. City workers enjoy exchanging recipes and eating together in a communal break room as a healthy and cheap alternative to going out to lunch. If you need to get out of the office, take a walk in the late afternoon to break up the day.


Katy July 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Would you be willing to share any of your crock pot recipes?



betsyohs July 16, 2012 at 12:45 pm

When I lived in NYC (2003-2010), I wasn’t quite as much of a frugalista as I am now, but I definitely tried to good deals. Here are some:
– buy veggies and other groceries in Chinatown, at the 125th St Fairway, or join a CSA (and make sure you don’t let your share go moldy!).
– for hair cuts and waxing – look for coupons online or in TimeOut NY. Many say “first time customers only”, but I never had a problem with repeat coupons. Or sign up to be a hair model at for a free hair cut.
-TimeOut NY (and probably other magazines, too) has a “cheap eats” article multiple times a year for options of dining out.
– walk the streets – there is always stuff people have put out on the curb for free – I brought home chairs, a bookshelf, and a kitchen cart. My bf decorated his whole apartment with other people’s thrown-out framed artwork.
– use craigslist. I’m so sad to live in a tiny town now that doesn’t have an active craigslist community. It might take a couple weeks of watching the site, and when you find something you want, you have to move fast, but you can find almost anything you want there for way less than new.
– check out I never found anything I wanted, but I did give some stuff away. And people post things there a lot.
– ask if your office can participate in TransitCheck so you can get your metrocard pre-tax.
– move to Brooklyn…oddly – Comcast Cable internet is only $30/month, compared to TimeWarner’s $60/month. Or get to know your neighbor, and pay half their internet bill in exchange for their router password.
– join the library and use interlibrary loan – never buy another book or magazine.
– barter to learn new skills:
– sign up for Godiva’s chocolate club, and get a free truffle each month.
– NYU’s dental school gives free or very cheap teeth cleanings as long as you’re willing to be worked on by dental students

ok, I’ll stop now, but seriously, other than rent, NYC is an awesome place to find free/cheap stuff/food/happiness/anything you want. You just have to get creative and not let the consumer culture influence you!


Katy July 16, 2012 at 3:25 pm

I was the only person I knew that used the library when I lived there. But you’ve got to have a book to read while on the subway!



Joyce July 19, 2012 at 3:16 am

I live in Boston but I love this response! Will pass it along to my brother and friends in NYC


Ali July 16, 2012 at 1:02 pm

As a frugal New Yorker of 12 years and a married working mom of a 2 year old, this is one of my favorite topics. I agree with Katy’s points about living in a small space, walking, avoiding cabs, and not trying to compete (I guess this one applies to every location). Here are a few more tips for frugal living and a rich existence in NYC:

-Use Central, Riverside, and the neighborhood parks as your backyard. Check out the city’s parks website for free concerts, movie nights, walking tours, yoga classes, tennis, swimming, fairs, you get it.
-Just because you live in NYC doesn’t mean you can’t cook most meals at home, stock your freezer, make coffee and bring lunch, resell street finds on Craigslist, use CVS Extra Care Bucks, shop at Goodwill, etc. Use the tactics that work on Katy’s blog and everywhere!
-Use the public library and remember that your card opens up the entire library system’s holdings through a easy-peasy online inter library loan system. If your branch stinks, it doesn’t matter. Go to free talks, exhibits, and classes at the library, too.


Alison July 16, 2012 at 1:15 pm

One of my favorite FREE memories of NYC is the year we spent spring break there and it snowed gloriously. Central Park the day before was drab and dull, then after a night of snowfall it was enchanting. My two native Texan kids rarely see snow so it was quite a treat. Children came out with their sleds, adults with cross-country skis, dog breeds I’d never seen before (Irish wolfhound) came out to play with their owners. We watched the St. Patrick’s Day parade go by on an adjacent street to the park in a spender of colors. It was a magical day.


Katy July 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm

*Love* NYC in the snow. So clean and innocent.



Holly July 16, 2012 at 1:43 pm

I lived in NYC for only a short time before moving out to the burbs of Hudson County NJ, but my boyfriend at the time lived there, and had grown up there, and I worked there for a few years. I wasn’t making the big bucks either – I made slightly more than Katy, and this was 10 years later, so it was even more expensive! Still you learn some tricks. You just have to learn where the cheap stuff is! Shop in working class areas/ethnic stores. The prices were much cheaper for groceries in my boyfriend’s Washington Heights neighborhood than they were in Yorkville where his mom lived. Look around in your neighborhood for these little markets. It’s hard to learn to cook anything in tiny NYC apartment kitchens (at least, it was for me!), but avoid the temptation and keep eating out to a minimum. Don’t get more metrocard than you need. If you don’t use it everyday, you might not need an unlimited one, and can save money by getting a 20 trip when you need it. Of course if you take the bus or train to get to work, unlimited’s probably your best option.


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land July 16, 2012 at 5:44 pm

I think the ethnic market thing works everywhere!


Tara Morrison July 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm

My husband and I lived there for a couple of years as broke newlyweds. We enjoyed dining out since as a chef I spent my life in a kitchen. This is possible to do affordably if you eat ethnic food which is usually served family style, we would often share one entree and an appetizer. Where else can you get 6 for a $1 dumplings????? Food by far was our biggest expense. Clothes are easy enough to find used one big splurge my MIL gave us when we moved from the South there was silk long underwear and fleece lined slippers. The long underwear allowed me not to have to add as many warm clothes to my wardrobe since we were only there 3 winters. Don’t scrimp on good shoes though since you mostly live on your feet !


Sam July 16, 2012 at 7:20 pm

I grew up in the Bronx, and finally escaped at age 24, in 1974. But, what was true then is likely still true: Every neighborhood had a “bulk garbage” collection day every week. That’s when people put out large items, often nice old furniture, family photos, all sorts of nice STUFF, some of which I still use today.

The best pickings were in “changing neighborhoods,” where the middle-class were leaving the city or the elderly had died. The ethnic demographics have surely changed since then, but when the old Jewish, Irish or Italians were dying off, their KIDS would often toss amazing nice old furniture into the street! The secret for snagging it: I got off work around 3 am. I’d walk the dog when I got home, and NOBODY had hit the pickings in the street yet, so I had my choice of the bulk “garbage!” For any readers in NYC, it would be worth investigating to see if they still handle bulk the same way.


Tonica July 16, 2012 at 7:38 pm

The thing that I worry about with picking up furniture and such off the street is that I fear getting bed bugs. Bed bugs are a major problem in NYC and I had them a few years ago. It was a major hassle and very expensive to get rid of them. Believe me, I’ve been very tempted to take some of great stuff that I see.

Thanks Katy and everyone who responded to my e-mail.


Diane July 18, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Definitely agree with not picking up used furniture and other items in any place today….bed bugs are not just in NYC! I am in Austin and have been battling the bugs since the end of June.

And I know the temptation. I just have to turn my head now when I walk by discards beside the dumpster. Sigh!


Lilypad July 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm

That picture is so striking. Catching a glimpse of the towers in any old photo or movie/TV show just gets me every time.


Kate in NY July 17, 2012 at 3:32 am

I lived in NYC up until 2004, and now I live in a NY suburb – but I still “visit my parents” there a couple of times a month. I say “visit my parents” because even though it’s always great to see Mom and Dad, there are additional frugal benefits to going (other than the free dinner). They live around the corner from The Strand bookstore – one of the most amazing independent used bookstores on the planet (I hear Portland has a good one too). And they live a couple of blocks from the Trader Joe’s WINE STORE! We do have Trader Joe’s supermarkets out here in the burbs, but alas, no wine! We love our wine, and have found incredibly decent bottles for $5! Between that and the incredibly cheap and delicious ethnic food (especially if you are willing to trek out to Queens for Chinese or Indian), it is a frugal foodie’s paradise!


Lili@creativesavv July 17, 2012 at 6:41 am

My brother and family lived in NYC for 16 years. What he said helped their budget was the very tiny living quarters. Apartments like on “Friends” (read spacious) are insanely expensive. They had a small one bedroom with loft for the 4 of them. Not much fit in that space. So, they spent a pittance on things. Instead of focusing their spending on belongings, they went for experiences. They loved it there, but in the end were glad to move out west again.


Katy July 17, 2012 at 10:08 am

My sister and her family live in Washington Heights and apparently have a pretty big apartment for not too much money. When I lived in NY, we had a brownstone apartment in Park Slop-ish for $775 a month, shared three ways. It was great.

And I think the premise on Friends was that Monica had taken over her grandmother’s lease, so it was rent controlled.



Claudia July 17, 2012 at 7:24 am

If you have some weekend time, check out stoop sales in the outer boroughs. The stoop sales in Brooklyn are great! Also, people leave tons of great free stuff on their stoops in brownstone neighborhoods. The pickings are especially good at the end of the month, when leases are up and people are leaving their apartments. Do a little research and try to plan for a brownstone neighborhood visit the night before garbage pickup during the last week of the month. Among my free stoop finds: a brand-new Izod sweater, a coffee maker, countless books, and tons of children’s toys. A friend of mine found several pairs of really nice never-worn shoes. Also try thrift shops, especially for clothing and housewares–Housing Works and Angel Street Thrift are among my favorites. The Metropolitan Opera also runs a really good one.


Thrifty Household July 17, 2012 at 9:30 am

When you cook, make extra & freeze it for instant ‘take-away’ food; enjoy the markets & specialist supermarkets- always a good place for a bargain; eat a huge breakfast; use a thermal travel mug- make coffee at home & take it with you (or get a cafetiere mug- add the coffee then top up with hot water at work); take full advantage of the galleries, parks, museums & free entertainment on offer; join a library; forget the gym- walk or use the stairs instead; plan what there is to do (use websites to locate good entertainment/ special offers, etc…); do clothes swop/wardrobe sort evenings with friends- great for new ideas & clothes!


MK July 17, 2012 at 10:35 am

Find opportunities to negotiate your rent (if renting). My husband and I lived in NYC for 6 years and in ’08 we were able to reduce our monthly payment by $600 during the economic downturn. A unique situation, but HUGE savings for us.

I also wholeheartedly second TJ’s. We lived on the UWS until this past January (I miss it so much!), but Trader Joe’s was a lifesaver for low cost, good quality groceries. Our grocery bills were halved once we stopped shopping at Fairway.

Also, I remember tons of sample sales. I never actually shopped these, but I know a lot of people who found good quality, inexpensive clothing through them.

And of course Groupon often had good deals for dining out, etc.


Joyce July 19, 2012 at 3:48 am

Katy, thanks so much for posting this article and asking readers for advice.

As I replied above, I’m in Boston, and I agree with what a lot of what many of you have said, especially about: using the public library system, living/shopping in working class/ethnic areas/stores, walking and using public transportation instead of owning a car, packing lunch, and using craigslist!

Some highlights in Boston:

Public Library: I’m a huge reader, and I can say honestly that probably only 1 out of 100 books that I want to read are not found in the public library interchange system. Unless I really want to read that 1 unavailable book, I usually move onto the next book on my list that is actually available at the library. I also use for those rare books that I want to own or that the library doesn’t have. My husband isn’t much of reader, but he uses the library and for movies.

Ethnic stores/restaurants and working class areas: In Boston, there’s this huge outdoor produce market called Haymarket on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s where most poor/working class and ethnic people go to get produce for super cheap! It take a bit more time and skill navigating through the crowds and produce stands, but it’s worth it! Yes, some of the produce is going bad, but there are tons that are still really good and delicious! I pretty much lived off of Haymarket when I served as an AmeriCorps member in Boston. Haymarket also sells things like flatbreads, cheese, olives- all for super cheap. There’s also cheap ethnic restaurants (hello, $3.75 for a vietnamese sandwhich!) and chinatown. Living in more working class neighborhoods has also saved us a bunch over the years! There are some hidden gems out there, believe me!

Craigslist and curbside deals: For our first apartment, we furnished almost everything through craigslist or the curbside. My husband found a 60 inch screen tv for $125! We’ve had it for 5 years and it works great. We’ve gotten haircuts (and manicures) for free or cheap as models, gotten free theater tickets, and lots of free or cheap furniture/household items. My husband actually bought a sweet vintage belstaff leather jacket off of craigslist for $20; jcrew staff have commented on how they love his belstaff better than the ones they sell at their store!

Public transportation and walking has saved a ridiculous amount of money! It’s worth to live close to a subway stop so you aren’t tempted to use a cab (learned this from experience). Car insurance in the city is extremely expensive. Getting rid of our car was the best thing we did: we no longer have to worry about insurance, gas, parking tickets (this happened a lot), car vandalism (this happened a lot to us- and we had a normal car, nothing fancy), and car towing due to street cleaning (this happened much, much more than we would have liked). A subway pass is only $70 a month; a great deal if that is your primary mode of transportation. If we have to use a car, zipcar around the corner from our house starts at the low rate of $8.75/hr.

We also utilize once a month trips to costco. We have space in our current apartment, so we use zipcar to stock up on things like 25 lbs of rice (I’m Asian American, okay!). The typical urban dweller may not have space to store 25 rolls of toilet paper, but you can buy things that don’t take up too much space like lunch meat for cheap and freeze it. You don’t even have to rent a zip car- you can take the T and a bus to get to Costco. Trust me, for people who eat a sandwich every day for lunch, buying the lunch meat alone from Costco can save you a lot of money.

Farmers markets and TJs are great too! I love city living!

Thanks again for posting about this, Katy!


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